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Lithium Let's take another look at monogamy

Sep. 14, 2020
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The July 10th episode of Red Table Talk intended to address the rumors that host Jada Smith and singer August Alsina dated earlier in Jada and Will Smith’s marriage. What was likely meant to be a cathartic and informational episode culminated in hordes of Twitter users speculating about Will’s mental health (everyone’s seen the meme of a tired Will Smith), Jada’s repeated use of the word “entanglement,” and the general state of the pair’s marriage, which as of this writing is still intact. It was a fascinating (albeit kind of messy) look into the lives of a couple that’s been rumored to be non-monogamous for years. It seemed that this Red Table Talk was going to confirm that—but the episode left fans with more questions than answers. 

Let’s get one thing straight: the concept of true monogamy is a farce—but that’s something that Americans in particular seem unable to comprehend (despite the fact that roughly one in four American marriages will see at least one incident of infidelity and that 70% of all Americans have reportedly engaged in some kind of affair at one point in their marital life). 

For something that’s surprisingly so common, why is there so much taboo surrounding infidelity and nonmonogamy? 

If you asked, it’s likely that your circle of friends would wholeheartedly agree that if their partner were to cheat on them, the relationship is over. Period. No questions asked. And honestly, I would, too, especially if the relationship was young and had yet to get serious. But what happens when you’re elbow-deep in the relationship and your partner cheats? What happens if you’re married, you live together, you have kids—and then your partner cheats on you? Is that the end of the relationship? Would you have the same reaction as you would in a newer relationship? 

Relationship expert and author Esther Perel says that a lot of the time in marriages and long-term partnerships, the answer should actually be no, at least initially. She noted in her TED Talk that after studying couples across the globe, she found that an act of infidelity doesn’t always mean the respective partners are unhappy or lonely, and it certainly never means that the relationship has expired. Usually, it means that the partner who cheats is looking for something that the marriage itself cannot provide. Perel also explores this in her own podcast Where Should We Begin, in which Perel hosts live therapy sessions and helps a couple who has been affected by infidelity. It can be hard to listen to sometimes, as the stories are deeply personal to the anonymous guests—one episode featured a partner that gave an STD to his wife because he was participating in sex work behind her back. But the nuggets of wisdom Perel offers in each session are enough to inspire listeners to work on their own relationships (even if it’s just with themselves). 

Historically, as Perel points out in an interview on Dax Shepard’s Armchair Expert, marriage has been mainly transactional and economical, as opposed to today, when marrying for love is much more common. Marrying for love is truly only a recent development in our culture, one that can be traced back to the 1970s when women started living and working on their own. In general, if a person wanted to find love or passion, as Perel notes in Armchair Expert, it was found outside of marriage in an affair. If you were a woman, you likely were married incredibly young, so there wasn’t much opportunity to experience romance or passion in your life until your husband died or you had an affair. 

When we put our everything into one relationship—when we ask this partner to be our best friend, our lover, our confidante—an act of infidelity becomes a crisis of identity. “It’s the ultimate betrayal,” Perel said. “And [we’re living in an age when] it’s the first time people [are getting] divorced over infidelity.” 

This shift in thinking is apparent in today’s culture. and the media’s reaction to Will and Jada’s Red Table Talkepisode solidified that. After its airing, Twitter users called for the two of them to call it quits on their apparently toxic relationship. But what can you expect from the generation raised on Disney movies and rom-coms, who still believe that their one true love is out there waiting for them? Of course, it’s not just us—boomers, Gen X, and older millennials are also prone to believe in “the one,” and not settle for anything less. (Where do you think we learned it from, after all?)

Despite the progressive leaps and bounds we think we’ve made in our culture, it’s still considered odd if someone has more than one partner or if someone decides to stay with someone who’s cheated on them. (See: Molly’s reaction to finding out her father cheated on her mother in Insecure.) We still believe one person has the capacity to be our everything, and when they can’t, we chalk it up to it being a bug in their programming and not an issue with the system as a whole. 

What’s the solution? That’s going to require a complex and nuanced answer. It can’t and shouldn’t be answered in a single essay. Being publicly nonmonogamous is a difficult concept for many, including myself, to wrap their head around. So maybe we’re due for another cultural shift—one in which we reconcile our society’s need to put all our eggs in one basket. Like the inevitable fall of capitalism or patriarchy, these things are just going to take some time. 

Illustration by Janet Sung for Medium