Looking at how marriage has moved from a ‘business-like’ arrangement to one where each partner is expected to find all of their emotional and physical desire satisfied by their spouse,Kate Figes highlights the immense weight of expectation that this places on couples.
Roles that were previously fulfilled by a multitude of people are now decanted into one all-purpose ‘soulmate.’Figes looks at the wider societal response to infidelity, noting the knee-jerk abhorrence with which affairs are often greeted. This “zero-tolerance” policy is seen as a new phenomenon which indicates the self-governing nature of the system of monogamy, those outside of the system are greeted with suspicion because they are chaotic; they don’t follow the rules.
Figes’ ‘ideal’ version of monogamy is a different one to that which she critiques. “Love is not effortless,” she counsels, “it is effortful.”
In answer to the question of whether monogamy is possible, the author ekes out a version that grows and flexes, taking nurture and effort to maintain.
She quotes marital psychotherapist, Warren Coleman who describes monogamy as an ‘ideal’, “something to strive towards but never reach.” The value in recognising this ‘ideal’ being that we don’t attempt to live a fantasy.
Whilst the author critiques the way that modern relationships are framed and scripted, and portrays the cases of infidelity that she looks at with empathy, she falls short of challenging the idea of monogamy.
Often ‘diagnosing’ the issues which might have caused the ‘deviant dalliances’, Figes’ major concern is to preserve the primary partnership that could be under threat.
In fact, she can even see the value in instrumentalising people outside of a couple in order to maintain a partnership, arguing, for example, that “for some couples an affair can be deeply useful sexually.”
Perhaps this is the chasm between her voice as social scientist and family mediator; whilst she deconstructs, her instinct is to fix. Even whilst unraveling the threads of monogamy, there is an extraordinary compulsion to keep these romantic relationships on their pedestal, a tendency which would be fascinating to examine in its own right.
Published by Virago, Our Cheating Hearts is available in paperback now.