Is a monogamous relationship realistic in the modern world?

Is it really a good idea for us to limit ourselves to one partner at a time, and perhaps even for life? Four of our favourite writers say yes, no and maybe

10 February 2019 - 00:00 By Andrea Nagel, Jennifer Platt, Yolisa Mkele and Haji Mohamed Dawjee
Is it time we stopped limiting ourselves to one partner for life or does monogamy still have a place in our society?
Is it time we stopped limiting ourselves to one partner for life or does monogamy still have a place in our society?
Image: 123RF/Prakasit


Monogamy. Such an awkward sounding word. There are quite a few motions your tongue and lips have to make to say it clearly. And if you try to say it 10 times fast, mostly what happens is the "g" and the "n" transpose and you are left with "mogonamy".

I asked my boyfriend what he felt about monogamy and his response was: "Mahogany, such a good wood." After an eye roll, I decided to look up the word. The etymology is early 17th-century French from the word "monogamie", which is from Latin "monogamia". The root is Greek - "monos" meaning single and gamos meaning "marriage".

Then further down the rabbit hole I went into the internet spaces of real and fake. It hurt my liberal, feminist soul when for a few seconds I thought that I agreed with accidental Incel hero and smooth-talking Youtube psychologist Jordan Peterson about "enforced monogamy". That it's what our society tilts towards as a preference and how our society operates. That the norm is fidelity. Yada yada. Fishpaste.

I don't agree with Youtube psychologist Jordan Peterson's notion that our society needs monogamy to operate functionally

But thank my happy socks that I don't agree with his notion that our society needs monogamy to operate functionally. He suggests that this will help curb violent men. His idea is enough to put off any notion of monogamy. The idea that if there's polygamy or a polyamory or however many variations, society will crumble. That is just being scared of a different society that does not fit into Peterson's norm of the patriarchal (a word he hates, of course) system we live in.

On the other end of the spectrum you get really long, think pieces on how human beings are not biologically equipped to be monogamous. Yada yada. Fishpaste.

Yes, monogamy is not for everyone. Yes, it's endorsed by Peterson. But can I please still believe in it, please. It's a good wood.


My wife is overly enthusiastic about communicating with me. I am the opposite. My WhatsApp notifications are turned off. For everyone. Which means I often only know I am being chatted to if I am actually on my phone. But, because I have a serial texter on my hands, my phone is hardly ever out of my hands, so to speak.

I am now the Pavlov's dog of instant messaging, except that instead of learning to salivate at the sound of a bell, I have been conditioned to check my phone at a certain time without any bell or beep at all.

For example: when she is on the way home, she has the habit of sending me real-time updates of her excursion, sometimes within a couple of seconds of arriving at the door. I don't get it. We can chat when she's home. We do. But I know to check my phone and respond anyway because I love her and I love her quirks and I never want her to feel ignored because she loves sharing things with me. But this boils down to one thing: admin.

Which brings me to the ultimate question: how do polyamorous individuals manage their relationships when I find it a ton of work to manage one? I suppose the question is a bit redundant. The very definition of polyamory is one's ability to truly engage in multiple serious relationships with others based on mutual understanding.

I am a big believer in monogamy, mostly for administrative reasons, and so as a result, I have a huge amount of respect for the polyamorous who get multiple relationships just right. But if you're anything like me (unenlightened) you still have questions about how it all works.

So here, on a silver platter, I offer you some answers to the questions we all want to ask.

1. Question: Everyone is an individual in their own right, so how do you understand several people when it's hard to understand just one?

Answer: You don't. Everyone involuntarily gives everyone else permission to just wear each other down psychologically.

2. Question: OK, but how do you keep yourself together then? Doesn't this create a lot of passive aggression?

Answer: Yes, but it's fine. Because, unlike in monogamous relationships where you act out indirectly, in polyamorous relationships you just exit left to the person who is more deserving of actual aggression (read: mature communication instead of stubbornness). You have options. Your relationships are your stage.

3. Question: But isn't half the fun of "cheating conventionally" the sneaking around?

Answer: Talk about admin. Hiding may be a thrill but openly finding someone new and better while still keeping the old is a whole new extreme sport.

4. Question: But doesn't original sin lead to a lot of guilt that you can't get away from?

Answer: After a time, you may realise that the very heart of the problems in your monogamous relationship was staying faithful. And open relationships are the only solution.

5. Question: In monogamous relationships, it's challenging to keep the romance alive. In order to do so, you have to try new things, keep it fresh. How do the polyamorous do this when they're likely to be doing new things with different people all the time, to the point that they might run out of said new things because everything becomes old?

Answer: They have fun in other ways. Like explaining their relationships to family members or kids, and coming up with new ways to find people who are better than their current partners.


One size fits all. To those with élan, it's a shudder-inducing phrase. Human beings come in a mind-boggling array of shapes and sizes, thus the idea that a hat with some elastic in it can properly fit every type of head suggests a kind of arrogance that flourishes only in mass production. No size fits all because we are all so different.

