Friday, June 21, 2013

You, Her/Him, and Another: A Thought Experiment

Following is a thought experiment designed to illuminate how monogamy compels us to wield mere information as a weapon against both ourselves and others, inflicting deep and long lasting harm. The thought experiment makes use of four nearly identical scenarios. Each scenario involves three individuals: You, Him/Her, and Another. You, is you dear reader. Him/Her is somebody that you are dating or have dated and Another is someone with whom Him/Her has, at some point, a one-night stand. In each of the four scenarios that follows the individuals and the one-night stand itself are identical.


Scenario #1—Once Upon a Time

You have been dating Him/Her for about five months when the question of past experiences arises. Your lover tells you that they’ve only had one one-night stand in their life. The one-stand in question is, of course, the same one that features in all four scenarios. Your lover tells you that it was about two months before the two of you met, that it took place between Him/Her and Another after meeting at a pub, and that both of them really enjoyed the experience. Nevertheless, they did not get close and only maintained casual contact. After hearing of this interesting but innocuous past experience, you file it away as a mere piece of trivia, a matter of getting to know your partner better.

Scenario #2—Devastating Overlap

Scenarios #1 and #2 are identical with the exception of timing. You have been dating the same individual as in #1, only this time for about a year. In this scenario too your lover divulges the self-same information: the exact same one-night stand with the same sex took place between Him/Her and Another after they met at the same pub. It was, as with #1, a good experience but there remained only minimal contact (and no physical relationship) between them. In this scenario too the one-night stand took place seven months ago. In other words, it took place while you were dating. You are devastated, crushed, broken-hearted. Your emotions shoot up to level 10 and you careen forth and back between despair, fury, regret, vengeance, self-doubt, self-righteousness, and more. You are equally physically impacted: shaking, crying, yelling, destroying things, binge eating or not eating at all, returning to old vices, etc. Despite Him/Her’s assurances that there is genuine and deep love for you—and despite ample evidence over the past year in support of these assurances—you terminate the relationship.

Scenario #3—The New-Love Shield

Scenario #3 has the same three individuals with the exact same one-night stand. In this scenario, you had been dating Him/Her for one year. After a year or so, however, the relationship was dissolved with more than mild drama and hurt feelings on both sides. Whatever contact you have had since has quickly devolved into fighting. But it’s been four months since the breakup and you have a new lover that you are enthralled with. Him/Her, of course, does not know this. To spite you, your ex sends an email detailing a one-night stand—the very same one-night stand as in the other two scenarios above—that evidently happened between Him/Her and Another the night just prior to this email after they met at a pub. It was, as the email tells it, an altogether enjoyable experience for both Him and Her. You are ecstatic about your new relationship and are more or less unaffected by the email. You write it off as a juvenile attempt to wound you and you have no trouble putting it out of mind.

Scenario #4—The Vulnerability Lens

Scenario #4 is identical to #3 with the exception that, in the four months since the break up, you haven’t been dating. There is no one new in your life. There is no new lover that makes you feel special and who is a source of ongoing happiness. This time when you receive the email detailing the one-night stand between Him/Her and Another that took place only one night prior it cuts to the bone. It hurts deeply and your emotions careen forth and back between despair, fury, regret, vengeance, self-doubt, self-righteousness, and more.


1. two wildly different interpretations of the same data

In all four scenarios, you were dating someone who gave you some information about him- or herself: at some point there was a one-night stand with Another. In each case the one-night stand is exactly the same: Him/Her met at the same place, had the same sex, enjoyed it to the same degree, and maintained the same minimal level of Platonic contact afterwards. In the first scenario, hearing of the one-night stand had little effect. In this first case, hearing of the event and hearing that it was a fulfilling experience caused no hurt. You were perhaps even a little happy for your lover. The second scenario, however, is radically different from the first. Even though, in both scenarios, the exact same one-night stand took place seven months before your lover tells you about it, the information is a mere curiosity in the first case and the source of excruciating pain in the second. What is the difference? The difference, of course, is not in the material conditions. Those are identical in both scenarios. The difference is in how you interpret the meaning, value, and significance of the information. The same amount of time has passed, the same people are involved, and you came to learn about it in the same way. Nevertheless, in the first scenario you interpret the data, the new information, as largely irrelevant and you simply file it away in your brain under “facts about my lover.” In the second scenario you interpret the same data as not only relevant but of paramount importance. In fact, given the overwhelming evidence that points to Him/Her’s genuine love for you—a love that is unquestionably felt in return—you make the single most important thing in determining the destiny of the relationship NOT any of the myriad things shared and exchanged between You and Him/Her, but instead something between Him/Her and Another. Let's be clear: once the monogamous contract/ultimatum is in place, once exclusivity has become the wellspring of meaning, value, and significance, then betrayal of that agreement is a heinous act and cannot be other than devastating. The point here is not that, given a monogamous relationship, You could interpret the information about Him/Her and Another in some benign fashion. The point is that the mutual bind itself—that mutual contract You and Him/Her force upon one another in the standard monogamous relationship—forces this interpretation and prohibits any others; it thus skews the relationship heavily toward the resulting devastation. But this mutual bind is not natural, necessary, or even beneficial. The core agreement in monogamy is mutual control over each other’s body. As such, one of the most severely defective characteristics of monogamy is that it makes the most important thing about love a matter of what each person does outside of the relationship. This, of course, automatically breeds paranoia, insecurity, and possessiveness. What’s worse, it makes physical contact with any others trump all else in meaning, value, and significance: an interpretation that makes an event that lasted less than three hours trump all that has been shared and exchanged in your relationship over the course of a year.

