Magazine article Commonweal

Two by Two: The Case for Monogamy

Magazine article Commonweal

Two by Two: The Case for Monogamy

Article excerpt

Polygamy is better than monogamy, said a fourth of the adult students in my Bronx evening class! The most vocal advocate of polygamy was an intelligent young woman who had immigrated from Nigeria. She was aided and abetted by male students who were sympathetic to Islam and the Muslim custom of allowing four wives.

As the in-class debate raged on, I saw a new challenge of multiculturalism before us. African bishops are not the only ones who must argue for the hegemony of monogamy. Here in the United States we may yet confront a resurgence of claims for group marriage. Some unreconstructed Mormons have never accepted imposed monogamy and a growing number of immigrants and homegrown secular liberals might agree with them. Could an ACLU-Mormon-Muslim coalition successfully challenge our civic and religious commitment to monogamy?

How do we mount "a monogamy offensive" capable of convincing doubters? Or--to be more honest in the face of our terrible divorce statisics--how do we keep our present system of "serial monogamy" in place? Those like myself who favor monogamy and yet have been willing to extend marriage to homosexuals have a special challenge. Already several opponents (all male) have figuratively flung down the gauntlet at my feet. A gauntlet, you may or may not remember, is a medieval mail-male glove that was hurled at enemies to provoke combat.

"Well, Sidney," say my attackers, euphemistically called "conversation partners" in PC speak, "if you're ready to give up the traditional requirements of heterosexuality for marriage, how can you not allow marriage between three or four or more? Why only two?" Somehow these fellows think that once you breach the dike of gender, no pun intended, monogamous marriage itself will be swept away in a flood of permissiveness.

But I've never found unsupported slippery-slope arguments very convincing. Why should we absolutize traditional customs when so many of them, i.e., abortion, war, and exploiting the poor, cry out for change? More reasonable arguments for privileging monogamy in our civil society can be made, even without turning to Christian belief. Bottom-up arguments support the institution of monogamous marriage.

Social scientists, for instance, who study group process, find a vast difference between dyads and all other numerical combinations of human relationships. With each member added to a group there ensues a geometrical progression of potential interrelationships: with three there are nine, with four, twenty-four, etc. The really BIG move, however, is from a two-person relationship to three or more. Where there are only two persons in a relationship there exists only one symmetrical mutual relationship.

This boundedness as a unit is why dyads gain their strength and intensity as psychological bonds. There is no third party to break open or diffuse the one-to-one focus and mutual dyadic interaction. Two persons can become united as one in a way that is impossible for three or four persons. Attentional focus in a dyad cannot so easily be distracted from the other, nor in a dyad can two or more persons gang up on one party.

The symmetry of a monogamous dyad works toward the equality of those in the relationship because there must be constant give and take in a bounded unit, particularly if it continues over time. This is why feminists for the most part have advocated monogamy; women in this kind of marital unit have more of a chance to achieve parity when they do not have to compete with other wives, concubines, or lovers.

Of course some women within polygamous societies will defend their familiar system. My Nigerian student claimed that one of the advantages of polygamy was that your husband was more apt to leave you alone, and so be less of a bother! …

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