The M Words: Monogamy and Marriage in the Romance Novel


I recently made a new acquaintance – let’s call her Suzy – who introduced herself to me as a lesbian.  After meeting Suzy, I did as we all do in this age of cyberstalking: I looked her up on Facebook.  Most of the posts on Suzy’s wall were pictures of her with another woman, arms around each other, happily smiling, and in a few holding a baby.  This puzzled me, since Suzy had not said she had a partner or a child.  So the cyberstalking continued.  I went to the page of the other woman who was tagged in the photos and found that she was married to a man and had recently had a baby.  From this I could deduce a few possible answers to the question of why there were so many pictures of her and Suzy and so few of her and her husband.  Perhaps her husband was camera shy or traveled a lot for work.  Perhaps Suzy was the child’s godparent or surrogate aunt and visited often.  Perhaps Suzy and the other woman were lovers, in spite of the other woman’s marriage.  Or maybe they were all in a relationship together.

When I explained how intimate, how romantic and sexual, the pictures of Suzy and other woman looked to another friend – let’s call him Bob – Bob immediately agreed that there could be more going on than just an overabundance of friendly photos.  “No judgment!” he immediately declared.  I echoed his sentiment because, in this day and age, to be seen as ignorant or critical of non-monogamy or polyamory, at least in our circle, is to be backward and uptight.

In the present moment, we have sweeping legislation for same-sex marriage, improved adoption rights, survivor benefits, and now even immigration protections.  There are more images of same-sex marriage in the news, in television series, and on film than at any time in the past.  We as a society now believe in the myth of boy-meets-boy (or girl-meets-girl).

At the same time, though, we’re also trying to be more sensitive to things like transgenderism, asexuality, and, maybe to a lesser extent, polyamory.  I say “try” here because, let’s face it, not everyone’s trying as hard as they could be and because these things still carry more of a stigma than being a boring old gay married couple does.

What does this have to do with romance novels?  The romance novel is predicated on the idea of two people falling in love and achieving their happily ever after.  In most cultures – the ones with people reading this blog, anyway – “happily ever after” is almost always synonymous with “marriage.”  And “marriage” usually assumes monogamy.  I love you, you love me, we tell the whole world, and then we promise not to sleep with anyone else till death do us part.

In reality, marriage doesn’t actually work that way for most people.  For most couples, till-death-do-us-part is a myth, as is monogamy.  The Economist reports that the average duration of heterosexual marriage in the U.S. is about eight years, and of course outspoken gay rights figures like Dan Savage have argued against monogamy, in order to help achieve that till-death-to-us-part.  A story last year The Atlantic cites research that claims as many as half of gay male couples have agreements about extra-relational affairs.  They may keep those arrangements under wraps from straight friends, since the fight for marriage equality has been long and hard and still isn’t over.  It’s not yet reasonable to assume everyone will hear about married gay men who have sex on the side and cry, “No judgment!”

Both romance novels are supposed to be fantasy, not reality.  Does this mean we fantasize about till death do us part and forsaking all others?  Is that sexier and more romantic than the reality?  I might be in the minority here, but I think there’s something incredibly attractive about someone saying, “I may not always be faithful to you sexually, but you’re the only one I want to come home to and grow old with.”  Rather than cutting off sexual opportunities as a marker of true love, a partner might embrace the opportunity and use it to reaffirm that you’re his choice.

What do you think, readers?  How willing are you to read romance in which couples have sex with people other than each other?  I’m offering a free short read to readers of this blog in exchange for your thoughts on marriage and monogamy in romance.  It’s too long to post here, so check it out at my blog.


About Harry:

Harry K. Malone is the author of The Hollywood Version, published by Dreamspinner Press, and several short stories and novellas.  A resident of Chicago, Harry tends to hole up with his laptop, his cat, and steamy gay romance novels from November to March.


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The Hollywood Version


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