For many people, including myself, older teenagehood and young adulthood is a period of time where we begin exploring ourselves: We start to pay more attention to the things that bring us joy and to the things that don’t. It eventually becomes impossible to resist engaging in new experiences or taking risks. Whether you blame it on our underdeveloped frontal lobe or the tendency to engage in juvenile rebellion, society has managed to cement young adulthood as a period of our lives when curiosity becomes the penultimate and unconscious drive behind all our silly little decisions.
Parents might begin to look the other way when you start pouring yourself glasses of wine, turning the other cheek when you get a tattoo they’re convinced you’ll regret and hoping that you will be a gleaming exception to the “all teen drivers crash” rule. But beyond all the newfound exploration we now have the freedom to engage in, one of the most intriguing aspects of our lives that begins to develop during this period is our understanding of love and external relationships. It’s a murky minefield we all have to carefully navigate, figuring out what’s wrong and what’s right for us only through trial and error.
One of the most significant components of our journey to adulthood involves relationships — or (for me) the lack thereof.
Much of my experience with love has been questionable at best and debilitating at worst, so it’s not an awe-striking surprise that I have never been the biggest proponent of Valentine’s Day. Oftentimes, February is a mourning period for me, the month when I’ve grown irritated with the perpetual snow on the ground and the inability to wear bright, cropped clothes. It’s an awkward buffer period separating the end-of-year holidays and the spring equinox. It is a month that carries virtually no significance to me.
It is a sweet thing, though, watching lovers adorn their beloved with flowers and chocolates, jewelry that twinkles and smiles that shine. I can’t help but sometimes feel like I’ve been meandering in a different reality entirely — why don’t I feel like I’m missing something?
I decided I’d devote myself to investigating this strange phenomenon, this intriguing and inherent desire for exclusivity in relationships. What is it about such partnerships that has inspired a whole Hallmark genre devoted to cheesy holiday films that follow two barely-charismatic 40-something-year-olds as they fall in love? Why is it romanticized in pop culture as much as it is classical literature, and why does it sometimes feel like I’m the only one who can’t relate?
Again, my experience in this field can be succinctly described as ‘slim-to-none,’ so I’m worried my matter-of-fact-isms won’t contribute much to the veracity of my research. And, though I may be a philosophy major, I am an empirical scientist at heart, so I’m prepared to give my research ambition its due diligence.
I grew up in Las Vegas, Nevada — the infamous Sin City has a tendency to attract the reckless and the free-spirited. Nevada gives out more marriage licenses per year than any other state, and has a marriage rate of 25.9 marriages per 1,000 people, which is almost twice as high as the runner-up: Hawaii. However, because of this, Nevada also boasts the highest divorce rate per capita in America, amounting to 4.5 divorces per 1,000 people.
If you took a ten-minute drive down the Strip, you could swiftly begin to count all of the many drive-thru chapels that take up real estate on Las Vegas Boulevard. It can take as little as 15 minutes to get married, all within the comfort of your own vehicle. And for the low price of around $50, newlyweds can have their vows legitimized by Elvis Presley (not the real one, just a random minister wearing cheap stick-on sideburns).
I never thought that the marriage institution itself was particularly appealing. Marriage, in and of itself, was derived as a legal act legitimized by the government, often for the purpose of sharing the wealth of two families or to establish peaceful relations between two competing factions. The institution wasn’t established with motivations beyond the socio-political realm, so it’s not astonishing that I’ve never been drawn to it. And neither are many other people my age: Recent trends show that younger couples are opting for cohabitation rather than legal marriage, often for financial reasons and to avoid the emotional fallout of a divorce.
My mind began wandering to a place of empirical science rather than sociological phenomena. Perhaps there is a psychologically-rational explanation for this monogamous madness.
I turned to find a rationalization through the eyes of biological anthropology, a field which I have a continued interest in. As I once learned in ANTHRBIO 201, humans’ tendency toward monogamy is quite the biological anomaly. Most primates maintain a polygynandrous nature, with multiple females often mating with multiple males during the mating season. There are many reasons why our closest ancestral cousins, chimpanzees, retain these attributes, including a prolonged gestation period in females and the primal drive to maximize reproduction.
Many other experts also consider monogamy a uniquely “unnatural” drive in humans, especially when compared with the lifestyle of other primates. It’s not that we shouldn’t engage in it — it’s simply not a part of our biological evolution.
Regardless, our version of monogamy does not fit the appropriate definition. When some birds mate, they mate with their partner for life, which would be representative of monogamy. However, humans can re-enter the dating pool at multiple points in their life and do so often — a pattern which isn’t representative of monogamy, but rather serial polygamy.
