Letitia Falk

Lab Technician/Recent MSc graduate, University of British Columbia


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Is self-consciousness a product of the expectations imposed by monogamy?

This idea came to me while reading "the Ethical Slut" by Dossie Easton and Janet W. Hardy.

Many of society's (at least Judo-Christian) values uphold the ideal that one man and one woman til "death do us part" is the ideal form of romantic relationship.

All of this emphasis on finding our "other half", our "soul-mate" or our "Mr/Mrs Right" has got me to thinking what an awful lot of pressure that is to hoist onto another person! If we only get one chance to get it right, no wonder we are so interested in not just finding, but also having the perfect body, brain, interests, career etc in order to be competitive in the relationship market.

If society was more accepting of the reality that most of us will go through multiple partners in our lifetime (and dare I even suggest that some of us may have more than one partner at a time?) then what I wonder is if that realization would make us more appreciative of each person's true strengths without trying to make our partner fit into a mold or expecting them to fulfill our every need?

And if we didn't feel like we have to live up to these sorts of expectations, or be afraid of our partners leaving us if they find someone better (at least in the case of polyamory), would we be more able to appreciate ourselves and others?

  • Dec 1 2011: I think there are many good reasons why to have long life relationship. Our children want to have their mother and father around. More importanly your partner most likely expects long relationship unless you agree ahead of time (if that even is possible?).

    Instead of looking for a perfect match, why not find a good match and accept your partner the way he/she is? Why do we have to have very high expectations that were force upon us by Hollywood and "Reality" shows? Can we find joy in appreciating our uniqueness and defects?

    Of course continuous physical and/or psychological abuse by one partner justifies break up.
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      Dec 1 2011: Thanks for your comment Zdenek. I'm not trying to compare the value of one type of relationship to another here and it is, of course, possible to have multiple yet still long-term relationships. Instead I am wondering if accepting the truth that many of us will love multiple people over the course of our life (whether one at a time or simultaneously) would dispel some of the emphasis on finding an idealized and maybe unattainable "perfect" mate. I agree with you that much of "what" we look for comes from Hollywood/TV/movies/literature etc but I started thinking that only getting to choose one partner might contribute to "why" most of us have a checklist.

      I don't mean to say that people shouldn't have standards. I think everyone deserves to get all of their needs met, but I think that it might be unrealistic to expect one person to be able to meet all of our changing needs, and I'm thinking that having multiple people to turn to or at least realizing that there is the option of other relationships may decrease our dependance on one person and help us accept our partner(s) for what they have offer in the same way that we turn to many different friends to meet needs that change over time and depending on our circumstances.
      • Dec 1 2011: I am sorry if I misunderstood what you try to say.

        I think that people do not need to be under big pressure to choose their lifelong partner. It is really up to an individual to set their expectations and wants. If they have very high or unrealistic expectations based on what other expectations are of other people around them then they might end up unhappy. They might feel like they need to constantly look for new relationships because they are still not 100% satisfied (if they can ever be?). They might spend their lives looking for the perfect match, never be really happy constantly thinking about the next opportunity ?

        This reminds me a trap which many people fall into when working hard to buy stuff and pursue their materialistic dreams. Some people constantly seek satisfaction and happiness in the next thing to buy because they have never enough.

        I know many people (including myself) that find a life long partner despite their partner being not exactly what they have imagined or wanted. Then working together as a couple you adjust and even change yourself over time to help each other with certain expectations while acknowledging other expectations like sports, hobbies, occasional party and so on can be full filled with friends. Do your partner need to be able to enjoy and join you for all activities and interests that you have?

        Now I don't really see an issue with people changing partners as long as both individuals have the same understanding about it at the beginning of the relationship and the couple has no children. Otherwise I think it is selfish to abondon partner/children if they expected you to be with them? Just imagine that you dedicate your best 30 years of your life with someone and then they leave you for somone else?

