After acts of infidelity, the fingers of blame point to everything other than monogamy: one of the only social contracts that seems to remain untouchable. Brigitte Vasallo encourages us to question this pact that, she argues, reproduces the logic of capital in the way we love one another.
Scene 1: Polyamory vs knife.
YouTube. Against a green background, PJ Harvey and Nick Cave. White shirts, dark looks and a video crying out for sex: “Get down, Henry Lee, and spend the night with me” she sings, eating his lips. PJ Harvey and Nick Cave in a night of sweat, saliva and gasps, can you imagine it?… Don’t imagine it, as while they exchange signs and caresses, Cave resists: allegedly his “true” love awaits him at home. The story, being of the great PJ Harvey, ends badly: the male protagonist is stabbed, the lovers are deranged and we, the audience, are frustrated. End of the song. The curtain falls.
Scene 2: Polyamory vs poison.
“Where are we going, sir?” asks the chauffeur.
“Take us wherever you think best!” answers León, while he pushes Emma into the car.”
And this phrase and that car give way to the most erotically charged three pages of the literary canon. A carriage that roams Paris: climbing, descending, bouncing, braking, turning, finding the pulse and calming again; demarcating the rhythm of an absolutely sexual, street-dwelling reading, containing the passion of León and Emma. The eternal Madame Bovary and her lover.
This story also ends badly: adulterous and perpetually unhappy, Emma perishes after ingesting a dose of poison. Her husband, the good man Charles, will die shortly after. Total drama. The curtain falls.
Scene 3: Polyamory vs fire.
In New Delhi, in a family consumed by legal but perverse relationships, a luminescent love story emerges between two women: Rahda and Sita. Fire, by Deepa Mehta, has all the elements of a good drama: homosexuality, jealousy, envy, impossible loves on various sides, fire and pain. The end? Also tremendous. What could have been a charming family network of loves is reduced to a series of unravelling disgraces. Weeping and applause. The curtain falls.
The wonders of exclusive love and its enemy – real or imagined, sexual or emotional, physical or cybernetic infidelity – are the preferred themes of all our deliria, throughout very different eras, contexts and forms. To love, to suffer and to lie seem an inseparable part of reality too. Eternal love is the paradise and its great enemy is infidelity, hence cheating demands a search for a culprit. Who is to blame?
The blame can fall to the unfaithful person, immediately transformed into a bitch/bastard that deserves punishment (death or the living death that is isolation and rejection). Or to the person cheated upon who wasn’t able to give their partner “what they need” and deserves to be abandoned; or, even better, the third person that has “come between them”, an especially comfortable option: the part that hurts the least takes the hit and the couple carries on as normal with hardly a second thought. In other words, everyone is to blame for the pain other than monogamy itself. The finger never points at the system itself, which stays at the fringe of the debate, free of doubt.
Monogamy is the only social pact, together with patriotism (the other great form of monogamy) that is untouchable, unquestionable. We no longer believe in god, capital, or patriarchy – not even on the 10 o’clock news. We have done away with the obligation of virginity, obligatory marriage and obligatory heterosexuality. We have stuffed our mouths full of liberties, indignation and assemblies; we have created projects for new worlds, with new social, neighbourly and cultural relations; but when we come home at the end of the day we take refuge in the same schema we have always known. It’s one thing is to be liberal; it’s another thing entirely to be unfaithful. To shout against the system is all very well, but to put your own emotional systems, your relationships, on the frontline… that’s a real pain in the arse.
But love, that word…
Why is it so hard to question monogamy? We no longer worry about marriage, overcome by everyone other than right-wingers, gays and hipsters (what curious cross-cultural coincidences). But the closed couple, looking eternally into each other’s eyes oblivious to the whole world, the unquestionable unit of happiness that is the couple, has an enviable theoretical resilience. Theoretical because, in practice, any monogamous couple that lasts any length of time has to face up to the model’s great dilemmas, ranging from falling in love with a neighbour to hooking up with a friend on a night out to discovering a sexual interest in the opposite sex (opposite to that of your partner).
Perhaps the greatest hurdle for this debate is the acceptance of monogamy as a natural system necessarily linked to love as if they were synonyms. To criticise monogamy is to question love, put it into doubt. Question love?!
But what in the world is love? Love is, for example, Cortázar’s Horacio and La Maga going all over Paris, falling in and out of love through the 155 marvellous chapters that comprise Hopscotch:
“Subtotal: I adore you. Sum total: I love you. That’s how many of my friends live, leaving aside an uncle and two cousins, convinced of the love-they-feel-for-their-wives. What a lot of people call love consists of choosing a women and getting married to her. They choose her, I swear to you, I’ve seen them. As if in love you could choose, as if it weren’t a lightning bolt that splits your bones and leaves you nailed down to the middle of the playground. You’ll say that they choose her because-they-love-her, I think it’s the opposite. Beatriz can’t be chosen, Juliet can’t be chosen. You don’t choose the rain that’s going to soak you to the bone when you leave a concert.”
