Our ideas of what's 'normal' in relationships between couples are challenged when we look at what other cultures and other species do, says Meg Barker.
The London Natural History Museum has been putting on a series of events in connection with its Sexual Nature exhibition – an exhibition which runs until the autumn. Along with anthropologist Volker Sommer I spoke at the last of these events, which aimed to explore what makes a successful relationship.
The first half of the event focused on the kinds of relationships that take place amongst animals other than humans; and relationships across different historical periods and across different human cultures around the world today. It is interesting that, when trying to answer this kind of question, we often try to determine what is 'natural' (by looking to other animals) or what is 'normal' (by looking across time and culture). We often assume that what is natural or normal must be what is good. But that in itself is worth questioning. Behaviours like taking antibiotics or being kind to animals could be seen as 'unnatural', and high levels of self-sacrifice for others or the ability to sing beautifully are 'abnormal'.
With that note of caution in mind, when we do look across animal species or human societies what we actually find is diversity. The Sexual Nature exhibition itself demonstrates the huge variety of relationship forms which exist amongst animals: from species of bird where many different females mate with the male whose displays are most visually attractive, to the male seahorses who give birth to their young, to the bonobo chimpanzees who use sex as a social activity to develop and reinforce bonds with other male and female chimps.
'The UK is one of the 10-20% of cultures worldwide which are held to be monogamous'
Volker talked about the various forms of polygyny, polyandry, and polygynandry that have existed across the world at various times, often relating to the physical environment that people find themselves in. For example, there are societies where women marry a man's brothers as well as the man himself, where men have sexual relationships with other men early in life before marrying a woman, where men have more than one wife who take on different roles in relation to work and domestic labour, and where the norm is for people to have 'trial marriages' – with someone of the same, or other, gender – by cohabiting for a while before making any legal commitment.
Diversity is also the case when we look at UK society today. The UK is one of the 10-20% of cultures worldwide which are held to be monogamous. However, as I mentioned at the event, statistics on infidelity in marriage of up to 50-60% suggest that we could say that non-monogamy is actually more usual, but that it usually takes the form of secret affairs, rather than the recognised forms of polygamy that exist elsewhere.
There are also many forms of open monogamy which are commonly practised, from the 'new monogamy' where couples are – to some extent – open to emotional and sexual commitments with people other than their partners, to forms of swinging and open relationships, to polyamory where people form multiple romantic and sexual relationships. It is more useful to view relationships today as on a continuum of sexual monogamy (from one sexual partner to many) and a continuum of emotional monogamy (from one close intimate person to many). Individuals are negotiating their own relationship rules around monogamy, for example whether they decide whether to remain close to ex-partners, or whether online sexual contact is acceptable.
Returning to the question of what makes a successful relationship, it is clear that the answer to this is 'different things for different people at different times'. We live at an uncertain time where old rules of relating don't necessarily apply to the patchwork families and serial relationships that many people are experiencing. However, we remain in a situation where some relationship forms are considered far more acceptable than others, and afforded much more social approval, recognition and protection.
When asked for my prescription for a 'successful' relationship I suggested that, on an individual relationship level, they would involve people respecting each other's values, communicating openly about these (rather than assuming that they are shared), and being open to the inevitable shifts and changes that will occur in relationships over time. On a societal level it is important to recognise the variety of relationships that people are actually experiencing, rather than trying to squeeze everyone into one-size-fits-all models of relationships or family.
Meg Barker 25 July 2011
Meg Barker is an OU lecturer teaching mainly on counselling courses, and is also a therapist specialising in relationships. She blogs on the OU's OpenLearn website.
Find out more:
- The Sexual Nature exhibition is open till October 2011.
- You can read the tweets from the 'Happily Ever After?' event by searching twitter for the #sexualnature hashtag.
- There is more about monogamy on Meg's blog here.
Cartoon by Catherine Pain