        So I agree with you that there should not be any particular requirement on lifelong relationship (people should be free to do as they please) as long as no one gets emotionally devastated by breaking relationship or family?

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          Dec 1 2011: I completely agree. I think that just having options, whether or not they're acted upon increases the sense of personal freedom and therefore satisfaction found in relationships.
  • Dec 2 2011: I just came across this Google talk on "The meaning of Marriage", and thought it is appropriate in this discussion. He even mentions a consumer mindset like I brought up.

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      Dec 7 2011: Thanks for the link Moss. I liked a lot of the points Timothy made although I disagree with his "consumer versus covenant" model. He suggests that without making legally binding promises, we act in a consumer fashion picking up things (or in this case people) that interest us on a whim and then discarding them when we lose interest. He uses child-rearing as an example for relationships and suggests that we would ditch our kids if we weren't threatened with the possibility of going to jail for doing so.

      ....I can't speak for everyone but I maintain relationships with my friends, family, and lovers out of unconditional love for them, not because of a contract or fear of punishment. I think that the commodification of sex (I don't think you CAN commodify love) has more to do with our familiarity with a capitalist economic system than types of marriage contracts. In fact, in some cultures brides are traded in exchange for goods and actually are economic commodities. I would say there is just as much commodification of marriage if not more in monogamous and contract-based cultures than in ones that embrace more open and flexible types of relationships.

      Interestingly @12:25 Timothy talks about how many people today want to find someone who accepts them for themselves exactly as they are. He says that this philosophy goes up against Christian/Monogamous values and suggests that marriage actually serves a function in changing us for the better. While I don't necessarily disagree, this ties into my theory that Monogamy causes you to judge yourself based on the opinion of one other person exclusively. What I really want to address is not whether Monogamy is right or wrong (obviously an individual moral decision), but what the consequences of this arrangement are on self-esteem compared to other possibilities.
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    Dec 1 2011: In an ideal world, male and female would pursue their dreams and while doing so, meet someone of like mind. Be it in their 20s, 40s or 60s. And, if it is different partners for different times, so be it.

    There is an urgency, however, associated with those that would-be-parents, an urgency which I see too often frowned upon, as in the woman getting older and 'desperate'. It's seems to be some kind of cultural hoop one must jump through. A demeaning hoop at that.

    Once the child-rearing relationship has been established, and believe me, it is the most important relationship of all, the work required to make it work is imperative.

    Once the children are gone, in an ideal world, I would humbly suggest a reevalutation. On all levels. As an accepted cultural practice.
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    Dec 1 2011: I think the question you have raised about self-consciousness is linked closely to what it is we find beautiful about people - especially where those people have an acute awareness of their own beauty and the ease in which that can be used to secure many relationships.

    Whilst this is an understandable human trait, it also depends on where that perception of beauty comes from - whether it is from an innate and personal sense of what beauty is, or sourced externally (and in my opinion superficially) from the pages of the popular media.

    Given that it is almost certain that someone who is beautiful would have less of a problem finding multiple partners, is it too much of a generalisation to say that beautiful people, who are attractive in the popular sense, perhaps have a diminished sense of morality in respect of being unfaithful in long-term relationships? Who is the judge of such morality anyway?

    Although the media would have us believe otherwise, the appreciation of self and others I think has very little to do with perfection and beauty - it is more the acceptance (and even the love) of imperfections and faults. Personally, I find imperfect people very attractive. Imperfect people are multi-faceted, stimulating and real.
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      Dec 1 2011: Great points Allan! I completely agree with you that the actual definition of beauty is very individual. I think that most people at some point in their lives do come to appreciate their lovers quirks or imperfections which is what gives me hope that what we're really searching for isn't someone who meets our criteria perfectly anyway. I think it takes people actually falling in love to get to this point however and I'm wondering if we can get to this point sooner by being more realistic about what love usually looks like.