But if that is the case, why do we keep trying to squeeze everyone into monogamy?

Movies and swan enthusiasts are convinced that the best way to achieve happily ever after is to find someone you feel strongly about, lock them into a lifelong contract with stiff exit penalties and live out the rest of your days under the protection of the Queen somewhere outside Buckingham Palace.

The truth is that the fossil fuel powering the monogamy industry is jealousy

On the surface of it the whole one-on-one love situation seems great. I mean, who really likes sharing? But is it really? The truth is that the fossil fuel powering the monogamy industry is jealousy. Like those birds in Finding Nemo constantly quacking "mine, mine, mine", our idea of relationships intensely revolve around the idea of possession. We clamour for freedom but woe betide the partner who enjoys those same freedoms with other kids.

For some, cheating is exchanging good-morning texts and telling someone else about your day, whereas for others it's only cheating if it's anal. There's even something called microcheating. Still, it all has to do with lying. 

The idea of being monogamous becomes intrinsically tied up in the feelings, insecurities and psychology of the participants rather than a clearly defined set of rules, because at its foundation you belong to that other person and that other person belongs to you. In this kind of environment landmines abound.

Smug polyamorists/ polygamists will tell you that their way is better because it eliminates jealousy, but I'm not buying it. Ask most South African polygamists how they would feel if they were one of a roster of husbands and see how many times one man can say the word preposterous in a minute.

As for polyamory, as much as it is becoming a favourite subject of Netflix comedy series, it still seems pretty fringe. Like a drug in the clinical-trial phases, it shows promise but not enough data has been collected to start the mass rollout.

Besides, the problem with all of these ideas is that we have it in our heads that we need to pick just one. Look at the world around you - homogeneity is sooo 2010. The world, for the most part, is a hodgepodge of ideas, cultures and world views all fraternising and miscegenating in very bespoke ways. This means what works for the goose may be abhorrent to the gander.

One needn't be just a monogamist, or a polyamorist or even someone who prefers the company of battery-powered phalluses. You can be all or none of those as the situation requires.

There are certain instances in which monogamy works. For example, your partner may be the photosynthesis to your sunflower or maybe you enjoy the thrill of creeping through landmines.

The obsession with sex and jealousy "worked" for monogamy once upon a time. If, however, you are less inclined to immerse yourself in another person's psychosis and drown them in yours, then try the other options. Bear in mind that this doesn't even have to last a lifetime - if you are tired of monogamy, try something else. If you crave it then take a bite.

Drake told us that we only live once, so live first and worry about counting partners later.


Oscar Wilde said: "Bigamy is having one wife too many. Monogamy is the same." It's a touchy subject, monogamy. The standard narrative is that men are born to cheat and women are born to complain about it. In other words, men are bullied into monotonous domesticity - created as they are to indiscriminately spread their seed.

The corollary is that women fervently yearn for the security of a monogamous relationship - their role being to safeguard the perpetuation of the human race.

Of course, this only makes sense if there are more women than men wandering the earth, which was the case in the olden days when bears, tigers and dinosaurs got the better of the hairier sex. "Mate and run" could have been the injunction back then.

Being socially, materially and intellectually diminished by patriarchy, women, the story goes, have had to rely on men to provide for them and their children, which has turned them into lying, manipulative gold-diggers out to trap the best man they can get. And once they have him, lordy lord, he'd better stay handcuffed to the bedpost … and not for erotic reasons.

What do men get out of this arrangement? I've often wondered. A hot meal and a cold beer every evening? Not a great deal, but then I've heard more than one man say, "I'm not really getting my money's worth, and so it should be perfectly acceptable to look for gratification elsewhere."

One can choose what to do, but not what to want … and 'want' is a human strong suit

Nowadays, these notions are being chucked out the window as fast as Harvey Weinstein's forced removal from Hollywood. The good news is that the dismal version of sexuality - men as deceitful cads and women as sullivant wardens - is being challenged.

The bad news, as Christopher Ryan puts it in his book Sex at Dawn: How We Mate, Why We Stray, and What It Means for Modern Relationships, is that the amoral agencies of evolution have created in us a species with a secret it just can't keep.

"Homo sapiens evolved to be shamelessly, undeniably, inescapably sexual," he writes.

And that is why monogamy is such hard work. Philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer put it into these highfalutin German words, "Mensch kann tun was er will; er kann aber nicht wollen was er will" - one can choose what to do, but not what to want … and "want" is a human strong suit.

Unrequited yearnings lead to all manner of psychological pitfalls. "How has the incessant, grinding campaign of socio-scientific insistence upon the naturalness of sexual monogamy … failed to rid even the priests, preachers, politicians, and professors of their prohibited desires?" asks Ryan.

But what's the alternative? Being cool about sharing your sexual partner? Doesn't feel right to me - despite my fervent belief in the naturalness of poly-mating.

So while monogamy leaves a lot to be desired, until there's a better option, I'll be whipping out the handcuffs.