24 Jul 2015

Ashley Madison, Marriage and Polyamory

After hackers infiltrated the dating site Ashley Madison, aimed specifically at people who want to have an affair, everyone's suddenly got an opinion on marriage, monogamy and the relationship models held up to us as desirable. People have also got a lot of opinions on privacy and morality, and I have to say that I am reluctantly on the side of those who defend the right of consenting adults to do whatever dirt they wish and who feel the hackers could have used their skills and energy much more wisely to expose, say, nefarious government practices, terrorism threats, child abuse or any other activity that's actually illegal. Yes, I hate cheaters. But being weak and human is not a crime. Yes, it's not exactly as simple as saying no one is getting hurt or exploited - the cheated-on partner is clearly going to be hella hurt if and when they find out what their partner has been up to, but it's not for any single person, or indeed group of hackers, to stand as judge, jury and executioner of the 37 million users of the Ashley Madison website.

Privacy issues aside, I do broadly agree with the Guardian article "In the Ashley Madison era, marriage needs a rethink," recently penned by Gaby Hinsliff. Extra-marital affairs are clearly happening on a large scale. More of a nuanced response than simple finger wagging or tutting are clearly needed. One of the reasons I'm suspicious of marriage and long-term monogamy as an institution is that I'm just not convinced it's evolved alongside the world we live in, nor am I sure it was ever designed to bring the mythical happiness that we in the modern world are convinced it must entail. A commenter on Hinsliff's article says that marriage made sense when we lived half as long, had much less technology around to make our lives easier, and needed children for their support and labour. They add "cosmopolitan capitalism is a poisonous environment for marriage." Lefty soapboxes aside, I think they've got a point. As one of Piers Paul Read's characters (incidentally, female) says in his book The Misogynist, the modern marriage has now become "a relationship between two rival bisexuals both working and both cooking and both parenting so that neither needs the other except for some kind of psychological ego boost which is hard to sustain over the years." With the competing demands of work, leisure, self-improvement, extended family and raising children, maintaining an unflagging bond with one other person for 60 years seems like a taller order than ever. People will, of course, point to feminism as the cause of all this, which is a red herring - yes, the character in question does say that marriage is simpler in South America, where men simply expect their wives to "bear their children and run their homes and put up with their intolerable old mothers," but no one in their right minds actually thinks that retrogression to such a world is actually desirable (or even possible). Capitalism has a lot to answer for, as does aspirational culture (which I discuss to some extent in this post, i.e. the insidious messages we're constantly sent that you *need* a bigger house/flasher car/better school for your kids/more exotic holidays/the newest gadget/job promotion, and that to refuse all that and be content to simply get by is nothing short of a crime). I also think there is simply a failure of imagination going on about how to do relationships. People seem to opt for the extremes of either demanding we return to a conservative nuclear family (preferrably where the man is the breadwinner and women have abandoned all those pesky ideas about financial independence or shared parenting), uphold "virtues" such as the willingness to stick with a miserable relationship, or admit that we're all basically amoral scumbugs with restless loins and give up on marriage altogether.

Even Hinsliff's article, which is refreshingly honest in its willingness to ask uncomfortable questions such as "Can you really remain endlessly fascinating to each other and only each other, for up to 70 years?" and "If lifelong fidelity is becoming one of those laws that everyone tacitly accepts gets broken, like cycling on pavements or speeding on motorways, does that mean marriage itself is in need of a reboot?" is still unwilling to offer answers beyond monogamy. She makes a throwaway reference to polyamory in her closing paragraphs, but frames it as the kind of alternative that's *so* alternative that it's still not really an option - "Most committed couples still set out intending to forsake all others and plenty achieve it, which suggests that aiming any lower smacks of an unhappily self-fulfilling prophecy unless you’re both genuine open-marriage enthusiasts." Even though this statement is kind of weak - "Most" isn't quantified, and neither is the "plenty" which constitutes a smaller segment of this "most" - the possibility of open marriage isn't given any airtime or exploration in Hinsliff's article. That seems bizarre in a piece that's trying to honestly deal with the fact that at least 37 million people (and in reality, obviously, many many more undocumented cheaters) are seeking or having affairs outside of their supposedly monogamous relationships. Non-monogamy shouldn't be set up as a panacea to cheating, for reasons I'll shortly outline, but nor should it be dismissed out of hand as "something you presumably don't want to do or hear anything about unless you're like, one of those crazy hippies."