      Are people who are more conventionally attractive more confidant and less likely to be faithful? In my experience people who fit the stereotype can be even more self-conscious because people tend to focus more on their looks than personality etc. this actually brings up another point though, which is that insecure people (sometimes) use monogamy as a crutch and are actually much more dependent in relationships and less likely to choose non-monogamy. It takes a pretty confidant person to NOT feel like they need a lifelong partner to complete them.
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    Dec 7 2011: I think our need for pair bonding evolved from the helpless state of a pregnant woman. At the dawn of our species after a male impregnated a female, she would eventually become helpless and needy of his protection and services for gathering food, a state which extended into the early life of the child.

    As I quoted from Emlen and Oring above, 'adaptiveness' has hindered the development of a sociobiological framework for mating. This is because we as a species have created parameters for mating outside of what is evolutionarily necessary. Marriage is an example of this. It has no place in the evolutionary process, in fact I believe it actually hinders natural selection in that, by limiting each X to one Y, (in heterosexual terms), we place a limit on the frequency of interaction, thus slowing the rate of genetic mutations.

    Of course I believe that this adaptation towards monogamy has occurred simultaneously with diminishing returns on the genetic mutations necessary. We have simply grown too intelligent and clever to require much more change. Now it is necessary for our species to become more selective about mating to slow population growth.

    Now for me to be opinionated-

    All that aside, the point is that the man made religious rule; monogamy, doesn't play a part in our natural evolution, and as thus will not 'fit' with how our brain functions. Any deviation from what nature intended is likely to create undue stress on a human. This is more easily observable in attempts by homosexual people to 'straighten' out because 'the church says so.'

    I say let your love come naturally, if it takes 10 tries, so be it. If you are lucky, and try enough times, it will happen as it is meant to. After all, that is why we are all here.
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    Dec 7 2011: Hi Letitia,

    Indeed a difficult topic, but thanks for being brave enough to touch on it.

    First, mating behaviors.

    Of course, a lot of these are rooted in our genes. A few million years ago, for males the best strategy was to seek as many females as possible, and for females, the best strategy was to find healthier and more reliable males.

    As we humans became more and more social creatures, we started combining these basic strategies with our social behaviors. Reputation was born with language. As we relied on the experience of others to make decisions, males started using tricks to "be known" as strong and reliable, females started developing a keen eye to catch the genuine from the fake. Females also used reputation to "be known" as more young and attractive. It is no coincidence that in today's environment, gossip is still a deeply rooted mechanism for us to make up our minds regarding people we can't know more directly.

    Then relationships.

    Anybody that has kids, specially more than one kid, knows the stark reality that the old "i love you both the same" is not true. At a deep loving level, i think there is no such a thing as a "group relationship". Not saying that people cannot get together with more than one partner. After all, monogamy may be prevalent in the west but it is not universal. What i am saying is that in a group relationship, what we have is two or more one-on-one loving relationships which are independently developed and have different bases. There are examples of poli-amory that work very well, but even in those i think there is very strong one-on-one relationships that can alternately take the center stage

    Finally on self-consciousness. It may be more rooted in the mating behaviors than in the pressure towards monogamy. Sadly, the way we project to people with whom we do not have a relationship, is the only way learn as we grow up: We try to sell ourselves. Advertisement works more often than not, so it is widely used for mating too

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    Dec 7 2011: After reading many comments I can see that this topic is very difficult to discuss without having some experience of both sides. Since Monogamy is the norm in many societies, I think that unintentional biases are hard to avoid for people who have limited experience of Non-Monogamy. My apologies for this oversight, but I would recommend the book for anyone who wants to learn more about Non-Monogamy :)
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    Dec 2 2011: Laetitia great discussion albeit a controversial one. Thank you for raising it.

