Midwit Monogamy

I had a great time on Will Jarvis’ Narrative Podcast recently. The episode is titled “Rationality with Jacob Falkovich” even though Rationality is almost the only topic we didn’t cover. Will asked me about various things I’ve written about over the years, from why China’s soccer team sucks to why Madden is the most underrated video game.

Will also asked me to “steelman polyamory”, and I asked him in jest if he wants to steelman monogamy first given its less-than-stellar recent record. I then covered in brief the Esther Perel-inspired argument I wrote about before, of how the contemporary model of monogamous marriage is set up to fail:

  • In the modern model, each partner is expected to meet a huge range of often contradictory demands (security, sexiness, emotional support, economic partnership, shared interests, adventure…) that are practically impossible for a single person to fulfill.
  • Despite the impossibility of the task, it’s verboten to even mention either a partner failing to fulfill any of those needs or a partner looking for any of them to be fulfilled elsewhere. Any mention of such is seen a strong signal that the relationship is failing and should perhaps be broken up.

At the time, I wrote about how this conundrum strongly suggests polyamory as a solution.

Since then, I’ve talked to a couple of friends who tried various flavors of non-exclusive relationships but realized that they value exclusivity a lot, that they need it from their partner and want to provide it as their primary expression of love. No longer taking it for granted, they are willing to accept not having some of the other needs met as long as they are granted the unique gift of exclusivity.

I believe that this works really well for people who are wired like that and who have a partner who feels the same. But I also believe that, at least in the educated urban contemporary culture I reside in, this is not the default. The default mindset is seeing exclusivity as a trivial entitlement of each partner who wants it, as opposed to a weighty and difficult sacrifice by the partner who keeps it.

I also believe that this unreflective approach to monogamy is crazy and a relationship killer. This is very much a midwit bell-curve meme, where thoughtful non-monogamy and committed exclusivity-as-priority are both much better than exclusivity-as-default-entitlement.

Imagine for example that Alex comes back from a work trip and their partner Pat says “I really wanted some sexy companionship while you were away but I managed to refrain from cheating”. Exclusivity-prioritizers might say that Alex should really thank Pat for their forebearance and be extra nice to thm. But midwit monogamists would justify Alex getting mad at the mere fact that Pat thought about cheating, and that Pat certainly doesn’t deserve a cookie for merely not acting on it.

Now imagine Alex comes back from said trip and Pat says “I had a difficult time keeping the home and taking care of the kids alone”. In this alternative, I don’t think many people would support Alex saying “well I had no trouble at all on my work trip, so how dare you complain!” I think the fact that exclusivity is presumed to be a symmetric obligation while work/housekeeping may be equally valuable but different is in part what makes people confused.

But of course, if Pat wanted companionship and didn’t pursee it out of obligation to Alex, that is a sacrifice they made for the sake of relationship just as cleaning the house was. They want this sacrifice to be met with gratitude and not with reprimand. People have a tendency to get resentful and furious when their sacrifices are reprimanded!

I’ve gotten a lot of hate over the years for talking about polyamory online, and I’ve noticed that almost none of it is coming from people who really value exclusivity and are in happy and secure exclusive relationships. The hate is coming from people who are doing midwit monogamy and it’s failing.

They’re not having their needs met and are angry at their partner, or they feel inadequate about their own inability to satisfy their partner and it threatens their identity. They assumed that they would stop being attracted to others after they got partnered but the opposite happened and they’re afraid that they’ll cheat. Or they’re afraid of being found out, or afraid that they’ll be cheated on, or afraid that it already happened. They imagine some “old times” when monogamy was easy by default and don’t understand why it all broke down for them. They lash out at all the things that have changed outwardly since these “old times”, whether it’s feminism or capitalism or porn or people talking openly about polyamory online.

