A Prison Cell Built for Two: Romance, Monogamy and Violence

perfectheteronormativityI know I could write pretty much what I want about patriarchy and heteronormativity. I’d have to get pretty radical before progressive people got upset. And yet to criticise monogamy? People who love attacking heteronormativity with me stop when I start on mononormativity. “Well, that’s okay isn’t it?” Aren’t romance and monogamy synonymous? Isn’t it how our society works best? Then – hold on, are you criticising my relationship? This tells me I’m getting something right.

Laura Kipnis points out that monogamy is “secured through routine interrogations (“Who was that on the phone, dear?”), surveillance, (“Do you think I didn’t notice how much time you spent talking to X at the reception?”), or impromptu search and seizure. We are taught that this is necessary, romantic, even natural. That each partner should be naturally jealous and overbearing of the other’s movements, words and thoughts. Why can’t we see this for what it is, controlling and often downright abusive?

rule206By falling for the trap that jealousy and efforts at control are “natural” (does that mean biologically determined?) we fail to see what’s really at stake. No, it’s not your relationship. It’s the social order. Again, thank you, Kipnis: “adultery puts things at risk: from the organisation of daily life to the very moral fabric of the nation.” This is why “cheaters” get called “immature,” “selfish,” “irresponsible.” It’s the language of what Kipnis calls “bad citizenship.”

When you start to see how institutionalised heterosexuality is built into the social order, you see the point of monogamy. These little units, neat little heterosexual couples, neat little nuclear families in their neat little houses, are the building blocks of capitalist society.

nuclearBut wait! How can something so beautiful as romance and love and commitment be subject to social forces? It’s destiny, it’s a force of nature.

Just look at the workplace vocabulary we use to describe monogamous relationships. There’s the oldest line in the book: “Marriage takes work.” We are asked to “show commitment,” or we may get criticised for “being scared of commitment.” We are advised to “compromise,” “negotiate,” “put in more time,” “be more accommodating.” If necessary, we should question whether the relationship is “worth saving” and if we shouldn’t just “cut our losses.”


Isn’t this just a little scary? The language of business moves into intimacy. And yet, it’s not at all surprising if we see how heterosexual monogamy is always institutionalised, not the result of a “natural drive” but fundamental to the social order.

And yet apparently resistance is futile. Everywhere you turn there are heterosexual monogamous couples! Turn on the TV, there they are. Attend a family gathering, there they are. Walk into a café – still there! There would be no problem if there weren’t so many. It’s the overwhelming discursive power of heterosexual monogamy that is so damaging. You see a forty year old unmarried woman – first question: “Why isn’t she married?” You overhear the word “polyamory” and blush, or shake your head at the immaturity or downright immorality. A handsome young man always shows up to parties without a woman in his shadow – what’s going on? Must be gay.

couplesThe discourse of romance as meaning heterosexual monogamy is suffocating. Even more so, it includes the notion that all people should aim for it. My one life’s goal is apparently to meet a man, date, marry, buy house, reproduce, raise offspring, die.

Not a bad life script, but why the only acceptable one? Why the only one that is “built into my DNA”?

Okay, this is all well and good, but what’s truly wrong with this discourse? Why can’t we find a “partner” of the “opposite sex,” “settle down” and never “stray”? Apologies for the scare quotes, but seriously. Maybe you don’t mind supporting the status quo, maybe you don’t even mind the capitalist system, enjoy your relationship being legitimated by the state? Well, there are a whole lot more problems with our ideas of romance than we ever hear at the cinema.

disneyheteroThe ultimate problem with heterosexual monogamy is the way it enshrines a hierarchy of relationships. One’s most important bond is with one’s romantic partner. Yeah, you might have friends, but it’s cool to ignore them if you find yourself in a relationship. Obviously you’ll take your partner to that social function, I mean who else is there? Couples refer to themselves as “we.” Other people refer to couples as “John and Jane” or whatever. They merge.

Becky Rosa’s work on anti-monogamy is some of the best I’ve ever read. She criticises monogamy for promoting an “ideology that as adults we should primarily bond with one person, meeting most of our needs from them.” We not only see this in the proliferation of songs, movies, books obsessed with finding a “life partner” but in the social and economic status and incentives given to married or de facto couples. This is why conservative politicians (and unfortunately most of the population) want to promote the couple, the nuclear family. It’s the most orderly way of sorting people.