    One factor hindering development of a sociobiological framework of mating system theory has been a recurring tendency for field workers to search for and discuss "adaptiveness" in the context of survival and well-being of the population or species. (Emlen&Oring, 1977)

    Personally I feel like the concept of socially required monogamy is a perversion or distortion from natural evolution. We all understand the basic carnal natures of mating, yet our societies depend on a system that stifles them. In my opinion, finding love should be an accident, not a demand. Something to hope for, but not expected. I believe this is the root of the issue you are discussing.

    When we as a community place a 'scarlet letter' on those who may simply be unlucky to not have found the perfect love- we create a pressure that motivates them to either commit to a relationship that is unhealthy from fear of being judged a harlot or womanizer, or to be a nonparticipant.

    How is that healthy? I would be very interested in any studies done on the history of monogamy in society and an unbiased analysis of its impact on mental health, and relationships. I have a strong feeling that the majority of the negative factors of polyamory that motivated the development could be somewhat controlled through modern technology and innovation. Examples might include STDs, childbirth, and division of assets.
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      Dec 7 2011: Thanks for your comment Timothy. I agree that a lot of what determines the success of a marriage is luck in getting it right the first time. Perhaps Monogamy is in fact the ideal (routed in our evolutionary past and need for pair-bonding), but Polyamory and Serial Monogamy are paths to finding a partner that you can truly be Monogamous with?
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    Dec 1 2011: Thought provoking question Letitia. I think it is generally accepted as reality that most of us will end up going through multiple partners in our lifetime (although I admire those who are happy with just one). And I think that Lynn summed up pretty well the issues with children - it would be best if we manage to be united through their upbringing.

    But the polyamory aspect is a tricky one. I suppose we all might fantasize being able to have as many partners as we like as the opportunities arise. But would we want our partner to be doing the same? Would we want them to be unavailable because they are out with someone else? Would be want to have to ask to be scheduled into their busy schedule? So I think, in a way, sequential monogamy has become the norm to best meet everyone’s needs. It is a compromise. But hey, it seems that any activity involving two people is going to involve some form of compromise.

    What do you think?
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      Dec 7 2011: Hi Tim. I agree with you that any human relationship (romantic or not) requires compromise. Which relationship strategy is the best fit for a couple will of course depend on their individual needs but there are success stories for all of them (including polyamory). Basically I agree with you that if you want a faithful partner, you have to be Monogamous, and if you want to have multiple partners, then you have to allow your partner the same freedom. I think its as possible to overcome the jealousy of seeing your partner go off on a date with someone else as it is possible to overcome the monotony of being with the same person forever for the sake of stability. Life is a balance between individual and group needs and I think all we can really do is find someone with needs similar enough to ours that we can keep peace. We're lucky enough to live in a generation with the freedom to choose for which I'm very grateful.
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    Dec 1 2011: Pretty itchy subject. I never experienced poly-eitherway relationships. But I see how women suffer from that in different cultures such as some muslim societies some christian societies some stupid cults etc. They all ended up bad for women and their children.

    On the other hand there is a reality that, independent from cultures, men mostly cheat on their wives after some years of marriage. Some have mistreses some do it with colleagues, prostitutes etc. Which also harms the society and family.

    As I said before pretty itchy subject and I think that morals and ethics should be considered unrelated to sex. Sex is a totally overrated needby mainstream media.
  • Dec 1 2011: Have you read Brave New World? It deals with this exactly.

    If society allowed polyamory in the sense of Brave New World, we would be even more selfish and immature than we already are in our current culture, not to mention rife with STDs.

    Jealousy is a natural thing and good in its right place. You have to consider that strong emotions come into play in intimate relationships.

    If you suspect monogamy to be the reason why we try so hard to be good (and I think there is a lot of truth to that), why would you want to reject that? Do we want a society of lazy, immature, lust-filled "consumers"? Or do we want noble, mature men and women who strive for what is right, who are willing to make sacrifices and who will display enduring, committed love, for better or for worse? Sex is not something to be messed with. If you ignore the way we were designed, you do so at your own peril. Sadly, our society has already gone way too far. But this certainly isn't a new idea.
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      Dec 1 2011: Well, Brave New World is fiction but yes, I see your point.