I feel bad for these people. Both being polyamorous in a mostly monogamous society (as I am), or being devoutly exclusive after exposure to polyamory (as my friends are) forces you to think hard about what you really value in a relationship, what you’re willing to sacrifice for it, and how to meet a partner who is signing up for the same deal. That’s the only way to make relationships work at all. Many midwit monogamists, unfortunately, haven’t realized this yet.

12 thoughts on “Midwit Monogamy

  1. I started with an opens mind, but then I’ve noticed a couple of issues that, unfortunately, make this analysis incorrect and unhelpful.

    It’s blank-slatist, not accounting for gender differences at all. Men and women have shared relationship goals and values, but their dating strategies are very different. This includes the way they handle mono/poly configurations. For many women, polyamory is the way to enjoy a “hot but impossible to secure lover” while getting the financial benefits and support from being partnered with a “stable but not so exciting provider”. For many men, polyamory is a rationalized, desperate measure to obtain any intimacy at all. I assume you’re likely to say “well, it’s actually not”, but that’s what the data points, countless personal observations, evolutionary framing, and common stereotypes indicate.

    Not having the exclusivity is often more painful and humiliating than it is enjoyable to have the remaining needs met. I also don’t see a crowd of happy guys of average attractiveness claiming that polyamory works well in meeting their multiple needs.

    There are good reasons for why “exclusivity as a default” is a common and beneficial norm; just compare the historical track record of monogamous vs. polygamous cultures, including but not limited to their overall stability, reduced male violence, environment for raising children, and the social emancipation of low-status males. Our modern society has more capacity to handle the burden of alternative lifestyles, but all of us – especially the vulnerable and unlucky ones – pay the price in the long run.

    I wonder whether you should paint yourself as facing lots of hate given the tendency to distort/silence polite criticisms. If it helps, this criticism comes from a guy in a happy, exclusive relationship – but I recognize I can be in one in 2022 because I happened to have genes and upbringing resulting in highly attractive traits. I don’t lure my less fortunate male colleagues with false hopes.

    Lastly, some things were indeed better in the bast – external factors (feminism, capitalism, social media, skewed gender ratios, you name it) do profoundly affect the way people form relationships. You even mentioned some of these in your blog posts.

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  2. Apologies if it’s slightly unrelated and mildly offensive, but do you agree there is such a thing like a poly phenotype? I’ve recently noticed that poly folks tend to look similar. Not judging, as I’m on good terms with poly circles and not very beautiful myself, just curious about why this might be the case – and I don’t know a better place to ask.

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  3. Your argument seems valid, in the sense of reasoning correctly from premises to conclusion.

    But one of those premises is, “monogamy is an additional burden that one takes on as part of marriage.” And historically that isn’t true! Most traditional ethical systems will come after you for sleeping around whether you’re married or not. (Or they’ll have more complicated rules, like “sleeping around is tolerated for men but not women”– but these tend to apply regardless of marital status as well.)

    I suspect the expectation of monogamy is a hold-over from an older cultural equilibrium where it really could be expected without imposing an additional burden. Hopefully that will help you understand where the “midwits” are coming from. Yes, their position is unsound, but they didn’t plan it that way. Without the right economic intuitions it’s hard to realize how permissive sex norms for the unmarried tend to create permissive sex norms for the married as well.

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  4. Let’s try that again. On some websites, ctrl-M inserts a linebreak without posting. On this one, ctrl-M posts. I’ll try hitting RETURN instead.

    So: Re: “I’ve gotten a lot of hate over the years for talking about polyamory online, and I’ve noticed that almost none of it is coming from people who really value exclusivity and are in happy and secure exclusive relationships. The hate is coming from people who are doing midwit monogamy and it’s failing.” — Did this hate come from people you knew well enough to feel confident that they were doing midwit monogamy, and that it was failing? ‘Coz if you’re talking about hateful comments on the Internet, I don’t see how you could know that.

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  5. If its ok to insult people based on their IQ by calling them “midwits” (a consequence of their genetic inheritance, for which they have no control over), is it also ok to insult people for other traits outside of their control? Can I insult men for being short, women for being flat-chested; can I call physically unattractive people uggos, homosexuals faggots, trans people freaks, mentally ill people sad losers, etc?

