These are some reads I recommend checking out, with a little comment and a few relevant quotes.

Marriage, a history

Stephanie Coontz casts a historian’s eye over the institution.

Until the late eighteenth century, most societies around the world saw marriage as far too vital an economic and political institution to be left entirely to the free choice of the two individuals involved, especially if they were going to base their decision on something as unreasoning and transitory as love.

Couples in the Paleolithic world would never have fantasized about running off by themselves to their own little retreats in the forest. No Stone Age lovers would have imagined in their wildest dreams that they could or should be “everything” to each other. That way lay death.

Whereas marriage had once been a way of expanding the number of cooperating groups, it now became a way for powerful kin groups to accumulate both people and property.

As late as the 1880s English law allowed a man to hold a wife prisoner in her home if she refused him his “conjugal rights.”

In the late eighteenth century, conservatives had warned that unions based on love and the desire for personal happiness were inherently unstable. If love was the most important reason to marry, how could society condemn people who stayed single rather than enter a loveless marriage? If love disappeared from a marriage, why shouldn’t a couple be allowed to go their separate ways? If men and women were true soul mates, why should they not be equal partners in society?

Physicians regularly massaged women’s pelvic areas to alleviate “hysteria,” a word derived from the Greek word for womb. Medical textbooks of the day make it clear that these doctors brought their patients to orgasm. In fact, the mechanical vibrator was invented at the end of the nineteenth century to relieve physicians of this tedious and time-consuming chore!

The word date was not used in its modern sense until the 1890s, and even then it was only used in working-class slang. By 1914, however, the respectable middle-class Ladies’ Home Journal had begun to use the word, putting it in quotation marks to indicate its novelty.

This unprecedented marriage system was the climax of almost two hundred years of continuous tinkering with the male protector love-based marital model invented in the late eighteenth century. That process culminated in the 1950s in the short-lived pattern that people have since come to think of as traditional marriage. So in the 1970s, when the inherent instability of the love-based marriage reasserted itself, millions of people were taken completely by surprise. Having lost any collective memory of the convulsions that occurred when the love match was first introduced and the crisis that followed its modernization in the 1920s, they could not understand why this kind of marriage, which they thought had prevailed for thousands of years, was being abandoned by the younger generation.

By the end of the 1950s grounds for “fault” divorce had become so routine in many jurisdictions as to be laughable. Nearly every plaintiff testified in almost exactly the same words, describing behavior that included the exact minimum requirements and even the precise legal phrases needed for a fault-based divorce. “The number of cruel spouses in Chicago, both male and female, who strike their marriage partners in the face exactly twice, without provocation, leaving visible marks, is remarkable,” noted the author of one 1950s divorce study.

More Than Two

A landmark manual for CNM although has received criticism in recent years.

Sex at Dawn

This book takes an anthropological look at human relationships with a fiercely critical view of monogamy.

Monogamy is not found in any social, group-living primate except—if the standard narrative is to be believed—us.

Sex for pleasure with various partners is therefore more “human” than animal. Strictly reproductive, once-in-a-blue-moon sex is more “animal” than human. In other words, an excessively horny monkey is acting “human,” while a man or woman uninterested in sex more than once or twice a year would be, strictly speaking, “acting like an animal.”

It bears repeating that the human penis is the longest and thickest of any primate’s—in both absolute and relative terms. And despite all the bad press they get, men last far longer in the saddle than bonobos (fifteen seconds), chimps (seven seconds), or gorillas (sixty seconds), clocking in between four and seven minutes, on average.

Frequent orgasm is associated with better cardiac health as well. A study conducted at the University of Bristol and Queen’s University of Belfast found that men who have three or more orgasms per week are 50 percent less likely to die from coronary heart disease.

Why We Love

Anna Machin goes right down to the nuts and bolts of Love, the hormones and neural circuits before building up to the psychological and social structures.

Our love is meant not for the many but for ‘the one’. The view is that romantic love is a precious commodity, the sharing of which diminishes its value to the object of our affection. This is known as the zero-sum view of romantic relationships and as a recent study showed, it is a belief that is deeply ingrained in our society.

Beyond this, as we have seen from Chapter 6, the institution of marriage developed as a way to limit the havoc that unbridled love could wreak on society and make sure that wealth and power remained in the hands of a privileged few. These ‘few’ were most often led by men as a consequence of the overwhelming presence of patriarchy in nearly all human societies. As a result, women are blamed more, demonised more, should they stray. Take this further and make marriage a sacred institution and you make monogamy – and the breaching of it – a moral as well as legal issue.

The State of Affairs

I came at this book by Esther Perel with a deeply-rooted suspicion of anything that might be validating cheating behaviour. However, the beautifully written book actually takes a deep and nuanced look at the institution of marriage and why monogamy doesn’t work for many people.

“I love you. Let’s get married.” For most of history, those two sentences were never joined. Romanticism changed all that. In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, amidst the societal sea change of the Industrial Revolution, marriage was redefined. Gradually it evolved from an economic enterprise to a companionate one—a free-choice engagement between two individuals, based not on duty and obligation but on love and affection.

Individualism began its remorseless conquest of Western civilization. Mate selection became infused with romantic aspirations meant to counter the increasing isolation of modern life.

In one of our conversations, I asked Silvia if she was monogamous. She looked at me, surprised. “Yes, of course. I’ve been monogamous with all my boyfriends and both my husbands.” Did she realize the cultural shift implicit in the words she had so casually uttered? Monogamy used to mean one person for life. Now monogamy means one person at a time.

It will never work! you may be thinking. Marriage is complicated enough. It will destroy the family! It’s bad for the kids! But people used to make exactly the same predictions in the 1980s with couples pioneering religious, racial, and cultural intermarriage or blending families upon remarriage. And they have done so at every other milestone in the ongoing sexual revolution that has defined the past half-century. Maybe we should give the marital innovators some time to figure it out. After all, does the old monogamy work so well?

Today’s romantic pluralists have done more thinking about the meaning of fidelity, sexuality, love, and commitment than many monogamous couples ever do, and are often closer to each other as a result. What strikes me about many of their alternative renderings of relatedness is that they are anything but frivolous. Contrary to the stereotypes of bored, immature, commitment-phobic people engaging in a licentious romp, these experiments in living are built on thoughtful communication and careful consideration.

Polyamorists (a term that entered The Oxford English Dictionary in 2006) emphasize creating meaningful connections, in contrast with those who seek casual hookups or playful short-term encounters. It’s not “just sex” that they share with many partners—it’s also love, not to mention domestic life. Polyamorists tend to characterize their lifestyle as a serious endeavor, involving mindfulness, maturity, and a lot of talking—hence the common joke in poly circles, “Swingers have sex. Polys have conversations.”