Polyamory demands a reframing of the concept of fidelity, as well as offering new perspectives on sex and relationships that could be viewed as very liberating, but instead is often perceived as threatening and therefore shut down before it's even been explored. Polyamory is a rejection of the notion that love is finite, ring-fenced and only valid/acceptable as long as it's limited to being shared with one person at a time (at least, in a romantic sense - it's fine to have and love more than one friend, child, or family member, but for some reason we draw the line at romantic relationships, and my next sentence alludes to what I think is most of the reason why). It's also a rejection of the notion that your commitment to someone can be measured by your refusal to have genital contact with anyone but them, even people you would quite like to have genital contact with. Because let's face it, that is still the benchmark for fidelity, isn't it - the people on Ashley Madison aren't seeking someone else to watch films with, go on long walks with, shop in B&Q with - they're looking for sex. Sex with someone new and therefore exciting. Sex with someone forbidden, and therefore exciting. Even though there are a million ways you can betray your partner - and the lying that accompanies cheating often begins long before the actual sex, and is often the most hurtful part of the betrayal - we assign sex the status of being the deal-breaker. Polyamory forces us to acknowledge some painful truths - that both we and our partners may be attracted to other people during the course of our relationship, and may act on it - while aiming to remove that which makes infidelity so painful; the lying. So why, in an article where Hinsliff considers various "alternatives" to traditional marriage - "starter marriages", being together but living apart, "safety blanket" marriages or "I want kids but I'm running out of time and I don't want to do it alone" marriages - is polyamory never considered? Most of the options she names sound to me exactly like the kind of relationships people are already practising but just not labelling as she has; the idea of people marrying for security, out of parental urges, fear of being alone or on a hopeful but not entirely convinced gamble that it'll work isn't really anything new. Whereas the idea of consensual nonmonogamy is still pretty radical. Why not at least give it some airtime by considering it, rather than writing it off as a "niche interest"?

As I've found to my disappointment, nonmonogamy can't save everyone, though. There are just some dyed-in-the-wool cheaters out there who want nothing less than the thrill and the dirt of the forbidden, and would probably find themselves unable to proceed honestly even if they were presented with a poly relationship on a plate. As I wrote in a previous post on polyamory, such people "are so used to practising the art of lying that honesty is a stranger to them. Plus, polyamory probably wouldn't give them the twisted kicks they get out of their self-destructive behaviour." The only solution for these people is the therapist's chair, and even then there's only any point in that if they don't just keep lying once they get there. If we learn anything from human history, it's that no relationship structure, however permissive, can save people from themselves. I think some people get married hoping it'll change them, rein them in, make them a better person, and really they're just passing the buck, because you either make those changes yourself, and make yourself that person, or it's not going to happen. A relationship structure doesn't impose itself from the outside and change you. You either commit to it and do it wholeheartedly, or you'll end up simply warping the structure to suit your own ends. Which, if you're highly sexed and thrill-seeking, is likely to end in tears if you don't seek a relationship with someone similar, in a format that allows you to express those parts of yourself without feeling limited. But if you do decide to go poly, you've still got to decide to do it honestly. It involves a level of self-awareness, as well as a level of consideration for others, that not everyone is willing to reach for.

Commenters on Hinsliff's piece label it "grim and sociopathic" for daring to suggest that people want more than the current relationship model offers them. I think it's more accurate to call it realistic and honest. Another, perhaps more prosaic individual suggests "there are three entirely different sorts of relationships: the person you sleep with, the person you live with and the person you want to have your children with. It is unlikely that all three of those people are the same person, which is the core of the problem - when it works, it is clearly brilliant, but it is so fragile that people will often overlook one of the three to try and keep it together." In my limited experience, domesticity can certainly drive a person to want to separate the first party from the second and third parties, perhaps going some way to explaining why I, as a highly sexed individual, have no interest in cohabiting (and have never wanted children anyway). I just think that it's kind of dishonest to claim you're "rethinking marriage" or to act like you're putting forward a radical idea when you're not actually offering anything new, and are still merely advocating for long-term monogamy - just under the guise of different names - but trying to do so in a way that mitigates the horrible fact that millions of people out there want to cheat, have cheated, or are currently cheating on their partner. The sad fact is, nothing can mitigate that. It's depressing, soul-destroying, and enough to make you never want to trust another human being again. But there are more options than just becoming further entrenched in your views that we all just need to pull our bloody socks up and try harder, or that relationships are doomed and we should all just throw caution to the wind and rut openly in the streets. A media fond of polarising everything would do well to remember that alternatives can be, and are being, succesfully practised.

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