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Sexual Nature: Happily Ever After

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Edited by Meg-John Barker, Sunday, 29 May 2011, 16:04

Happily Ever After?

 

HappilyEverAfter


The London Natural History Museum has been putting on a series of events in connection with its Sexual Nature exhibition. On Friday I spoke at the last of these events which aimed to explore what makes a successful relationship, along with anthropologist Volker Sommer.

The first half of the event focused on the kinds of relationships that take place amongst animals other than humans, and across different historical periods and the various human cultures around the world today. It is interesting that, when trying to answer these kinds of questions, we often try to determine what is 'natural' (by looking to other animals) or what is 'normal' (by looking across time and culture). We often assume that what is natural or normal must be what is good. But that in itself is worth questioning. Behaviours like taking antibiotics or being kind to animals could be seen as 'unnatural', and high levels of self-sacrifice for others or the ability to sing beautifully are 'abnormal'.

With that note of caution in mind, when we do look across animal species or human societies what we actually find is diversity. The Sexual Nature exhibition itself demonstrates the huge variety of relationship forms which exist amongst animals: from species of bird where many different females mate with the male whose displays are most visually attractive, to the male seahorses who give birth to their young, to the bonobo chimpanzees who use sex as a social activity to develop and reinforce bonds with other male and female chimps. Volker talked about the various forms of polygyny, polyandry, and polygynandry that have existed across the world at various times (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Polygamy), often relating to the physical environment that people find themselves in. For example, there are societies where women marry a man's brothers as well as the man himself, where men have sexual relationships with other men early in life before marrying a woman, where men have more than one wife who take on different roles in relation to work and domestic labour, and where the norm is for people to have 'trial marriages' - with someone of the same, or other, gender - by cohabiting for a while before making any legal commitment.

Diversity is also the case when we look at UK society today. The UK is one of the 10-20% of cultures worldwide which are held to be monogamous. However, as I mentioned at the event, statistics on infidelity in marriage of up to 50-60% suggest that we could say that non-monogamy is actually more usual, but that it usually takes the form of secret affairs, rather than the recognised forms of polygamy that exist elsewhere. There are also many forms of open monogamy which are commonly practised, from the 'new monogamy' where couples are – to some extent – open to emotional and sexual commitments with people other than their partners, to forms of swinging and open relationships, to polyamory where people form multiple romantic and sexual relationships. It is more useful to view relationships today as on a continuum of sexual monogamy (from one sexual partner to many) and a continuum of emotional monogamy (from one close intimate person to many). Individuals are negotiating their own relationship rules around monogamy, for example whether they decide whether to remain close to ex-partners, or whether online sexual contact is acceptable.

Returning to the question of what makes a successful relationship, it is clear that the answer to this is 'different things for different people at different times'. We live at an uncertain time where old rules of relating don't necessarily apply to the patchwork families and serial relationships that many people are experiencing. However, we remain in a situation where some relationship forms are considered far more acceptable than others, and afforded much more social approval, recognition and protection.

When asked for my prescription for a 'successful' relationship I suggested that, on an individual relationship level, they would involve people respecting each others' values, communicating openly about these (rather than assuming that they are shared), and being open to the inevitable shifts and changes that will occur in relationships over time. On a societal level it is important to recognise the variety of relationships that people are actually experiencing, rather than trying to squeeze everyone into one-size-fits-all models of relationships or family.

Find out more:

The Sexual Nature exhibition is open till October 2011

You can read the tweets from the 'Happily Ever After?' event by searching twitter for the #sexualnature hashtag.

There is more about monogamy elsewhere on my blog

Permalink 1 comment (latest comment by Meg-John Barker, Sunday, 29 May 2011, 11:24)
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Monogamies/Non-monogamies

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Edited by Meg-John Barker, Friday, 29 Apr 2011, 08:37

Monogamies/Non-monogamies

This morning I have been writing a response piece for Sexual and Relationship Therapy about monogamy, so I thought I'd blog about it too. The original article and my response will hopefully appear in the August edition of that journal.

Basically the author of the original paper is arguing that sex and relationship therapists should be actively addressing monogamy with their clients because lots of sexual and relationship problems are rooted in monogamy. Thinking about it she has a good point. Obviously relationship conflicts and break-ups about infidelity are about monogamy. But from my own experience working with clients, I think that many other relationship conflicts and tensions are related to this broad issue as well. People often find themselves in different places in their relationships, over how free versus how together they want to be: how much they want to share and how much they want to be private and independent. Often one person is feeling more constrained and striving for more independence whilst another is feeling more insecure and striving for more of a sense of safety. And this frequently plays out around relationships with other people (is it okay to want more friends outside the relationship? Or to be a bit flirty with a colleague?)

Also, common sexual difficulties are often related to monogamy. A lot of people who have painful or unsatisfying sex continue to do so because they are scared of losing their partner to somebody else (and this tends to make it worse). A lot of people feel that they must continue to have 'great sex' throughout their relationship in order to affirm it, which creates the kind of pressure which can make it difficult to relax and tune in to what they really enjoy. The idea of being a 'sex addict' is sometimes linked to struggling with being monogamous.

The author of the paper pointed out that we generally get the message that monogamy is easy and 'natural', and that our partners will provide everything for us (emotionally and sexually). That idea can leave people feeling like a failure when it doesn't work out like that in their relationship. Actually very few people seem to manage monogamy across a life-time. As many as 50-60% of married people have affairs, and a recent study found that one third of young people in monogamous relationships didn't agree on whether they had discussed what monogamy meant to them and over half of them disagreed on whether the rules of monogamy had been kept or not.

So maybe it would be more useful (in therapy and in general) for people to have open conversations about how they want to manage their relationships: how monogamous they want to be.

I came up with the idea of two continua of monogamy for the book I'm writing on relationships. The emotional continuum goes from having all your emotional needs met by one person, to having multiple loving relationships. The sexual continuum goes from complete sexual fidelity to having multiple sex partners. I think it's useful for people to think about where they are on those continua and whether partners are in similar, or different places.

For example, on the emotional continuum we might consider relationships where it isn't acceptable to have any other close friendships, or to stay in touch with ex-partners, or where it is acceptable to stay up all night talking with someone you've just met, or to have several people in your life who are equally important to your partner. On the sexual continuum we might consider relationships where any form of sexual thought about someone other than the partner is considered wrong, ones where it is okay to look at pornography online but not to interact with someone sexually, ones where certain sexual activities with other people are considered okay, or ones that are completely open to sex with others. Obviously there is overlap between the two continua too.

At the end of my response I concluded that the following things would be useful for therapists, but also more generally:

  • Challenging the assumption that we all have the same rules about monogamy and being open to others being in a different place to ourselves
  • Recognising that relationships of all kinds are difficult and most people struggle around those tensions of freedom and togetherness
  • Communicating about where we are at currently on those continua, recognising that this might change over time and in different relationships, and that we might end up agreeing, compromising, or respectfully agree to disagree
  • Being aware of the variety of different relationship styles that are available , including different styles of monogamy, the new monogamy, open relationships, swinging, and polyamory

There's a lot more about open non-monogamy in the paper Darren Langdridge and I wrote on this topic last year.

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