Academic journal article Cultural Studies Review

Relationship Structure, Relationship Texture: Case Studies in Non/Monogamies Research

Academic journal article Cultural Studies Review

Relationship Structure, Relationship Texture: Case Studies in Non/Monogamies Research

Article excerpt

Method and non/monogamy

Often in mononormative culture 'significant', 'serious' and 'monogamous' are thought to be more or less synonymous: the importance of a relationship is assumed to reside, or be reflected, in the relationship's exclusivity.1 Under this logic monogamy is good in and of itself, but also insofar as it promises (or entails) commitment, longevity, security and love. A vow of monogamy is understood as a sign that a relationship is valued, and ongoing 'fidelity' a sign that a relationship is functional, stable and likely to last. As a result, people practicing non-monogamy are frequently asked to explain their relationships' significance with regard to the absence of monogamy. This is the case both in everyday interactions and within empirical academic literature, which often investigates how non-monogamous people think about or manage the non-monogamy of their relationships. Not only does this tendency risk underplaying the discursive overlaps between monogamy and non-monogamy discussed by Angela Willey, and the ways that what Nathan Rambukkana describes as one's 'intimate privilege' might shape how that non-monogamy is experienced, but it leaves other significant, meaning-laden aspects of those relationships uninvestigated or underdescribed.2

Of course, thinking about how people in non-monogamous relationships 'do' nonmonogamy is important, and the past decade has seen some extremely valuable work along those lines, particularly in relation to polyamory. Ani Ritchie and Meg Barker, for example, explore the specific words and concepts people in polyamorous relationships have developed to describe their experiences of non-monogamy.3 Elsewhere, Barker asks about the extent to which people in polyamorous relationships see their non-monogamy as part of their identity.4 Across a number of publications, Christian Klesse discusses how polyamorists position other forms of non-monogamy, and how gay men and bisexual women think about their nonmonogamy in relation to stigma surrounding promiscuity.5 These efforts to map the discursive terrain of non-monogamy within polyamorous relationships and communities is undoubtedly useful in its own right. Unchecked, however, this trend runs the risk of reproducing the common-sense assumption that monogamy, or its absence, is the most significant meaningmaking factor in relationships.

A related trend is the theorisation of non-monogamy in relation to broad social structures. There is a long history of thought along these lines, especially regarding the way non-monogamy might challenge sexist and/or capitalist structures of relating.6 More recently, scholars have worked to conceptualise non/monogamy in relation to 'mononormativity' or 'compulsory monogamy'-the discursive, institutional and practical systems which make monogamy appear coherent, normal and right.7 Just as it is important to consider what sense non-monogamous people are making of their non-monogamy, it is important to theorise those non-normative relationship practices in relation to the broad structures that shape our relational lives.

But if non-monogamous people are most often asked by researchers what the nonmonogamy of their relationships means to them, and their relationships are most often theorised in terms of what that non-monogamy means politically, scholarship on nonmonogamy repeats an error that passes as common sense. Evaluating the personal and political significance of a relationship solely in relation to its non/monogamy risks encoding mononormative assumptions about what makes a relationship significant into the scholarship itself One of the driving questions for this article, then, is whether or not it is possible to suspend the assumption that the non/monogamy of a relationship is always its most significant locus of meaning, without losing sight of the way those relationships are materially and discursively shaped by broad social structures like mononormativity.

After all, in this time and place, a relationship's monogamy, non-monogamy or style thereof, will certainly signify in excess of the sense participants make of it. …

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