We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.
If you plucked Monogamy from atop a stack of product at Kramerbooks or Vertigo, you might well mistake it for the latest idiot book. You know: 101 Aphorisms to Trick You Into Thinking You Have a Life. Monogamy is tiny, like something from Hallmark, and its gold-white cover gives it the look of a hip wedding announcement. And it’s seriously understuffed: just 121 brief, numbered entries set in a smugly cheery typeface.
But whatever its publisher’s marketing strategy, Monogamy is actually something much odder and more subversive. This work on fidelity and its complications by English child psychoanalyst Adam Phillips is actually a grab bag of anti-aphorisms: Phillips isn’t out to create common sense in a line or two, but to instead unravel it. He is generally quick to defend the unfaithful: “Profoundly committed to the better life, the promiscuous, like the monogamous, are idealists….We should not be too quick to set them against each other.” He teases our stereotypical ideal of the monogamous couple: “A couple is a conspiracy in search of a crime. Sex is often as close as they can get.” Phillips wants to offer aid to his readers, but not comfort. Are you faithful and frustrated? Unfaithful and wracked by guilt? Monogamy delivers a little salutary disorientation.
As the titles of two earlier essay collections suggest (1993’s On Kissing, Tickling and Being Bored and 1994’s On Flirtation), Phillips has long been impatient with the Freudian (and popular) orthodoxy that holds lifelong commitment to an intimate relationship to be the highest human good. In essays like “Contingency for Beginners,” Phillips celebrates the Freud who wrote, “I stand for an infinitely freer sexual life.” He reminds us that the famous Freudian slip is after all a door into a world of an unnerving lack of control: If our mistakes are actually purposeful, though not consciously so, then who’s driving the bus? Freud amusingly noted that our apparent mishaps are “governed by an intention, and achieve their aim, with a certainty that cannot generally be credited to our voluntary movements.” Or as Phillips the subversive optimist puts it, “Accidents are reminders of unfinished business, that we are living too few of our lives.”
There is, of course, plenty of contemporary context for a discussion of monogamy; our major pop icons, from Prince to the president (don’t even think about Michael Jackson), are implicit advertisements for its abandonment, even absurdity. Married With Children equates faithfulness with misery, and we all know that the divorce rate hovers somewhere around 50 percent. Living with the danger of AIDS has led people to equate monogamy with simple survival, stripped of any romance or idealism.
All of this is more discouraging than enlightening for most of us. We still approach our serious relationships with the assumption that fidelity is the right thing to do (certainly for our partners), so we are puzzled and depressed if it doesn’t make us happy and puzzled and guilt ridden if we stray. At its best, Monogamy, like a good shrink, prods us to examine what we mean by words like “monogamy,” “couple,” and “infidelity,” the better to trace where we picked them up and assess how useful they are in our present lives. Hence, perhaps, the book’s form: dipping into Monogamy can be a lot like the extended playing with life conundrums that goes on in therapy. The brevity and inconclusiveness of the entries, which may lead a reader to ask for more from the author, could be seen as the therapist’s perennial response, “What do you think?”
In any case, Monogamy’s most resonant aperçus remind us that our assumptions about adult relationships lie in the colossal, irrational wishes of infancy and childhood. The desire behind the ideal of monogamy to be loved by one person completely and forever is obviously a reliving of childhood yearnings for absolute parental love. But that’s a desire that is, of course, unrealistic and doomed to disappointment. As Phillips notes dryly, “The child cannot possibly be everything for the mother. He can’t feed her or sexually satisfy her, or have adult conversations with her….She knows other people.” We soon get smacked in the face by what Phillips implies is the defining trauma of our lives: our exclusion from the primal couple, our parents. Phillips asserts that “[w]e are so glued, or so appalled, by people kissing because it is a revelation of our irrelevance” a reminder of our first Really Bad Day. “Where we go is where we go from there,” as Phillips puts it. “Our life will be what we can make from feeling left out.”
In other words, most of us will spend our lives trying to recapture a primal intimacy that never was, caught between unrealistic absolutes of embrace and rejection. (Monogamy reminds us of the wonderfully awful nature of our psyches: a complex whirl of misrepresentations, illusions, and lies spinning madly around a core of genuine, deeply felt needs.)
A number of Phillips’ unsentimental observations, like the one about every couple being a conspiracy in search of a crime, remind us of things we knew but didn’t process because they didn’t fit our stereotypes. Like the fact that, despite our conventional bows to the sacredness of couples, one’s girlfriends’ girlfriends tend to flirt with one at least as often as they don’t. Phillips has a funny take on the way our cherished “individuality” is in fact wildly unstable and contingent on others: “We are daunted by other people making us up, by the number of people we seem to be….This, perhaps more than anything else, drives us into the arms of one special partner. Monogamy is a way of getting the versions of ourselves down to a minimum.”
The book has its faults. A number of the entries are contrived (“It is impossible to promise infidelity. If you are unfaithful you have kept your word”) or trite, and a few are just obscure. And Phillips is a better psychologist than a writer: He plays the provocateur’s role well, but when he tries for a genuinely well-turned aphorism he usually stumbles. (Perhaps, as a writer committed to the open-ended, Phillips’ clumsiness at summing up amounts to his own Freudian slip.)
The biggest favor Monogamy does its readers is to strip its subject of moralistic trappings. (My conclusion is that monogamy is like resisting the urge to loot your 401(k) to spend six months in Guadeloupe: It’s undoubtedly a smart move for many people, but it’s not a virtue.) Actually, the book’s formits turnings and returnings, again and again, to the same tight nexus of concernsshows that fidelity and its puzzles are for Phillips what they are for most of us: an unshakable obsession. In Monogamy and in his earlier essays, Phillips shows us that though we may not succeed in escaping our emotional fates we ought at least not judge ourselves and our partners too harshly. In the hall of fun-house mirrors called the psyche, we can forgive ourselves for we know not what we’re doing.CP