Conscious uncoupling, Monogamish, Polyamory: We sit down with Comedian Rosie Wilby to find out what it all means…
‘When are you going to get a boyfriend or girlfriend or partner? When are you going to get married? When are you going to move in together? When are you going to have kids?’
Sound familiar? Perhaps these questions conjure up the nagging image of your Auntie at Christmas, or worse, your Mother. For Rosie Wilby, Comedian, Singer, Journalist and Author of Is Monogamy Dead?, these are the questions she uses to emphatically portray not only our families’ expectations, but society’s dominant expectation of us.
Wilby’s overarching term for this is the Relationship Escalator: a prescribed, normative narrative that relationships have to keep moving through a series of recognised stages, with marriage and kids as the ultimate goal.
Fittingly, her voice seems to get faster and increasingly high pitched as these questions progress and she moves up the metaphorical escalator. ‘It’s quite a restrictive idea isn’t it,’ she gasps, ‘Maybe some people want to do things differently and move backwards or stop or go sideways, go in a different direction than just this constant rush to get somewhere.’
Wilby’s debut novel, Is Monogamy Dead? interviews an array of comedians, writers and activists who are doing just this. It also encompasses a trilogy of comedy shows investigating love and relationships, the central one being her 2013 Edinburgh Fringe show (also titled, Is Monogamy Dead?). At the time of her show, ideas surrounding polyamory were relatively novel and angered several of the more straight-laced audience members. Wilby laughs about this, ‘you know when people come to something just really wanting to be offended.’
Now, 5 years later with the release of her book, she says ‘there’s been a lot more openness.’ Non monogamous couples in the US now number in the millions and media depictions of polyamory are far more common. From blockbuster film Professor Marston and the Wonder Woman, which reigned in $1.9 million at the box office, to the popular Netflix series You Me Her, it seems there’s an appetite for expanding our romantic definitions.
Polyamory was added to the Oxford English Dictionary in 2006 as, ‘the fact of having simultaneous close emotional relationships with two or more other individuals.’ While some interpret these as multiple sexual relationships, most of Wilby’s interviewees also included ‘loving relationships and deep friendships.’
For those who view polyamory as an excuse to live a lavish, promiscuous lifestyle, Wilby is an unlikely spokesperson. As a self-confessed romantic, her interest in alternative relationship forms stems from a desire to maintain relationships. She argues that monogamy presents us with a very cut-and-dry ultimatum: ‘if you’re not in it for the long haul or that if you have any kind of romantic yearning for somebody else, whether you act on it or not, you have to break up.’
For Wilby, this forgets that beyond the ‘honeymoon period’ and surges of dopamine, years down the line, ‘it’s quite common for us to have these kind of conflicts.’ Yet, unable to keep up with the speed of the revolving Relationship Escalator, Wilby was witnessing the break down of many of her closest friends’ relationships.
She laments, ‘I felt quite sad at all the discarded relationships’, using an empty crisp packet as an analogy: ‘it’s like we’ve kind of gobbled up the contents and then you just throw it away.’ Wilby imagines these detritus relationships floating around like litter, ‘just kind of, no use anymore.’ In a bid to lower our carbon footprint and preserve these crisp packets, her book offers us some alternatives.
One of these is the idea of conscious uncoupling, which, while she admits, ‘feels a bit clunky and a bit too Gwyneth,’ she feels is ‘a nice theory about valuing what’s good in the relationship and valuing that person and not throwing away the empty crisp packet.’ Wilby herself has remained incredibly close with several of her exes, one ex even joined her and her current partner for lunch last weekend. She tells me, ‘I’m happy to think of her as family.’
This is incredibly common in the lesbian community, to broker ‘deep platonic friendships’ whilst having a new partner. In fact, gay couples have historically been pioneers of several alternative relationship models, for example the ‘LAT’ couple, living apart together, which has now become more mainstream.
Wilby tells me that, ‘actually gay men are by far statistically the most successful group at keeping a primary partnership together long term,’ and are statistically two and a half times less likely to divorce than lesbian couples. A key reason for this, argues Wilby, is the high likelihood they’ve been monogamish, a term coined by columnist Dan Savage to describe committed relationships that still allow some sexual activity with additional casual partners.
I ask her whether, surely, this sort of set up would be the same for many straight marriages? ‘Ah, yes,’ she grins, ‘but the other half probably wouldn’t have known about it.’ Wilby emphasises that at the core of polyamory are values of ‘honesty, trust and respect,’ whereas for her, ‘monogamy had started to mean a lot of secrecy and sneaking around and just not really opening up to one another.’ And let’s face it, it’s not easy to stay faithful to one person for your entire life; perhaps polyamorous ideals are just more accepting of this.
At the heart of the book, what Wilby is forcing us to confront is that there’s no one-size-fits-all method to conducting a relationship; it’s for each of us to negotiate our own boundaries. ‘For some people, they’ll have different times in their life when polyamory might be a viable option and other times when monogamy seems to become really attractive.’ Melissa Broder, in her memoir So Sad Today, documents doing just this, journeying between monogamy and polyamory with her husband.
Wilby adds that, ‘In the same way as being very binary about anything, like gender, can be restrictive and quite oppressive,’ so can our mainstream romantic ideals. She’s not stipulating that monogamy is dead, on the contrary, she’s asking ‘Is Monogamy Dead?’ and encouraging us to do the same. Wilby’s overriding hope is that, ‘we start to look at different agendas and perhaps be more sophisticated about how we have relationships.’
Rosie Wilby’s book Is Monogamy Dead? is available on Amazon here.
Rosie can be found tweeting at @rosiewilby.
Amber can be found tweeting @AmberRoberts6.