Are marriage and monogamy synonymous?
When it comes to the institution of marriage, whether we’d like to admit it or not, pundits from both sides of the political spectrum—as well as those of us who keep downwind from the right, left or center—are fighting for the same thing: a reassessment of the institution. The difference is, of course, in how those changes occur and what the end result looks like. In other words, it’s not so much that we want different slices of the pie, it’s that we’re very particular about how the pie is made in the first place.
On the right, we have “traditionalists,” those of us who believe marriage is vital to, and synonymous with, economic prosperity. On the left, we have those who take a more revolutionary view, believing traditional connotations of marriage to be reductive, regressive and inadequate for women, homosexuals, low-income individuals and single parent families in today’s society. Somewhere in this argument, though, both sides have conflated monogamy and marriage, making what could be a political and economic argument excessively emotional.
Marriage and monogamy (in terms of the modern-day connotation rather than the traditional definition) are not the same thing, though this is rarely acknowledged or discussed at any length on either side of the debate. Marriage is a religious, political and economic institution created for a battery of reasons including but not limited to economic prosperity, political stability and religious cohesion. Monogamy, though defined as a type of marriage, is also a biological terminology applied to non-human animals. In our society, what with the proliferation of long term, unmarried relationships, the definition has also expanded to encompass unmarried couples’ sexual exclusivity. But at the core of the word, regardless of definition, monogamy implies sexuality. Conversely, marriage, as many married people will tell you, can mean anything but.
It might seem that making this distinction is pedantic, but it’s actually quite important to enrich and diversify the marriage debate. Once we extricate marriage and monogamy we actually have two very separate arguments, ones that, in my view, are related but not inextricable.
I’m all for reassessing the traditional definition of marriage in the secular space. Let those who choose to be married in affiliation with religious institutions continue to do so, but don’t push that institution on the masses in order to get a good tax break or to feel more socioeconomically stable. More broadly, definitions of marriage should be curtailed so they don’t overlap with other forms of partnership such as civil unions or even domestic partnerships (often called common law marriage, a case in point that we are so used to looking at romantic relationships through the lens of marriage that the only way we define these relationships is through the language of marriage itself).
Marriage is no longer adequate for a society that is moving toward equality regardless of sexuality, gender or any other demographic.
Perhaps it is because we don’t have the words in our vocabulary that monogamy and marriage are so often conflated. But while marriage is a religious institution that has pierced political, economic and social spheres, monogamy has remained aloof. The reason is that monogamy is all-encompassing regardless of the type of romantic relationship, from marriage to civil union to domestic partnership.
Monogamy is, at its most primal, basic definition, about sex, but rolled up in that is commitment, intimacy, friendship and vulnerability.
Revolutionaries in this debate would have you think that monogamy is unnatural, a blight for which we can blame the church, politicians, whomever. But, really, its what makes us human. I don’t know one person who doesn’t want that “special someone,” someone they can call after a bad day, someone they can laugh with, someone they can trust with their deepest, darkest secrets, someone they can stand in front of naked without fear of repulsion or rejection. That’s intimacy, vulnerability, friendship and romance rolled up into one. That’s monogamy.
So while the institution of marriage feels antiquated in its current form, I would hesitate before contesting throwing monogamy out with it. After all, marrying the two terms is, like most marriages today, short sighted and will ultimately end in separation anyway.
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Ed: Kate Bartolotta