Let me stop myself there. I seem to have found myself in the midst of an is-ought fallacy. Though I commend my efforts for investigating the origins of monogamous relationships so thoroughly, the relation of chimpanzees’ mating systems carries absolutely no relation to our own social structure. It’s nice to observe our hominin cousins and their lifestyle. But, I fear we’ve strayed a bit too far from the Pan genus to be able to draw any feasible comparisons between their way of coupling and ours.
I first learned what swingers were through the ever-dependable platform of TikTok. The inverted pineapple, which stands as a symbol for the swinger community, intrigued the Sherlockian tendencies within me and coerced me to dive deeper into the rabbit hole.
Swinging, or more contemporarily, “non-monogamy,” arose in America during the 1950s, when Air Force officers in California began swapping wives for fun; its popularity continued to surge in the ’60s and ’70s.
Now rebranded as an innovative form of non-monogamous commitment and sexual exploration, swinging has become a significant part of many couples’ sex lives. Younger generations are waiting longer to tie the knot with their partners, and as the focus of the marriage institution shifts from serving a financial purpose to bonding lovebirds for life, sexual curiosity and exploration are easier to retain, and maintain, now more than ever.
Rather than being forced into a domestic relationship for survival of the family name, many of us now have the freedom to pick (and actually like) the partners we’re with. This is fundamentally altering the structure of our romantic partnerships, as they slowly become testing grounds for our primal desires.
While many may regard watching our partners canoodle with a third party as a horrendous prospect, swinging is much more than frenzied sex and infidelity. Bradlee Bryant, a new member of the swinger community, remarked on her experience with swinging, “cheaters look for ways to replace their partner — or fill holes in their relationship. Swingers are looking for ways to add connections together — not replace the ones they already have.” She emphasizes that swingers are just like any other couple, with the exception being that “(we) don’t avoid talking about or exploring tough topics like boundaries, sexuality, or (our) unique desires as a couple and as individuals.”
It’s a freeing and revolutionary lifestyle that embodies the quintessence of our generation’s stance on relationships — love who you love and do it in a way that makes you happy.
I had to stop here and take a moment to reflect. I had reached a point in my research that raised the question of why I even bothered to write about this in the first place.
At some point, this article began to feel like I was writing it for myself. Like I was writing it for the sole purpose of reaching through the lengthy expanse of time and explaining all the nuances of love to my younger self. To validate her thoughts and feelings before she has the chance to be told what’s right and what’s wrong by total strangers. I know her better than anyone, after all.
I wanted to tell her how to handle conversations with relatives who enjoyed prodding and poking at your love life. I wanted to tell her that, even if she’s an only child and her parents want a grandchild oh so badly, she’s never obligated to have kids or even get married. She doesn’t need to marry the boy she grew up with, nor does she have a responsibility to please the family members around her. She has to live life for herself, and never let others’ opinions make her feel unworthy of love.
I began my research in order to explore the human drive for exclusive relationships and alternatives to it, but I think I also ended up finding a tiny bit of catharsis, just for me.
Did I find an answer to the ultimate question? Yes and no. Our desire for meaningful and long-lasting relationships, often with one unique individual, doesn’t seem to be caused by a discrete current. Instead, maybe it’s in our nature as a compassionate species to find peace in the souls of others, whether that be one or two or twenty people.
For one, I learned that marriage assumes no correlation with love, but that marriage is not always devoid of it.
Do all humans crave exclusivity? Some do, and some don’t, but that’s the beauty of it — at the risk of sounding cheesy: Love comes in all forms. Whether it be complete abstinence from committed relationships, or a fully-satisfying lifestyle of swinging, or somewhere in between, Valentine’s Day can be a beautiful holiday if there’s room for people who love to love in their own way. Even if it feels a bit unapparent at times.
This is the greater purpose of my work — to make everyone feel less invisible as we approach a holiday that ought to celebrate passion and acceptance and appreciation. Everyone is worthy and capable of love, regardless of the way we choose to pursue it.
Love may not be marriage to me — and that’s okay.
To me, love is running the dishwasher so my roommate’s have clean bowls in the morning. Love is giving my doggy delicate belly rubs and giving my parents’ handmade mugs that are gorgeous to look at but doomed in structural integrity. To me, love is smiling at the sun when it peeks out in the middle of these gloomy months. It’s smiling at the reflection I see in the mirror and telling her she’s worthy. Love is feeding a stray cat and love is venmoing a friend after they’ve had a rough day.
Love, to me, is boundless, undefined and utterly infinite.
Statement Columnist Valerija Malashevich can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.