The upset stomach, the weak smile, the dazed expression, the constant happiness, it turns you into a fool. Love fallen from the sky, the lightning bolt that strikes you. The love that can do it all, that soaks you to the bone, that doesn’t understand social class or social norms, nor borders. That has no logic nor has need of any. The love that lifts you several feet off the ground, that makes you better, more cheerful, stronger, more generous. Happier. This exists, of course – we have felt it. We have lived it. It is real.
What perhaps isn’t so real, nor so spontaneous, nor so beneficial, is the costume in which we immediately dress this love, which we feel and believe forms part of love itself. Durability and exclusivity are two of its adjectives: for it to be love, Juliet and Romeo, should be sole, eternal lovers. These unshakable, doubtless guarantees feel sublime in this vulgar, fleeting world.
This great love, (also called romantic love), l’amour, is a liberatory image but one suspiciously repetitive, strangely common. Infatuation and its materialization, ‘everlasting love’, seems to us the peak of human emotional evolution, especially compared with the unions of convenience of past centuries or distant latitudes, or compared with traditional marriages tied by a mortgage, kids and customs, passionless and bad-humoured. Romantic love offers a completely different, apparently liberatory, emotional framework. The researcher Coral Herrera Gómez explains it like this:
“Romantic love satisfies these desires in the same way as drugs, partying or extreme sports and what’s more it has the feeling of being sacred: totality, definitive union, complete pleasure, eternity (the fundamental premise of all true love). One of the most important fictions that idealised love projects is that of the end of that painful feeling of isolation that has accompanied all of us human beings since the fall of the great social constructions – religion, social class, whichever of the institutions in which previously we could feel a sense of belonging to a community or group united religiously, economically or politically. It is in this sense that symbolic representations, with myths like the “other half” (which has platonic resonance), advertise the end of the perpetual loneliness to which we are condemned.”
To question l’amour, to attempt to imagine models that deconstruct the obligation to monogamy so as to convert it into a personal choice among many possible choices, is not to question love. In fact it is the opposite, it is to attempt to understand Love, with a capital L, beyond its constructs, love in lower case. It is to keep on love’s side, beyond the happy endings and the happily-ever-afters.
Hate that I love you.
The greatest threat to obligatory monogamy and all of its imagery is life itself. A stupid life that refuses to die despite love, that insists on crossing our paths with fascinating, sensual, fun and bitterly tempting people. A life that, despite all the fairy tales and all the love songs, doesn’t rule out desire on love’s request. How can we once and for all seal the door of this magnificent, flexible, Marx Brothers room that is our heart and head? If we want to be honest and true to our pacts of monogamy it seems there is only one route: resignation, repression, self-control and faithfulness understood as exclusivity.
The emotional epicentre of faithfulness comes defined by the concept itself: in the monogamous system of thought we can hardly be in love with two people at once, because we don’t even know how to construct such an image. We love many people at once, but we only dare to give one a romantic connotation. The sexual epicentre of the question is also taken as a principle beyond doubt but it contains important challenges.
To have lifelong sexual relationships (eternal love) with the same one person isn’t always as satisfying as they make out in the movies. For a start, over the years people evolve sexually and, no matter how much you love your partner, that won’t always be in the same direction. Secondly, it is hard for one person to satisfy all sexual fantasies without the risk of becoming purely a sexual object. And lastly there is something that a long-term partner, by definition, cannot offer: novelty. And novelty, sexually speaking, can be very attractive. There is, therefore, a practical question of needs, desires, and fantasies in managing faithfulness.
There is also a moral question that appears beneath it all: if our amour were to ask us to not talk to others for life, it would seem abhorrent: it would set off all the alarms of abuse. But when we think of love as an exclusive feeling, we think of sex more as a vice than as an essential part of our being; a necessary, constituent part of life. This is why it is so hard to demand and defend sexual diversification, especially for women, even in front of our fellow women.
In a society lacking in language and learnedness, we sexually-active women have the privilege of many synonyms: bitches, whores, skanks. For the clever ones in the class we are ‘nymphomaniacs’, the liberals’ term that pathologises our sexuality. We seldom hear talk of satyriasis, its masculine equivalent. It remains easier and more serious to say “I’m thirsty” than “I want to fuck”. But these cries are equally vital and equally necessary.
If that wasn’t enough, there is also a political question implicit in this sexual and emotional faithfulness understood as an obligatory component of the happy duo: the ownership of our bodies and of our internal pleasure among the quagmire of emotional capitalism.
