The “traditional” values that have shaped our understanding of love, sex, and marriage are losing their hold on our culture. The last half century, in particular, has seen dramatic changes in attitudes about sex and in marital relationships, especially in terms of the division of labor, gender roles, the distribution of social and economic power, and transformations of legal rights and obligations. It’s not surprising that these changes are greeted both with anxiety and with exuberance. They are both celebrated as liberating (by progressives) and bemoaned as undermining the very foundations of our civilization (by conservatives).
There is one ideal, however, to which most conservatives and progressives alike adhere: the ideal of monogamy. In popular culture, the monogamous loving couple is celebrated; the philanderer is demonized. Despite counter-cultural experiments with alternative arrangements (polygamy, polyandry, open relationships, and so on), despite historically unprecedented rates of divorce, despite widespread incidence of infidelity, the dream of a loving, life-long, monogamous relationship still commands widespread respect. And so, our culture remains, if not exactly committed to monogamy, largely “monogamish”.
But what is the ideal? Despite, or perhaps because of, its status as a self-evident good, there is surprisingly little consensus or even rigorous thought about what the ideal amounts to and what it entails. What does it really mean to be monogamous? What does a successful monogamous relationship involve? How should it deal with the inevitable changes that all human relationships undergo – for instance, from the passion of first love to the day to day demands of everyday domestic life? Or, the way children change the dynamic of personal relationships? How ought partners in a monogamous relationship deal with temptations? Can a monogamous relationship preserve passion in a satisfying way? Or does it offer a different kind of satisfaction to compensate for the loss of passion? What about alternatives to monogamy? Are they viable given the strength of the monogamous ideal in our culture?
In this film, we will explore such questions by talking to psychologists, anthropologists, philosophers, artists, and people living within and outside of monogamous relationships.
Of course, the vague contemporary conception of monogamy is itself historically particular and contingent. We will thus also historically situate the contemporary ideal by exploring alternative visions of monogamy in its various manifestations from antiquity, through the development of the ideal of romantic love, the changing structure of the household and family during the industrialization of western society, the development of modern enlightenment ethical and moral codes of conduct, and finally the breakdown of traditional forms of morality during the increasingly technological entrenchment of post-modern consumerist culture. By historically contextualizing our ideals and institutions in this way, we hope to open up a space for decision – a space where viewers can reflect on their own conception of the monogamous ideal, and perhaps take an authentic stand for or against it.