Mononormativity is the pervasive normalisation of monogamous romantic relationships as the most desirable, “natural” form of relating. Once you realise its presence you feel suffocated. Double beds. Armrests at the cinema that lift up between two seats and are locked down on either side. Two’s company, three’s a crowd. The third wheel. The odd person out. A lover being our “other half.” Which is based on Plato’s myth of humans originally being connected balls, then split in two, so we search always for our “wholeness.” Why is two such a magic number?

platomythThis hierarchy is ultimately patriarchal. Women in a heterosexual monogamous relationship have greater status and opportunities than women who aren’t. They are seen as normal. They are successful. In this stasis – the status quo of heterosexual monogamy – compulsory heterosexuality is affirmed and women’s highest priority is their husband and children. Dangerous, potentially radical ways of relating, such as women’s friendships, are diminished.

Isn’t it time to deprioritise this privileging of sexual relations as comprising our most meaningful relationships? Why do we equate our most important emotional relationships with monogamy? Why have we closed off all our other options? Why are friends less important than lovers? Why is the sexual cordoned off, welcomed only in monogamous relationships? Rosa puts it best: “For monogamy to exist, there needs to be a division between sexual/romantic love and nonsexual love…We believe that there is a distinction between the romantic/sexual love people feel for their partners, the love people feel for their friends and the love we feel for our biological families, yet this is not quantified nor qualified.” How come it’s unacceptable to love two people romantically, yet we would never dream that a mother or a father couldn’t love all of their children. The fact is, monogamy suits patriarchy.

friendshipThis belief sets up a hierarchy of relationships with monogamous partner at the top. The relative neglect of other relationships results in a poverty of intimacy. As Rosa puts it, this “is maintained by ensuring that certain needs can only be met within a certain kind of relationship, the couple” and “it is also very difficult for people not in couple relationships to get the love and caring they want if other people are absorbed in their pair-bond.” Friendship is always less important than romantic relationships. We are obsessed with the “story” of how a couple met each other, but do you ever ask where your friend met her friend? In meeting with a friend we ask, “How is John?” (her partner), but not “How is Marie?” (her friend). We gossip if someone is going out on a date, but not if he is going out with a friend. We gossip that a relationship is on the rocks. Couldn’t care less about the intimacy between siblings. Someone bails on a night out with friends to go on a date? All good. And of course, as Jackson and Scott point out, there’s the eternal problem of “the assumption that we have a pre-ordained right to impose a lover on our friends and that they are automatically included in any social invitation.” Our lives are impoverished by investment in a single “love” relationship.

impoverishedThis poverty is central to patriarchy. With women and men dependent on each other, heteronormativity is maintained and women are separated from each other. Monogamy is also deeply conservative: it keeps couples focused inside – on domesticity, on the house, the car, the kids – rather than seeking radical social change. This is the idea of “settling down,” which apparently everyone learns to yearn for as they “mature.”

Let’s turn to Kipnis again for a dispassionate summing-up: “the authorised forms of desire are those pollinated in the hothouse of the nuclear family, forever in lockstep with its oedipal technologies.”

Just as problematic is the treatment of people as objects. The language of capitalism is inherent to romance. We talk of people as an “item,” call partners “mine” or “my man,” we say “I’m all yours,” “I want you,” “I gotta have you,” “I’ll kill any man who takes you from me,” “You belong to me,” “The girl gets the boy,” “I’m not available.” Why do we speak like this about the person we apparently care for most in the world? We do we feel the need to have exclusive ownership of somebody? While many are leaving behind the abusive capitalistic features of marriage or de facto relationships, such as joint bank accounts, joint ownership of property and women taking men’s surnames (though seriously in 2014 the number of women still doing this is startling), mononormativity thrives on ownership.

jealousySince reading some theorists on intimacy, I am constantly shocked by what I hear in songs and see on TV. Things that are so clearly violent and abusive are represented as “romantic.”

Women and men alike want to know where their partners are at all times. Men can’t talk to women their girlfriends don’t like. Women can’t go out with a man they find attractive. Why didn’t she answer the call? Why doesn’t he say the right thing in this circumstance? Kipnis lists a huge range of interdictions that most people would consider perfectly reasonable when taken one by one: “You can’t spend more than X amount of time talking to such persons, with X measured in nanoseconds. You can’t provoke the mate’s jealousy. You can’t talk to people who make the mate feel insecure or threatened. You can’t socialise with your exes, even if you swear it’s really over. You can’t transgress the standards or degree of honesty or bluntness that the other person feels is appropriate in social situations.” After a few pages of this, the panopticon of coupledom seems hideous, nothing appealing about it.

panopticonIt’s apparently romantic to lust after someone, even badger or chase them, though they don’t offer any encouragement. A marriage or relationship is a failure if it ends in divorce. Inevitable human change is not permitted. To be locked inside the same rules and the same priorities with the same person – to the exclusion of all others – is apparently our hearts’ desire. Why don’t we recognise that this benefits social order, and not necessarily us? We have been sucked in to the vortex of the romance myth.

