Durkheim and the reign of monogamy
I started practicing polyamory three years ago in an attempt to free myself of the unbearable attachment, dependency and conditionality that came with monogamous relationships. Needy, shattered and incapable to fulfill my deep need for love and intimacy with others, I longed for change. I first heard about the tempting concept of “love without attachment” at a meditation retreat in Thailand. Soon after starting to open myself to the possibility that relationships may be built on mutual respect, love and appreciation instead of fear of losing the other, desire to dominate or fit social expectations, I was ready to embrace polyamory. The freedom and happiness it brought me inspired me to celebrate it, share it, spread it. I knew it was meant to be challenging, because of the normalcy associated with monogamy in society, yet I thought the status-quo was reversible and people only needed to learn about polyamory to at least give it a try, if not adopt it.
It didn’t take long to figure I was wrong. While I remain optimistic for the sake of not losing my energy as an agent of change in society, I now see the invisible strings that control it. “The practice of having a single sexual partner during a period of time”, or otherwise monogamy, fits Emile Durkheim’s concept for a social fact, introduced in The Rules of Sociological Method. Social facts are ways of thinking, acting or being which are normalized, generalized throughout society, constraining and external to the individuals who perform them.
One doesn’t need statistics to establish that monogamy reigns over Western Societies and is deemed “normal” and “normative”. Monogamous couples caress each other with lips, touch and public acknowledgement practically everywhere. Yet, expressions of intimacy between their “deviant” counterparts are not to be found in the daylight, out in the open. Non-monogamy is only allowed to exist in secret locations, particular subcultures and specialized online communities.
My personal experience with polyamory showed me that the influence of the social act lies in that “it asserts itself as soon as I try to resist” (Durkheim, 51). As long as I complied with monogamy, I was oblivious to its great coercive power. Once I dared to reject it and self- identify as polyamorous, I found I now had to deal with a number of negative stereotypes (polyamorists are “sluts” being one of them) and consequences (such as sexualization, shaming or being emotionally abused by partners because of my choice). Choosing to comply with the rules of monogamy seemed to be the only way to restore the violated social order and to bring myself and others peace. It seemed more like an ultimatum.
My friends often tell me: “I get it, but I know I can’t (do polyamory)”. Monogamy, I am told, feels “innate”, it is our “nature” and therefore inalterable. But is it? Durkheim says that: “we are the victims of an illusion which leads us to believe we have ourselves produced what has been imposed on us externally” (Durkheim, 53). Children’s fairytale books, Hollywood movies, popular songs all project the images of idealized monogamous romance as the only way to experience love and happiness with another. As if nothing else exists. “All education consists of a continual effort to impose upon the child ways of seeing, thinking and acting which he himself would not have arrived at spontaneously” (Durkheim, 53)- Durkhaim claims, yet, how can the grown child perceive something as external to herself if it’s all she has seen and no alternatives have ever been presented?
Monogamy, as a social fact, perpetuates itself through a number of cultural tools, indoctrinates individuals and transforms them into blind followers who reproduce the very same devices which have been used to inculcate them. Furthermore, if monogamy was “natural to” and “inborn in” individuals than all human societies would be monogamous. According to George Murdock’s Ethnographic Atlas, however, globally: “of 1,231 societies noted, 186 were monogamous; 453 had occasional polygyny; 588 had more frequent polygyny; and 4 had polyandry”.
Coming to Middlebury, I expected an environment that was more receptive to polyamory due to its increased media coverage in the US, as well as the relative “abundance” of individuals and communities practicing polyamory compared to other places in the world. However, I was surprised to find that not only wasn’t this a “hippy school”, but even the largely popular “hook up culture” on campus served as a perpetuator of mono-normativity. Both hooking up and having multiple romantic and sexual partners are seen as profane alternatives to the sacred long-term, committed monogamous relationship. Yet, only the former is perceived as a legitimate substitute.
Hooking up allows busy, career-oriented, fun-loving students to “have a good time” without the commitments and effort involved in sustaining a committed relationship. An important aspect in being successful at hook ups is to make sure the person knows you are not actually having a relationship with them (also helping you to maintain position in the power game and remain desired). You don’t need to answer their every text. You don’t even have to be that nice to them. They are not your partner after all. Vulnerability and being real with each other are treasured as a domain held exclusively by one-on-one relationships. The hook up happy ending, thus, mirrors monogamy in that it requires the rejecting of others by choosing a preferred partner and coupling of.
Social facts are hard to shake. Neither a single person, nor a small group of people can negate the overwhelming presence of social facts with their choice and actions. Whether or not I decide to be polyamorous instead of monogamous is irrelevant with regards to overcoming the stifling rule of the ideology of monogamy. Ironically, even when we reject the social fact, it influences us beyond our imagination. By allowing hooking up as a temporary alternative to monogamy, yet rejecting polyamorous relationships in which people build committed relationships with multiple partners, a paradoxical situation is created in which it is so hard to find a sole person to be with that monogamy is embraced again by lack of any other alternative. Practicing polyamory necessitates the presence of a diverse community of independent, mature individuals who value and seek relationships (whether monogamous or not). Within that arrangement one can hope and expect to meet and connect with a manifold of potential romantic and sexual partners with varying preferences for relationship styles. Yet, at places like Middlebury where relationships are feared, viewed as a hindrance to personal progress or otherwise rejected, if one “hits the jackpot” and finds someone willing to be with them, they would hardly risk the relationship by suggesting alternatives to the assumed monogamy.
 Defined as “the state or practice of having more than one open romantic relationship at a time”, Marriam Webster Online Dictionary
 As defined in Collins English Dictionary
- Durkheim, Émile, Steven Lukes, and W. D. Halls. The Rules of Sociological Method. N.p.: Free Press, Print.
- 2015. Collins English Dictionary – Complete and Unabridged. (1991, 1994, 1998, 2000, 2003). Retrieved March, 1, 2015 fromhttp://www.thefreedictionary.com/monogamy
- Murdock, George. Etnographic Atlas Codebook. 1998 World Cultures 10(1): 86-136. Retrieved March 1 2015 from http://eclectic.ss.uci.edu/~drwhite/worldcul/Codebook4EthnoAtlas.pdf
- 2015. In Merriam-Webster.com. Retrieved March 1, 2015, from http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/polyamory