“You’re mine”, “I’m yours”, “I’ve given you everything”, “my life belongs to you”, “you stole my heart”, “I’m going to make her mine”. “You’ll pay for it”.
The love triangle formed by monogamy, fidelity and romantic love is defined using the language of capital. And as we know, words are not innocent. If our romantic goal is to find our other half, once our two halves become a whole the other person belongs to us. Or, at the very least, they belong to this perfect whole we form as a pair. As private property, for our “other half” to have sexual or emotional relations with others is for something that belongs to us to be taken away, diminishing part of our own being. Sharing love is, without doubt, hell. But the reality is that love cannot be shared. It isn’t like renting a room in your house to someone, or lending clothes to your siblings, or car sharing to split the petrol costs. Love, with a capital L, is not a scarce resource but an organ that grows when you exercise it, a living being that responds to nurture. Love should be renewable energy, that ideal state that doesn’t subtract but adds up. That rather than diminishing you, lifts your strength and makes you mighty.
This is how Maite Larrauri explains it in her book Desire according to Deleuze:
“We’re going to borrow an idea from Nietzsche and define vitalists as those people who love life not because they are accustomed to living, but because they are accustomed to love. To be accustomed to living means that life is something known; that its appearances, gestures, and patterns of events repeat themselves and no longer surprise us. To love life because we are accustomed to living is to love what we have already lived. On the contrary, to love life because we are accustomed to love isn’t to condemn ourselves to a repetitive life. What is repeated is the impulse to connect with ideas, with things and with people; we can’t live without love, without desire, without letting ourselves be carried by the movement of life itself. To love life in this way is to love change, flow, perpetual motion. The vitalist has not tamed life with their habits, because they know that life is much stronger than themselves”
Understood like this, love doesn’t make “halves” into “wholes”… it makes constellations.
The Deleuzian constellation or the metaphor of networked loves.
Now we’re talking! Let’s hear from Deleuze and Guattari:
“In contrast to centered (even polycentric) systems with hierarchical modes of communication and preestablished paths, the rhizome is an acentered, nonhierarchical, nonsignifying system without a General and without an organizing memory or central automaton, defined solely by a circulation of states.”
We could take this idea as a starting point in understanding amorous, emotional and/or sexual relationships: the couple is not the compulsory beginning and end of love, instead love can take other forms; creating, instead of closed structures, “policules”, “affective nuclei” (as proposed by the artivist Marian Pessah) that nurture one another and share physical and/or emotional spaces. To create rhizomes, constellations connected to one another, with places of connection and transit zones, with decentered nuclei in solidarity with one another. Love, in this image, isn’t like a star: a star on its own is nothing more than a lowly nova. Love – our amorous, emotional, sexual lives – is a whole constellation of stars. It is all the relationships we establish with other people, and it is all the relationships those other people establish with others. A multidirectional, constant system of nurture, of collective care: a network. Or, as the activist David M. would put it, an open source system of loves, like Linux: without ownership, without a pre-established final form; a system in constant transformation thanks to the contributions of the community that comprises it.
Deleuze and Guattari draw a contrast between two examples: the tree (hierarchical structure) versus the rhizome, the potato field: horizontal. In managing our loves, we could contrast emotional capitalism’s block of flats with the horizontal protest camps of networked loves. Just as we occupied the squares we should take our relationships and use them as a starting point for building a new world.
A lovely image, isn’t it?
Well here comes the bad news: our little paradise faces two mortal dangers: jealousy and detachment. And believe or not, the easier of the two to manage is jealousy.
Those of us who propose non-monogamous relationships are often portrayed as people that don’t get jealous. We have the privilege of indifference and therefore we are able to carry out this type of relationship. This isn’t true: in whatever way non-monogamous relationships are proposed, jealousy and its management is always a central theme. Maybe the difference is that non-monogamous discourses do not see jealousy as determining factors in relationships, understanding jealousy as a consequence rather than a cause, a symptom of unattended needs or negligence rather than a disease; and that these feelings can be addressed and assuaged.
According to The Ethical Slut, required reading on the question of non-monogamous loves,
“Listening to someone who is feeling jealous can be difficult, particularly when the jealousy is focused on you. Sometimes when a lover is jealous and in pain, you may find it easier to feel angry and push that person away, rather than staying close, staying in empathy, listening, caring. When you blame this person for being jealous, what you’re really saying is that you can’t stand to listen to how much your beloved hurts when you’re on the way out the door to play with someone else. This seeming indifference is a crummy way to avoid dealing with your own feelings of guilt…
If this sounds familiar to you, if you have experienced times like this in your life, we recommend that you practice the skill of staying quietly with both your own and your lover’s pain. Remember, you don’t have to fix anything: all you have to do is listen, to yourself or another, and understand that this hurts. Period.