How about the lovely song “I Will Possess Your Heart” by Death Cab for Cutie?

Or the Beatles, “Run for Your Life”?

“You’d better run for your life, little girl

Hide your head in the sand, little girl

Catch you with another man

That’s the end, little girl.”


Misogynistic, obviously, but the panopticon of monogamy is practiced on both sides, being a keystone of heterosexuality.

Aretha Franklin sings in “Until You Come Back to Me (That’s What I’m Gonna Do)”:

“I guess I’ll rap on your door

Tap on your window pane

I wanna tell you, baby

Changes I’ve been going through

Missing you, listening you

Til you come back to me that’s what I’m gonna do.”

And how can we leave out the woman who proclaimed she finds feminism “boring,” Lana Del Rey? “He hit me and it felt like a kiss.” Of course, she is referencing The Crystals’ 1960s hit, and forty years on our ideas of romance are just as entwined with abuse and control, so maybe a few more of us should try to figure out what this feminism thing is all about.

ultraviolenceThen we have the supposed latest feminist icon, Beyoncé, singing that the only way some man can have a say in her activities is if he claims exclusive ownership: “If you liked it then you should have put a ring on it.

And lastly (though the examples go on forever), Selena Gomez declaring in a song I can only gather is directed towards pre-teens: “When you’re ready come and get it…I’ll be sittin’ right here, real patient” and to top it off “Even if you knock it, ain’t no way to stop it.

selenagomezIn these last two songs, we have the well-worn delusion that women are after “secure” monogamy, the gatekeepers of romance, always passive, and men have to give up their “natural” desire to be wayward. These women objectify themselves. Call it the oldest trick in the book of the patriarchy.

These lovely pop songs normalise abuse for the sake of monogamy. In our definition of romance, violence is never far away. It’s pop culture like this that is the reason we still have horrendous rates of violence against women. In Australia, a woman a week is killed by an intimate partner. This in a society in which women apparently participate at a level equal to men. But it’s the more insidious ideas we still have about women, men and heterosexual relationships that cause this violence. Which is why we need to look at what makes us uncomfortable: the fact that control and interdictions which are thought of as “just part of monogamy” would be better classified as abuse.

domesticviolenceThe idea that monogamy provides security is hugely troubling. Apparently women need to be in a monogamous relationship, and desire marriage, because they need to feel “secure.” Why? Are men constantly thinking about relationships with other women? Is the only thing making you feel safe the fact that you are in a relationship with rules? The fact that your partner is forbidden to leave you? The fact that the state has recognised your relationship as legitimate? Jealousy is considered a natural emotion, because we don’t want to consider the possibility that it’s actually the control at the heart of monogamy that is the problem.

In fact, romantic monogamous relationships capitalise on insecurity. They can only thrive on jealousy, anxiety and self-absorption. Simone de Beauvoir tells us that women utterly abdicate their sense of identity in romantic relationships, because “A woman is non-existent without a master.” A man is the essential, and her only chance at true life is through him. Patriarchal heteronormativity has told women that this is their only means of achievement. And who makes up the biggest market for romance novels, romantic comedies, magazines to improve marriage? Yeah.

weddingAnd yet society tells us that the only way to be a mature, fully-realised person is to be engaged in a romantic monogamous relationship! Preferably heterosexual and state-sanctioned through marriage, but as a last resort same-sex monogamy will do.

This tells us romance is not the prime expression of human compassion. It is ultimately about the self. While men are less defined by their relationships and their children, they are also sucked in to this grand, totalising myth. We are told that the best way to discover ourselves is in falling in love. Oh, so it’s about us, not them? Or we are supposed to “lose ourselves in them.” In which case it is still about us. And to maintain romance, we must set up rules, interdictions, lines you cannot cross. This is because in the end it is about social order. Beauvoir tells it like it is: “Love has a smaller place in woman’s life than has often been supposed. Husband, children, home, amusements, social duties, vanity, sexuality, career, are much more important. Most women dream of a grand amour, a soul-searing love.” This is the fiction. The fact is institutionalised monogamy. Isn’t the search for our “other half” or true “wholeness” essentially selfish? It stops us from seeing the other person as they are, as we are able to see friends and relatives, without reference to ourselves, but as a whole person in themselves. As Beauvoir says, the “dream…to attain supreme existence through losing oneself in the other” is not selfless, but self-obsessed. In refusing to allow the other person freedom, in establishing so many rules about their movements, speech, glances and smiles, we are not showing care. We are creating our own insecurity. Monogamy doesn’t solve the problem of jealousy, it creates it. If you didn’t need to control your partner, you wouldn’t mind how intimate they were with another person.

