If you’ve seen Rosie Wilby on stage, or come across some of her recent articles, you may be aware of her exploration of monogamy and non-monogamy in relationships. This complex issue is the focus of her new book: Is Monogamy Dead? A provocative title in itself, as a book that is part memoir and part research, it succeeds in its aims to both entertain and critique traditional relationship models. As a stand-up comic, Wilby has appeared at many festivals from Glastonbury to Edinburgh, and there are many stories in the book that have me laughing out loud. Yet, as with the best comedic work, it succeeds in not only being humorous but is also delivered with real poignancy.
It is difficult to read such a book without reflecting on your own relationship history and assumptions about relationships. There’s a helpful glossary of terms in the penultimate chapter, that now allows me to describe my current situation: I’m in the middle of a Decompression Year from a six-year (long distance) relationship. This means that we are not completely cutting off contact and all possibilities of a future together. Although the term “icing” is shown as a negative here, as a means of avoiding ending a relationship by going ‘cold’, it could be seen as a post-romantic mutual icing, where no decision has been made post-breakup as to whether there is a future together or not.
As someone who is only interested in a monogamous relationship, this is the closest I’ve been to a poly relationship – this person is still in my life, but I want time for us both to explore other avenues, to see what we really want. For me, this is a necessary step, and much better than rushing back into the relationship because of the emotional attachment. When you’ve been with someone for six years in such a turbulent relationship, it can be hard to know what is best.
In the past, I have witnessed some of my hetrosexual female friends go along with poly relationships so not to lose the relationship completely…
Wilby writes that it is this questioning of monogamy that has come out of discussions with younger people. There’s likely to be a generational difficulties in understanding, because a lot of people want to cling on to monogamy. It is, after all, what most of us have been conditioned to think what a relationship is defined by. For me, it is not a case of one model being better than another – after all, more people in a relationship can make things more complicated in terms of numbers alone, but as Wilby states: ‘we can at least accept that relationships are all unique’.
In the past, I have witnessed some of my hetrosexual female friends go along with poly relationships so not to lose the relationship completely, and seen the damaging effect this has had. This idea of wanting to be the “cool girl” has, arguably, permeated into same-sex relationships, as illustrated with Jen, Wilby’s long term primary partner in the book. It seems clear that Jen wants monogamy, but goes along with Wilby’s polyamorous exploration.
Later, when the dust has settled between them, there is the realisation between both Rosie and Jen that what they did, and what it’s fair to say most people do, is assume monogamy. Communicating these ideas is something relatively new, and whilst I’m more inclined to want a mutually monogamous relationship (and unable to forgo my jealousy), non-monogamy often gets judged negatively by others who pit opposing relationship models against one another. This is perhaps why some non-monogamous couples can come across a bit self-righteous. Realistically, both models can be equally as flawed, and as always, communication is key.
Finding a new lover was like ordering a pizza. Human connection was as throwaway as fast food
The book is divided into three parts, with easily digestible chapters in each section. Wilby keeps us engaged by working backwards through the significant romantic relationships in her life. The benefit of having Wilby as its author – someone nearer the lesbian side of the sexuality spectrum – means that we don’t just get a heteronormative view. Wilby critiques the narrow representations of relationships from the onset, learning from TV that: ‘Men were rats. Women were stoically beautiful and honest.’ She addresses those relationships that can go from hot to cold, and how women can hurt you just as much as men. When moving on from break-ups, she also critiques the current state of ‘romance’ in the western world, with the notion that ‘Finding a new lover was like ordering a pizza. Human connection was as throwaway as fast food’. As internet dating has become more socially acceptable over recent years, it only takes a few swipes of the phone to feel the realness of this statement.
Through this analytical perspective on her relationships, Wilby gets us to question the assumptions we make when going into relationships, thinking about what honesty really means, and being up front about common mistakes such as living in a ‘fantasy world’ in which no partner can meet the high expectations you set. She questions the idea of having ‘gap years’ in relationships, yet I wonder whether this would be necessary in a stable and secure relationship, whereby each individual is their own person and lives their life independently. Whether you’ve got used to the single life, or been in a long distance relationship, it can be difficult to give up the freedom of true independence in exchange for a life of constant compromise and bad habits.
What was really shocking was how common cheating was shown to be in supposedly monogamous relationships. This bolsters the argument that, with honest communication, poly relationships have the potential to cause a lot less hurt as both parties are on the same page. That said, you have to question why there is often a ‘one-penis policy’ whereby women in relationships with men are only able to be with other women, and there is no ‘one-vagina policy’.
My take-away from the book was about the importance of communication in relationships – rather than basing your relationship on a set of assumptions. But the book covers so much territory that any reader is sure to find something of value, while simultaneously being entertained.
Is Monogamy Dead? By Rosie Wilby is available from Accent Press.
Featured image from Pixabay
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