2. mistaken identity in the chain of cause and effect

It is common for us to lament our situation when we’ve been cheated on and ask, “how could he/she do this to me?” And, again, let’s be clear: in the case of monogamy where the very heart of the relationship is a promise of exclusivity, there is little in this world more fucked up than stepping all over your relationship and your lover/spouse’s very emotional/social/physical well being (sometimes irreparably) by betraying someone’s trust to satisfy carnal cravings. This thought experiment is NOT a defense of infidelity. This exercise in hypotheticals is designed to show the incoherence of monogamy.* Digressions about how heinous cheating is aside, the sentiment “how could he/she do this to me?,” contains a fundamental error in its logic. The actual sex act that constitutes the one-night stand in each of the four scenarios may be the direct cause of many things (such as an STD) but it is NOT the direct cause of the pain and suffering endured in scenarios #2 and #4. The erotic contact between the two bodies did not yield the woe. This is clear in #2 owing to the fact that you felt nothing at all when the one-night stand was actually unfolding. While Him/Her and Another were having sex, you were at home cuddled up with an engrossing book, or you were with friends playing cards, or you were at the movies with your mom… or, more than likely, you have no idea exactly what you happened to be doing while they were having sex. It wasn’t the material conditions of the one-night stand that caused hurt, pain, and suffering. It was the mere information itself. It is the sheer idea of Him/Her having sex with another. Now, some might want to object and say that the duplicity that kept the one-night stand a secret for seven months does not mean that it wasn’t the one-night stand itself that caused the harm. As soon as you were aware of the betrayal the damage was done: if there was no act of infidelity, there would be no damage. Therefore, you might want to say, it must be a primary cause of the hurt. But this is clearly not true. If we consider yet another scenario, one in which there NEVER WAS a one-night stand but, owing to the paranoia, possessiveness, and insecurity mentioned above, you somehow become erroneously yet utterly convinced that, while dating you, Him/Her had a one-night stand with Another after meeting at a pub, then the same insufferable consequences follow. The mere idea of this one-night stand, even without any basis in reality, can still cause the exact same outcome. It is you who, in the first scenario, fold up this information like a scrap of paper and stick it in the back pocket of your mind. And it is also you who, in the second scenario, wield this same information against yourself as a knife to make a thousand cuts.

3. underlining the main point

The third and fourth scenarios are helpful in underlining the main point. The main point is that the attachment and insecurity at the heart of monogamy compel us to interpret events in self-damaging ways. Between the third and the fourth scenarios it is clear that the determining factor in making the information we receive harmless or harmful is our own state of mind. When we feel secure and cared for as in scenario #3 it is easy to simply dismiss the information and perhaps even feel compassion (or else pity) for our ex. When we feel self-doubt and insecurity as in scenario #4 it is easy to turn this information into a bludgeon with which to beat ourselves mercilessly. It is the way that monogamy orients us with respect to ourselves and others that drives us to interpret the simple fact of two other people having enjoyable and healthy consensual sex as something so terrible that the mere idea of it alone inflicts endless torment. It is owing to the way we connect to and prioritize our own selfish needs and wants—and it is therefore not at all love—that makes us set each other up for failure and set ourselves up for self-abuse.

*This incoherence is part of the explanation as to why, despite nearly universal consensus that infidelity is a repulsive act, it still is universal enough to transcend language and culture, political views, age, race, gender, etc.