    Asking as a midwit (96 IQer). I want to make people feel like shit for things they can’t control to make myself feel better about my own inadequacies.

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    1. Mid-wit is a context-specific description. The same human can be a nitwit, midwit, and galaxy brain at the same time, on different topics.

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  6. For how many people is monogamy a “weighty and difficult sacrifice by the partner who keeps it”? 98 percent? 50 percent? 20 percent?

    The thing that mainstream culture perceives as trivial is perhaps not monogamy, but sex in itself. If sex is nothing serious and committment is extremely serious, even comparing sex to committment becomes offensive: If Pat wants a diploma for not having sex with an outsider, Pat hints that sexual urges are to be taken seriously compared to committment. Pat probably thinks that committment is more important than sex, otherwise they would have acted on the urge. But Pat still thinks that sexual urges are important enough to complain over. This makes it seem like Pat devalues committment (which should be extremely valuable) compared to sex (which is something frivolous and unimportant).

    I don’t know how many people actually feel that sex is unimportant, not-to-be-taken-seriously stuff. But it seems to be an ideal to assume that it is.

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      1. Yes, you’re probably right. But at least there should be a few anti-intellectuals who take sex less seriously. Especially female anti-intellectuals.

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  7. On the one hand, this post helped me crystalize how someone has to keep deciding to be yours, and a few other adjacent insights from over the years into a coherent bloc.

    On the other, thinking of keeping to the basic agreements of a marriage not being assumed irks me. Whatever the basic agreements are – and in monogamy exclusivity is one.

    (Hypothetically)
    When I come back from a business trip, if my wife tells me she had a hard time with not abandoning our children, I’m going to pretty freaked out.
    This is very different than if she tells me she had a hard time carrying for them.

    If my wife tells me she wanted to cheat, I’m going to be freaked out (though less than abandoning the kids).
    This is very different than if she tells me she had a hard time being alone.

    One is focused on what she went through, how she felt (the root feelings, the original issue. Obviously the desire to cheat is also ‘feeling’) One is focused on the actions she would take to “rectify” the situation, where the actions are a betrayal to the relationship between us.

    If those actions seemed like an option to her it would bother me a LOT, it means there is something wrong.

    The sacrifice is real. It happened, and leaving those options greyed out is continuing to give those things up every day. Taking it for granted in the sense that you no longer appreciate it is a disservice to yourself and your partner.
    Un-greying those options is a betrayal though. Taking for granted that your partner will continue to make that sacrifice is what trust is.

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  8. Imagine for example that Alex comes back from a work trip and their partner Pat says “I really wanted some sexy companionship while you were away but I managed to refrain from cheating”. Exclusivity-prioritizers might say that Alex should really thank Pat for their forebearance and be extra nice to thm. But midwit monogamists would justify Alex getting mad at the mere fact that Pat thought about cheating, and that Pat certainly doesn’t deserve a cookie for merely not acting on it.

    I don’t see why it’s irrational to reconcile pluralistic desire with the benefits of monogamy, by asking for discretion in stating out loud one’s infinite possible desires

    An example of what your argument justifies might be as follows:

    Your parents give you a gift for your birthday. You thank them, then go out for a walk in town. As you pass the toy store, you say “it’s nice the gift you gave me. But you should thank me for not asking you to buy this gift in the window.”

    No, the parents shouldn’t be grateful to the kid for announcing his insatiability

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  9. Only tangentially related (I guess it’s more evidence there are a lot of midwits out there?), but thought you might be interested in this recent article on Wired:
    https://www.wired.com/story/data-marriage-behavior-love-psychology-romance/

    Key quote:
    If I had to sum up, in one sentence, the most important finding in the field of relationship science, thanks to these Big Data studies, it would be something like this (call it the First Law of Love): In the dating market, people compete ferociously for mates with qualities that do not increase one’s chances of romantic happiness.

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