The Problem with Marriage and Monogamy

The meaning of marital bonds in an age when economic affairs reign supreme

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I. Family Dinner 

My guinea-pig child, now 21, was home from her senior year in college for Christmas vacation. This child was not by temperament suited to be the unbuffered firstborn of a literary, freethinking mother and an anxiety-prone father, the child of divorce, joint custody, and step-parenting. Her whole life, she has been a girl who liked things steady and predictable. Thus it came as a surprise to me when she disclosed her ideal family, the one she aims to have when she is the matriarch. The word she used was welcoming. Should you want to be in her family, whoever you are, well, she is going to be happy to have you. Her house will have plenty of beds and plenty of dishes and plenty of congenial people sitting around discussing issues like women's health care and the third wave of feminism. I liked it. It sounded quite like the home she has grown up in, of which I have been the matriarch.

The last night before my daughter went back to college, we had another one of those family dinners—you know, me, my boyfriend, his daughter and son by his second wife, my daughters by my second husband, and my 7-year-old son by my third husband. The topic of conversation was how my son came to walk home from school—more than a mile up a steep, winding road on a very warm day. "What did you do when cars went by?" I asked.

"I stepped to the side of the road!" he answered. He was laughing at the success of his exploit. Not only had he been a very bold boy who had accomplished something he had been wanting to do; he had been impressively disobedient. We all laughed, and my boyfriend and I squeezed each other's hands, pleased and seduced by that happy-family idea, everyone safe and well-fed, getting along, taken care of.

But we are not married, and we have no plans to blend our families. I come to the theory and practice of marriage at the start of the new millennium with a decidedly checkered past and an outsider's view. But, I admit, I'm still paying attention, implicated, at least, by the fact that my children assume they will get married. I see the breakdown of the traditional family not as a dark and fearsome eventuality, but rather as something interesting to observe, something that I have endured, survived, and actually benefited from, something that will certainly be part of the material from which my children build their lives.

II. Children

Capitalism has an excellent reputation, among fans of the free market, for disseminating goods and information and molding the lives of consumers in the ways that best serve both the system and individuals. If this is indeed the case, then late capitalism has evidently decided that what is best for us and our children is serial monogamy, frequent changes of employment, and a high degree of instability. Late capitalism has decided that, on balance, it is better for all adults to work rather than for one designated gender to stay home with the children. It has decided that most children will spend at least part of their early childhoods in the care of people outside their families who are hired to care for them, often in institutional settings rather than at home. It has decided that the inherent instability of marriage is to be promoted rather than suppressed. It has decided that the individual's relationship to society will be less and less mediated through the family and more and more experienced directly.

III. Men

Let's say that there is only one thing we know about men: that they feel a tension between monogamy and promiscuity. Let's further say that the balance of that tension is different in different men, and that possibly the balance is inherited, and that it changes as the men age, sometimes from monogamy toward promiscuity and sometimes from promiscuity toward monogamy. If we accept as fact only this one thing about men, then any one marriage would be more or less likely to be unstable, while at the same time marriage as an institution would be a valuable social check upon the chaos of promiscuity.

One thing that seems to be evident from history is that marriage as a property relationship is more stable than marriage as a personal relationship. It is not until women emerge from property status that the tension between monogamy and promiscuity is really a problem. It is women with voices and a certain amount of power who force men to choose between possible types of relationships.

We can easily imagine a man having a mother, a housekeeper, a wife who has produced his legitimate children, a concubine, a sister, and even a female friend, all living under the same roof. The trouble is, we can't imagine him in America. In America, custom requires that the mother and sister live elsewhere and all of the others be rolled into one: the wife. Wives require it, too. When courtship was about joining properties, then it could be short. Now that marriage is about being everything to one another, courtship takes a long time and can break down at any point. It is difficult to find a mate who is equally good at every function, and it is also difficult to know yourself well enough to know which function you care about more than the others. And then, of course, as the marriage project moves through its stages—householding, child rearing, professional success, aging—the functions you once cared about change or evolve. The great lover who can't manage to get a dirty dish into the dishwasher becomes more annoying than exciting, the wonderful friend who is infertile is a figure of tragedy, the terrific mother who harps about responsibility comes to seem like a nag.

And the tension between monogamy and promiscuity remains, now transformed into a dilemma of character. The trouble with serial monogamy, which I define as being faithfully married to one person until you can't stand it anymore, and then being faithfully married to another person who fits the new standard better, is that each transition in the series comes as a personal defeat.

IV. Fidelity

When I began seeing my current boyfriend, he had another girlfriend, who was seeing another guy. Since the very thing that broke up my last marriage was my former husband's infidelity, it seemed to me that I was putting myself right back into danger, and so for a long time we refrained from identifying our relationship even as a "relationship." We were friends, then "all-inclusive friends." A turning point came about six months in, when the other girlfriend broke up with her other boyfriend and said to Jack, "Well, I guess it's just you and me again," and he said to her, "Well, you, me, and Jane." Within a few weeks, she had another boyfriend.

Jane Smiley is the author of, most recently, Horse Heaven (Knopf, 2000). Copyright © 2000 by Harper's Magazine. All rights reserved. Reproduced from the June 2000 issue by special permission.