The way to unlearn jealousy is to open yourself up to feeling it. By actively choosing to feel something painful like jealousy you reduce the power it has over you. First you decide that you aren’t going to let your jealousy make you run away from it all. You exercise control over that jealousy by asserting: I am going to stand firm. I am going to set the pace for myself and for my emotions.”
The experiences shared in this book seem to agree that the best way to deactivate jealousy is through communication and empathy. To be able to explain to your partners how you feel emotionally and sexually about those around you with fearing judgement or reproach, to be able to share doubts, anxieties and fears and to be able to receive answers that calm your demons until your demons disappear by their own volition. Centuries of education in monogamy can’t be undone by simply deciding not to be monogamous. This decision has millions of repercussions and the power of feeling supported by the people that love you, who may also be going through similar processes, can’t be underestimated. The first few times you break the link between love and monogamy it can feel like an abyss is opening in front of you, but you only need to take the step: with peace, honesty and calmness. You’ll soon discover that the hell of jealousy, in the end, is nothing more than a couple of easily defeated little baby demons.
Jealousy is manageable and beatable. There are books to advise you, tried and test formulas and support groups to help overcome it and live without it. However there is little that can be done to tackle detachment. Non-monogamous relationships can also be a refuge, the perfect excuse for emotional individualism, striking a modern pose to hide an incapacity to commit to life itself: to love many people so that, deep down, you don’t have to love anyone.
Just as possessiveness of others’ bodies and desires forms part of emotional capitalism, so does disconnection from those very same bodies and desires: the common thread between these two phenomena is commodification, the cycle of use and disposal: taking people and bodies as objects of consumption, as replaceable entities.
In the constellation of love, in the rhizome, no element is substitutable and no element is disposable: the relationships and the people change, transform, influence one another and, occasionally, some disappear and new ones appear. But they don’t replace them, they don’t supplant them. The collective Golfxs con principios (‘Principled Scoundrels’) propose four qualities for non-possessive relations that, without being the only relevant qualities, are without doubt essential:
“Be honest, to be sincere with ourselves as well as with the other person. If you’re in a hurry, if you’re reading this line just to move onto the next, you might think: “ok, yes, I’m pretty honest”. But the truth is that it isn’t that simple. It’s not quite so easy to be honest in admitting where we go wrong, where we’re not such good people, to admit to ourselves with sincerity in which moments we don’t respect the other person enough. Nor is it easy for the other person to really know what we think, want, desire…
Understand that we don’t possess the other person, that they aren’t our property. This also seems simple, but the reality is that it is hard to forget the myth of the ‘other half’, and to understand that they are an independent person that can do whatever in the world they like, because they are a whole different person. This isn’t easy.
Respect agreements with the other person. Not only very serious ones, such as whether you will use a condom or not, or whether you will have emotional or only sexual relationships. Agreements about what time you will arrive and about which days you will be with the other person also matter… to respect these promises and not letting them slip at the first sign of change.
Know how to show affection and give emotional support, to help the other person feel ok. To know how to show that we care. To be able to communicate to the other person how important they are for us.”
The paradigm shift of breaking with obligatory monogamy is not the definitive banalization of love; quite the opposite. It is the final dilemma, the pulse at the heart of our political, ideological and social predicaments. But it is one that is less appealing, riskier, and an even bigger pain in the arse.
“To be committed is, at its core, to give up commitment, to give up committing yourself. What this means is breaking the barriers of immunity, renouncing the consumer logic of being able to enter and leave indifferent to the world as if it were a supermarket or website. It means letting yourself be moved, letting yourself be touched, letting yourself be questioned, knowing that you are needed, to see yourself responsible… to enter spaces of life that we can’t aspire to fully control, to implicate ourselves in situations that are beyond us – situations that demand we invent new responses that we may not have and that will definitely not leave us the same afterwards. Every commitment is a forced transformation with results we cannot be sure of.
In this quote by philosopher Marina Garcés lies the key to the paradigm shift. It’s not worth deconstructing if we rebuild it exactly the same, just with another name. New ways of loving each other, of having sex with each other, of being with each other, of relating with each other can’t be built from emotional misery. They must be built from joy and from courage, putting life itself at stake: writing it on banners, showing it to our daughters and sons, defending it out in the open, convinced that each time we open the door to our love so that it might be found by a new lover, we are constructing a new world. Built from the less appealing sphere of the intimacy of our private lives, true, but with longer-lasting, transformational foundations; with our own lives as day-to-day revolution.
First published 22 March 2013 in Pikara magazine.
Translated by Tom Youngman and Sîan Creely, 1 June 2016.
Photo: Wil C. Fry/Flickr
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