Everything you've been taught about love is sentimental hogwash, says psychotherapist Adam Phillips. Relationships can't be worked on, women aren't any more dependent than men -- and there's nothing wrong with infidelity.

Published February 19, 1997 8:00PM (EST)

when Cupid draws back his bow, does he pin us to the wall in ways we'd never imagined? Adam Phillips clearly thinks so. In his tart and casually profound new book, "Monogamy" (Pantheon, not paginated), this London-based child psychotherapist and philosophical provocateur explores what we mean when we talk about fidelity and coupledom, and his musings are not for the emotionally faint of heart. "At its best monogamy may be the wish to find someone to die with," the skeptical Phillips writes. "At its worst it is a cure for the terrors of aliveness. They are easily confused."

Phillips is the author of five books, including two wonderful (and wonderfully named) extended essays, "On Flirtation" and "On Kissing, Tickling, and Being Bored." But "Monogamy" may be his most probing and original work to date. A collection of 121 aphorisms, "Monogamy" argues that we need to find a new language to talk about our romantic hopes and desires. The book also argues that our thinking about monogamy has been blinkered by any number of cultural biases. "Infidelity is such a problem because we take monogamy for granted; we treat it as the norm," Phillips writes. "Perhaps we should take infidelity for granted, assume it with unharassed ease. Then we would be able to think about monogamy."

Whether or not you agree with Phillips' somewhat gloomy take on coupledom, it is impossible to discount his belief that "to talk about monogamy is to talk about everything that might matter. Honesty, murder, kindness, security, choice, revenge, desire, loyalty, lying, risk, duty, children, excitement, blame, love, promising, care, curiosity, jealousy, rights, guilt, ecstasy, morals, punishment, money, trust, envy, peace, loneliness, home, humiliation, respect, compromise, rules, continuity, secrecy, chance, understanding, betrayal, intimacy, consolation, freedom, appearances, suicide, and, of course, the family ... Monogamy is a kind of moral nexus, a keyhole through which we can spy on our preoccupations."

Adam Phillips spoke with Salon via telephone, from his office in London.

I've been surprised to see your new book, "Monogamy," promoted in the States with ads that seem to be keyed to Valentine's Day. Wouldn't "Monogamy" make a bit of a poisonous valentine? You certainly seem to find infidelity more interesting that monogamy, which you say "can seem like a kind of death" or a "cure for the terrors of aliveness."

I think that's true in a sense. But the book is not intended to be either pro-monogamy or anti-monogamy. One problem, as I say in the book, is that we don't have a very good language for celebrating good relationships. There's a sense in which the good monogamous relationship, which for a lot of people is an ideal, and a valuable one, doesn't have very good language to describe it. I think that is interesting. It's a bit like the way bad characters in literature are more interesting than good ones. The flawed relationship, or the relationship that doesn't work, gets all the press.

Whether or not my book would make a good Valentine's present seems to me difficult to judge. It's about the difficulty of simply thinking and talking about monogamy. Monogamy is an intrinsically fraught subject. If you and your partner go out for dinner and talk about monogamy, the conversation is likely to get quite difficult. And there's a reason for this. Monogamy seems to me peculiarly difficult to talk about in a way that, as it were, moves the story on or modifies our ideas about it. And this suggests to me that it's a very powerful, quasi-sacred idea. This book is not at all promoting the value of infidelity. It's much more promoting something about the difficulty of actually being able to describe and redescribe this thing that a lot of us take for granted. I don't think we should all not be monogamous. For some people, monogamy works very well. For some people, it's extremely difficult.

"To talk about monogamy," you write, "is to talk about virtually everything that might matter." How so?

That is obviously a rhetorical point put provocatively. It's simply to suggest that there's a sense in which, when we think about monogamy -- that is, when we think about a fundamental picture of a couple -- it evokes and provokes an awful lot of the things that matter most to us. We're born from a couple, we begin our lives in a couple, we find ourselves in various forms of coupledom in our adulthood. It is as though that image of the couple -- whether it is a kind of Christian iconography, mother and child, or the Divine Couple, or whatever it might be -- is immensely powerful and evocative.

And yet we humans are not naturally monogamous, are we?

