What does a successful modern relationship look like — does it lead to marriage, does it last a lifetime, does it include children, is it completely monogamous? Are there really any other valid options?
Tao Ruspoli, an independent filmmaker, set out to answer those questions four years ago with the new documentary Monogamish. As the child of divorced parents and a divorcé himself, Ruspoli was hoping to tackle the subject of monogamy — specifically why, as the 40% to 50% divorce rate suggests, it seems to fail so often.
He found that it all comes down to our societal belief in one major myth: That monogamy is the correct, normal, sole relationship model that works for everyone and every relationship. But it doesn't need to be.
"We have tendencies in both directions: We want to pair up with people, we want to make commitments to each other and have a sense of safety and security," Ruspoli told Mic. "But we also have other desires to explore, have a sense of mystery in our lives and obviously keep our sexuality alive. So the question is, how do we negotiate all those tensions?"
Blending his personal family history with interviews from luminaries such as sex advice columnist Dan Savage, psychotherapist and best-selling author Esther Perel, and Sex at Dawn author Christopher Ryan, Ruspoli found that this tension is at the root of so many relationship issues.
Many simply don't negotiate the tensions, and instead view monogamy as the only acceptable answer. In a 2014 survey of 18 to 49-year-olds conducted by USA Network, 82% of respondents said they had absolutely no tolerance of cheating, but 81% would cheat if there were no consequences. And despite the fact that most of us disapprove of cheating, plenty of married people (24% of parents and 15% of those without kids, according to the survey) have done it.
About half of the Generation X and Y participants surveyed admitted that monogamy was a "social expectation but not a biological reality."
A historical obsession: So why are we so devoted to keeping up this social expectation? Ruspoli pointed out that the structure of lifelong commitment itself developed outside of emotions and desire, and is instead deeply rooted in the way we arrange societies. Marriage has long been about property and the blending of families to create stability in communities.
That didn't always include monogamy, particularly when society abided by more patriarchal gender roles. "Men had their wives at home that provided the security of the family and they went out and fooled around," Ruspoli told Mic. Once marriage became more love-oriented and egalitarian, particularly in the last 50 years, "rather than give women the same rights that men have always enjoyed, we equalized by imposing [on men] the same restrictions that women had always endured," he said.
Now, the stability of marriage and the commitment of monogamy are blended into one virtuous ideal. "We expect romantic and sexual fulfillment to always come from the same person," Ruspoli explained.
New structures: As a society, we're questioning that ideal now more than ever. Polyamorous, swinging and otherwise open relationships have been around for years, but they're getting more mainstream press now. We've got charts like the one by polyamory and BDSM activist Franklin Veaux that illustrates dozens of relationship options, and we've got experts like Dan Savage, who coined the term "monogamish" — where the film gets its title — for when a couple is monogamous, with a few occasional exceptions.
But as Ruspoli told Mic, "I think the culture as a whole is monogamish in this much more deep way." Defying strict monogamy should no longer be viewed as a bold statement against what's normal, so much as an honest acknowledgment of the inherent tension humans feel.
"There's a lot of industry around making people feel like there's something wrong with them if they're not having passionate sex with each other if they've been together for 10 years," Ruspoli said. "We pathologize that — maybe that's a natural thing that happens and we need to address that."
Starting the conversation: That doesn't have to mean encouraging infidelity or abandoning "traditional" marriage. Rather, said Ruspoli, "We should question monogamy in the service of maintaining that commitment, not as a way of rejecting it."
Monogamish, now in its last day of Kickstarter funding, serves to open the door of questioning the traditional view of what it means to have a successful relationship. That means being more realistic about how modern relationships actually look, with or without monogamy: busy schedules, differing sex drives, the unabated creep of technology and social media. The best thing we can do is just get honest about what we expect from each other and the relationship itself.
"My hope for the movie is that when people watch it, they'll be able to have a slightly deeper sense of what works best for them and be able to talk to their partners about it without shame."