      I believe we will have to agree to disagree about jealousy: I believe that it is our personal responsibility to learn to control our emotions rather than blame them on someone else's behavior. Just because an emotion is natural doesn't mean its good for us.

      I think you have a very good point though about it being beneficial to be motivated to improve ourselves by monogamy. I guess we are all walking a fine line between laziness or carelessness and over-caring and self-loathing. You bring up a good reminder that motivation to assess ourselves can also be beneficial. I fail to see the connection between non-monogamy and "consumers"...maybe you can explain?

      I don't believe that we are "designed" and I don't believe that your "right" is the same as my "right" but our relationships (whatever the type) affect how all of us think about ourselves. This may be optimistic but I would really like to keep this an intellectual and not a moral discussion.
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        Dec 1 2011: -" This may be optimistic but I would really like to keep this an intellectual and not a moral discussion."
        Well, in that case you shouldn't ask a question that is highly regarded to be primarily a moral one.
        There is no way to keep morals out of this. Sorry. Even if the discussion was strictly devoted to the biological-sociological advantage or disanvantage of monogamy,that would still be only one level of theory. The most important level of theory that is ignored quite often in the name of "intellectual discussion" is the practical one.
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          Dec 1 2011: I don't mean to make your feelings on the matter seem unimportant Jacob, I'm not suggesting that morals don't factor highly into our understanding of relationships, I'm just trying to keep the discussion away from moral/cultural/religious values that have a tendency to divide people into groups based on background more than anything else. I know that this is a touchy subject but I strongly feel that taboos create misunderstanding and prejudice and have come to respect TED and its members as a place where sometimes controversial subjects can be brought to light and discussed open-mindedly. If you feel that this is a topic that can only be discussed in a moral sense than please feel free to start a discussion about it from that perspective.
        • Dec 2 2011: By consumers I mean the type of attitude we would be living our life by in a polyamorous society. People just become another commodity for your pleasure. "Everybody belongs to everybody else." is what the citizens in Brave New World are conditioned to believe, but that world is overly optimistic.

          I have to agree with Jacob that you can't have a fair conversation about this by keeping morals out of it. This is closely tied to people's view of what is right or wrong behavior, which in turn comes out of ones world view. If you don't believe there is an absolute basis for right and wrong then a) You won't get far in a discussion with those who do and b) that is a scary thing to accept. Sure you can theorize about what systems of relationships would produce an 'optimal society', if that is what you like, but ultimately who cares. And if my beliefs are right the best system has already been ordained by God and any attempt to improve on it is arrogance against him.

          I'm sure we could find studies on the benefits of faithful monogamy and on devoted Christian faith for maintaining said monogamy. I'm doubtful you will find anything extolling the benefits of sleeping around.

          What is wrong with Judeo-Christian values anyway? Do you think that is what makes people stress out about being perfect? Well in a sense yes, Jesus said "be perfect, as your heavenly father is perfect." Can we do that ourselves? No. Properly understood and believed, faith in Christ frees us from all anxiety, because he is the one in charge, he is what gives our life worth. Not our sex life or even a monogamous partner. Another thing Jesus said: "Do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear...the pagans run after these things."

          I want to be married one day, I try not to stress about it. In the mean time it is a big motivation for me to mature and tame my lust.

          Peace, I hope you find good answers on this matter
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        Dec 2 2011: @Letita- Thank you for your thoughtful response. I don't know enough about the subject to really have an intellectual opinion on it. I have at best a very fickle moral one. This seems like a fun and interesting subject to speculate about in theory but I think what everyone should want to know (assuming we want to learn more from each other than the echo of our own opinion) is how this would play out on a practical level and whether it would benefit the human race as a whole. I don't know for for sure but I certainly have respect for your view on the matter.