No, we're not. But most of us can't help but have relationships with other people of one form or another.

I'm interested in the way you compare believing in monogamy to believing in God. Does monogamy really do for us what religion used to do by making larger abstractions -- faith, hope, trust -- manifest in our lives?

I think there is a sense that monogamy can become a secular religion. If for a lot of people there is no viable religious faith, then the obvious question is: What does one believe in? And one secular answer to this is: relationships with people. But it's not as if the old theological vocabulary just disappears. I think it's displaced. So the kind of words we would once have used about our relationship with God get used about our relationships with each other. It's not an accident that, say, fidelity is the word we use for a certain kind of monogamous relationship. Because this was originally a religious term. I think that watching the way the language evolves is a way of watching the history of changing relationships. For a lot of people now, they're going to find moral gravity, or some kind of meaning in their lives, from the central relationships in their lives. In certain cultures, this is going to be a monogamous relationship. Because I think it really is to do with questions of belief and commitment and engagement and passion. What is one investing one's deepest feelings in?

You seem to think that monogamists are doomed to internal conflict -- that they tear themselves apart over the things they want vs. the things they think they should want. Is happiness that elusive in a relationship?

There are no relationships without conflict. If psychoanalysis has a value, maybe one of its values is that it just abides by the idea that there is always going to be conflict. That we have within us conflicting and equally valuable desires. An awful lot of people, for example, are really committed to nurturing their children and loving their partner. But it's very difficult for a lot of people now to put together their erotic life, and their sexual selves, and that part of themselves that wants to nurture their children. And there isn't an easy solution to this. So in a way the book holds out for the value of the conflict for letting the diverse voices speak inside of oneself -- rather than too easily producing a kind of Moral Majority or righteous indignation view.

What about the implications of monogamy for children? There's a memorable moment in your book where you ask, "What are children if we stay together because of them? What are we asking them to be?"

Well, I think children are at the center of this picture. I regret that there aren't more aphorisms about children. There are obvious points here. One is that as children, growing up with our parents or various permutations of our parents, we have been given messages about coupledom -- about what it is to be in a couple, and what the possibilities for pleasure and pain are in a couple. For some people, there can be nothing more dismaying than the experience of growing up in a couple who are radically unhappy with each other. So we have to wonder then, in the couple who say they are staying together because of the children, are the children being used as an alibi? How good is it for the children that they are burdened with the onus of responsibility for the relationship? Plus the more obvious point, which is: What are they learning about couples from this couple called their parents? They may be learning that coupledom is hell, for example. Or that coupledom is a scenario in which people like to humiliate each other. So this is a complicated issue. I don't think this is solved by the so-called return to family values. Or in making lifelong commitments to people which can in fact only be wishes.

You must be fascinated watching these issues -- family values, monogamy, infidelity -- play out in U.S. politics and particularly in Bill Clinton's presidency.

Oh yes, for sure. This is our image pool, isn't it? We're being given messages from the most powerful people, who are either politically powerful or wealthy or both, about what couples are supposed to do together, and what makes for a good couple. And so all the time we are having to match ourselves against the images that can seem extremely idealized -- or can feel intrinsically humiliating. I have to match my lived, experienced life against the lives I am being offered fictionally and on television and so on. And it can be a very baffling kind of relationship.

Are Americans more uptight than Europeans, or are we just more hypocritical?

I really don't know (laughs). I think there's probably an equal share of hypocrisy on both sides. But certainly the family values phrase is as vivid here as a slogan as I imagine it is there.

When we're talking about Bill Clinton -- and when we're talking about infidelity -- aren't we talking less about internal conflict than we are about trust? The idea that people shouldn't say one thing and do another?

Well, it may be that we have to rethink our ideas about trust. Because it may be an impossible demand, to demand that people be that internally consistent. If we were to look at it from a pejorative point of view, we'd call it hypocrisy. If we were to look at it from a slightly more benign point of view, we might call it conflict. That there is a really complex relationship internally between our beliefs and our desires. And that's why it seems to me that Freud is an interesting writer. Not a figure to idolize, but an interesting writer. It seems to me that he is giving us some kind of persuasive account of how it's almost as though what we think of hypocrisy is built into the picture. That we can't be consistent with ourselves, that our preferences don't always accord with our standards. So it could be that the kind of demands we make on public figures, for moral wholesomeness, might be really misleading and tyrannical.