So the hook is romance, but the end goal is domesticity. The end goal is institutionalised couples who lock themselves out of all the other complex network of relationships that are a whole lot more radical. Because we are told that this is the only way to stop the everlasting insecurity inside of us.


14 thoughts on “A Prison Cell Built for Two: Romance, Monogamy and Violence

  1. katherineasher

    This is extremely insightful. As jessericeevans says, you are bound to piss some people off, & I view that as an excellent thing. After all, if you’re pissing them off, you’re making them think.

  2. mathewrabbit

    This was a great read. Granted, many will come at this with the idea that (as you’ve addressed) there’s something to be said of their relationship if it is oppressive to seek and depend upon their S.O…. The issue is realizing that Yes, it is in fact oppressive, and we have allowed things to get this way. This is not to say that heterosexuality is wrong, or even that monogamy is wrong. But the “justified” jealousy of modern monogamy is. Worse, said jealousy often promotes relationship destroying behavior and people don’t notice it very often. The idea of a “grand amour” like you said, should not be to lose ourselves or grow blind, but rather to have gained appreciation and respect for an individual, as well as the genuine Want for that person alone. The binding of a monogamous relationship often constricts that idea so that people feel obliged instead of liberated, and our music, film, literature and at times even visual art sell us that concept.

    I agreed with a lot of what was written. I wonder, are you opposed to the concept of fantastic romances outright for their abusive and constricting nature alone? Does the socially-expected nature of a monogamous relationship hinging on people being exclusive to one another remove the potential for long term happiness in that setting? Or would you agree that “love” is supposed to be hard to attain (not necessarily maintain afterwards) and that a mutually exclusive monogamous relationship is possible if not for the constant pressure to attain it (love)? I feel that with the acceptance that “true love” is an incredible feat and that it should be difficult to find, as well as containing within itself a genuine respect and appreciation for the two individuals, not a dependency by any means, but rather a uniting of minds on the happiness of time shared (AND time apart), it’s entirely possible. It’s difficulty then lies in a general intelligence of social exchanges and relationships as a whole (not simply of the romantic kind) in order for people to understand how we must develop through all our loved ones, and not simply through a single loved one. That is what you meant right?

    1. Elisabeth Murray Post author

      Thank you for your thoughts! Your questions get at the heart of how romance and monogamy is socially constructed. This doesn’t mean “fantastic romances” are inherently wrong (what does that even mean?) or that monogamy can’t lead to real happiness. I guess the point is that what we consider “grand amour” is only a result of historical and cultural forces. Which have always been patriarchal and heteronormative. Our pure desire for monogamy is only socially constructed. That doesn’t mean it’s not real, or that it won’t make us happy, but we ignore its problems because we idealise it as “natural.” The idea that “true love” is always romantic and monogamous is seriously problematic. I guess what I’m saying is there’s no pre-existing force called “true love” – it, and our desire for it – is only socially constructed. And yes, that takes away from SO MUCH of our lives, especially in terms of relationships with all people.

  3. mathewrabbit

    Your reply was just as good as the original post. This is profound, and if more people could openly discussed inherited thinking this way we would be on our way to a better society that understands and rationalizes instead of our constant mistake of “always been”, “supposed to be”, etc. With your replies added into the body text, this reminds me of Foucault (stylistically) and I think it’s wonderful someone has been able to use his critical and factual approach on more modern issues.

    Tldr; you rock.

    1. Elisabeth Murray Post author

      Yes, Foucault is pretty much my basis for everything. Even though he never uses examples in his own work, which can sometimes be frustrating, I find his ideas are still dazzlingly applicable to modern issues. Again thanks so much for reading so closely and letting me know your thoughts. I could discuss this stuff all day! And you rock too.

  4. Kevin

    Excellent article. Literally everything I’ve ever tried to say about the effects of standardized monogamy and more, only much more organized, articulate, and impactful. Seriously, great job!

  5. Roxanne

    My husband and I keep an open marriage and the only thing it has done is reminded me that other men are not as great or interesting as the man I married. I’m honestly thinking of giving it up because it’s useless. So there’s that.

  6. Greg Thomas

    Many things you write here have given me plenty to think about, most of them I agree with but there are couple of things I have to comment on as a decades long monogamist who, probably naively, believes that he didn’t come to monogamy due to conditioning.

    “Laura Kipnis points out that monogamy is “secured through routine interrogations (“Who was that on the phone, dear?”), surveillance, (“Do you think I didn’t notice how much time you spent talking to X at the reception?”)…”

    Yes, it is controlling and abusive, that’s why none of my mature friends nor I do this. Insecurity and jealousy have no place in monogamy and from what I understand it’s no different with polyamory. So I can’t consider this drawback to monogamy since it affects all relationships, even simple friendships.

    “Friendship is always less important than romantic relationships. We are obsessed with the ‘story’ of how a couple met each other, but do you ever ask where your friend met her friend? In meeting with a friend we ask, ‘How is John?’ (her partner), but not ‘How is Marie?’ (her friend).”

    I, and my friends, ask about friends and family just as often as we ask about romantic partners. In fact, many times the siblings and parents of my friends are far more interesting than their romantic partners so I never ask about their partners. Also, I’ve learned over the years that how my friends have met their romantic partners is usually pretty boring and mundane, while how they’ve met their circle of friends is quite often amusing and exciting. This is even more relevant in the current age of internet dating.

    “We gossip if someone is going out on a date, but not if he is going out with a friend. We gossip that a relationship is on the rocks… ‘…we have a pre-ordained right to impose a lover on our friends and that they are automatically included in any social invitation.'”

    Again, if my circle of friends is going to gossip, it’s going to be about friendships rather than romances. Perhaps it’s the sub-culture I belong to (kind of hippie dirty punk artists and musicians) but people here don’t seem to differentiate between between friends and lovers whether they’re monogamists or polyamorists. Also, I fail to see how polyamory or friendship resolves any of the issues in this paragraph. What’s the difference between imposing one lover, multiple lovers, or a best friend on other friends?

    “The end goal is institutionalised couples who lock themselves out of all the other complex network of relationships that are a whole lot more radical.”

    Year by year I’m simplifying my life. I have no desire at this point to embrace complexity, and I’m not even sure I had the desire when I was younger. Also, at this point, I have a huge circle of friends who I love dearly but there is no way I can support each of these relationships at the same level.

    “And yes, that takes away from SO MUCH of our lives, especially in terms of relationships with all people.”

    Or maybe I’m missing your point? Do you see a place for monogamous romantic relationships as long as there are no restrictions on type and depth of other relationships?

    Thanks for following me on Instagram, otherwise I doubt I would have ever run across your well written and thought provoking blog.

    1. Elisabeth Murray Post author

      Thanks for your comment Greg! I think the main issue here is the difference between individual circumstances and the broader power structure. I don’t argue against monogamy, I argue against mononormativity. But it’s important to consider how what we take to be personal choices are actually shaped by a discourse that privileges, normalises and even naturalises monogamy. You in particular may believe that insecurity and jealousy don’t play a part in your relationship, or that your circle is more interested in friendships than romantic relationships. But in a society where monogamy is the goal standard, the ideal, a compulsory institution, many many people have different experiences which they never question. Why are we so invested in monogamy? For me, it is inherently possessive, and this may be appealing to some, but its centrality to a heteropatriarchal capitalist society is worrying. I have no interest in attacking people’s personal circumstances. Just the overwhelming smothering discourse that tells us monogamous romance is the most fulfilling style of relationality – in movies, books, music, family gatherings, government policy, etc.
      In terms of simplifying your life, that doesn’t necessarily mean an abandonment of people besides a partner. The problem with a “pairing off” situation in society is that those who are not in couples do not get their needs met, and those in couples feel an obligation to get all their needs met from a single partner. Rather than simplifying one’s life, this makes it more stressful. A more equal dependence is probably healthier.
      So of course there is a place for monogamous romantic relationships in a non-patriarchal society. But that shouldn’t mean a hegemonic place. And remember most people don’t even question monogamy! It is seen as “natural” and “best for society.” So thank you for engaging in debate.

      1. Greg Thomas

        Thank you for the kind reply, and I’ll echo mathewrabbit’s “Your reply was just as good as the original post.” I’m understanding your position against hetero and mononormativity much better now (still working on the patriarchy and capitalism connections but I’m pretty close with those, too).

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