You aren't very optimistic about the idea of working on failing relationships. You write that "it is no more possible to work on a relationship than it is to will an erection." Should troubled couples throw therapy out the window?

No, not that exactly. But one of my experiences is that relationships have a kind of shelf life. They have a beginning, a middle and an end. And often the most difficult thing to acknowledge is when the relationship ends. I think what makes relationships work between people is extremely mysterious. I mean, we used to call it chemistry. And if it weren't so silly, I'd want to go back to using words like that. Something really quite mysterious and unpredictable happens between people. But the life can go out of a relationship. Sometimes, as we know, in all relationships there are periods of disillusionment and periods of reillusionment where the thing comes back to life. But sometimes it doesn't come back to life. And the most difficult thing then is to separate. I think it's misleading to think that you can work at relationships in the same way that you can work on fixing a car. I think relationships are profoundly non-technological. I think we are more like trees than cars. What people call "working at a relationship" can be really, I think, quite misleading. Often it means waiting to see if something comes back to life. And I would want people to be able to know when the relationship is finished, and cope with the consequences.

How different are the sexes in terms of their opinions and feelings about monogamy and infidelity?

I think the most misleading thing one can do is make generalizations about differences between the sexes. All the pressure is simply to say men are this, women are that. It's much more useful to look at individual preferences, because the risk is you typecast people according to gender and you produce normative standards that people have to match themselves against. So I would want to answer your question much more along the lines of: How are specific people in specific cultures encouraged according to their gender to have certain beliefs about monogamy? A generalized answer would be misleading. And I think this is a problem for everybody. We all like to, as it were, put bits of it onto the other sex. It's very convenient to believe, for example, for men to believe that women are more dependent than men. It's manifestly untrue.

We don't allow the promiscuous to grow old gracefully, do we?

Well, it seems to me that there's a lot of scapegoating around promiscuity. There's a kind of suspicion about people who want to have lots of sexual or nonsexual relationships with people. As though the real or the authentic or the true or the deep-feeling person is going to have very few relationships -- or only one. Built on those kind of beliefs, there is an idea that, "OK, we can put promiscuity in adolescence." And you'll grow out of it. In other words, we've got to put it somewhere -- so we can put it in adolescence, when everybody is allowed to do it. Or we can put it in people who are going through a crisis. What we can't entertain easily is the possibility that promiscuity might be as normal as its opposite. Now it is really striking that not only do we not want old people to have sex at all -- presumably because we didn't want our parents to have it -- but attached to that is the idea that people can't go on having sex with several people. That there's something distasteful about it. I think in a way old people are being used, simply to locate a distaste about sex.

Maybe we're simply jealous of people who have a lot of sexual relationships. Which reminds me that you write that jealousy itself is important within a relationship -- that without it, our partners can become invisible.

Oh yes. I think there's no way around sexual jealousy, nor should we be trying to find one. I think that jealousy is inextricable from passion. What may be possible, though, is to have a different internal relationship to jealousy. Or it may be possible to bear jealousy in a less vengeful way. That, I suppose, would be one of my ideals here. Not that we would cease to be jealous, but that we would be able to bear jealousy. And that would mean really being able to acknowledge that other people are independent of our desires for them. Just like we ourselves can love and desire more than one person, so can the people we love. Now, this may be too hard an ideal. But it seems to me preferable to the alternative.

Here is the final aphorism from your book: "Monogamy and infidelity: the difference between making a promise and being promising." Why is this your exit line?

Because I think that when one is writing about relationships between people, one is writing to some degree about promise. About possibilities for the future and predictions about the future. To enter into a relationship is a kind of prophetic act -- it implies a future even though it is an unknown one. And it implies a future in which there are certain kinds of pleasures possible. So I suppose I am interested in what people can give to each other, and what people imagine others can give to them. It's something about that -- the idea of being able to make a promise, and the idea of being promising in spite of the promises one makes as well as because of them. That's what I am interested in.

By Dwight Garner

Dwight Garner is Salon's book review editor.

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