On Breaking Your Promises


In previous blog posts I have discussed the nature of ethical relationships in both theoretical and practical terms. Some of these posts were polemical. I have also critiqued both monogamous and non-monogamous relationships. In other posts I found it useful to be more descriptive and locate the transitions and shifts and moments that define a relationship structurally and ethically. This piece follows the same method. The simple claim, perhaps very Bataillean, is that an ethical relationship partakes in an immoral behavior or, to be ethical one must be immoral.

I would also like to begin to develop a series of posts on popular misconceptions about ethical relationships, the confusion of ethics and morals as it pertains to the discussion, and the confusion of ethics and lifestyles. I break some of that ground at the end of this post.

Coming Home, Hal Ashby, 1978

Kant tells us that breaking a promise undermines the work of making promises. If the promise is continually broken, future promises will carry little weight and meaning, and eventually promise-making will stop being practiced (and this is a problem for morals and ethics).

Monogamy has two promises or two moral prescriptions. The first: “I promise that I will not cheat or, I promise that you are my one and only sexual partner (perhaps emotional partner too, but this part is a little trickier so let’s just stick with the concrete – feelings are messy).” This promise has an affect, probably two. What is more joyous than the proclamation to one another that you will both uphold this promise? This is an uncontentious claim. The ideal sexual union is filled with joy, thus our aspirations towards this type of exclusive and meaningful relationship, namely, that you both matter to each other more than anyone else in the world. But isn’t there also an affect of anxiety, the open expanse of the nothing? “How long do I keep this up and how long will my partner keep their promise?”

Monogamy’s second promise or moral attempts to minimize anxiety and it is also a more implicit promise in the contract (marriage might also minimize this anxiety): “I promise to breakup with you if you cannot keep promise #1.” This moral seems to found the relationship. Logically this has to be the case – without the implicit promise we would then have something like an unmonogamous monogamous relationship. But this promise is also routinely broken. Why is this the case? For convenience – it’s easier to stay together; out of fear perhaps – no one wants to be alone; most importantly, because of love. Love trumps the rule or, love is the exception to the rule.

Why is the first broken promise the topic of so much discussion and popular culture? Why is the second broken promise not as grave? If all promises must be kept because not upholding them undermines the whole process of promise-making, why allow this exception to the rule?

We know the answer: relationships are already non-monogamous or, there is no such structure or feeling as a oneness apart from the imperatives of world – we are already embedded and enmeshed in it and thrown into situations that work against the self-imposed exclusivity of the monogamous couple.[1] I discovered this some months ago while putting together another blog post –  an ethical monogamy must necessarily be polyamorous. Put differently, the promise that founds the relationship (If you cheat we break up!) is often quashed with love. Thus non-monogamy is not the direct opposition to monogamy; love, strangely enough, can be the latter’s enemy. If we love too much, promise #2 won’t stand a chance. Alternatively, in my thought experiment here the monogamist’s choice is between the abstract idea of the monogamous structure (including all its promises) and the concrete experience of love.

Monogamy wants love and the two promises/morals; however, if we believe what I’ve said, it is impossible to hold both. Sometimes promises are better off broken or, we’re ready to make better ones: “I promise to love you even if…”[2] One version of sexual and romantic relationship tries to impose morals (the two promises). What I think we already do is work against morality in both large and small ways – I call this ethics.

The popular misconception is that an individual who practices an alternative to monogamy does so because of the first promise/moral. In this reading, non-monogamy becomes a lifestyle, as in practicing yoga or preferring one type of outfit to another (I recently saw a clothing store named Lifestyle). Indeed, my desire for a wide selection of clothing and my freedom to change at whim according to my tastes, seems to apply to one’s sexual and emotional desires. Like clothing, it is imperative that I enjoy as many partners as much as possible. Thus the popular misconception that the non-monogamist refuses the first promise firstly; they would rather switch partners like changing outfits. This is what I would call lifestyle non-monogamy. (This is already a problematic concept, albeit commonly practiced and discussed. If we use the term lifestyle for our interpersonal relationships, monogamy is also a lifestyle; however, we rarely say such a thing. Traditions aren’t lifestyles.)

When a relationship is considered as part of one’s everyday ethical practices, the appeal and imperative of non-monogamy begins to take a stronger form. In fact, it is more accurate to say that the ethical non-monogamist does not feel the need to work against the first promise because of their wild and uncontrolled sexual desire. Rather, the ethical individual is unable to perform the second promise. Instead, the implicit promise of monogamy (#2) is made explicit and subsequently rendered meaningless – a partner can “cheat” and is encouraged to do so because the desire to impose one’s own needs upon another is relinquished. This is what Foucault observed as the fascist tendencies in us all. If this fascism is part of our ontology (conditioned as it is by contemporary social and cultural imperatives, such as enjoyment), our task is to identify and struggle against precisely what those fascist tendencies are. Rather than turning the non-monogamist into a sexual and emotional hero as most monogamists do – “I agree with the structure in principle, but I could never do that” –  I have hopefully demonstrated that we are already primed to not be monogamists and, in fact, already practice this kind of immoral behavior in our loving relationships.

Thus we see that an ethics that fosters and encourages sexual, emotional, and intellectual relationships apart from the exclusivity of the couple differs greatly from the morality that founds the traditional romance. Morality partakes in particular sets of traditions, social and cultural practices, and institutions with the aim of maintaining those sets with a minimal amount of harm done to others in the process. Ethics, on the other hand, confronts us with imperatives: what does this person need from me, what do they want, how can I help them get there even at the expense of my own physical and emotional well-being. Morality contains nothing of the word sacrifice while ethics certainly does when pushed to its limits. So we see that an ethical relationship, as I argued and described above,  cannot keep promise #2. The ethical non-monogamist, contra the lifestyle non-monogamist, founds their relationship upon the destruction of the second promise to thereby directly engage with the imperatives their partner(s) demand.

[1] A strange thing to write given my thought experiment involves a cheating partner. The topic of cheating is for another time.

[2] In the hypothetical relationship/situation put forward here, it would be impossible to say the reverse of “I promise to love you even if you have other partners.” “I promise to love you even if you want to be monogamous” is again countered with love. This latter promise does nothing for the relationship because, hypothetically, promise #2 might very well pose a challenge when cheating (or a desire for flirtation, whatever) happens. Promise #2 and individuals’ frequent inability to keep it confronts the individuals with the greater and more difficult promise, i.e., “I promise to love you even if….” But this promise is also idealized by the monogamist, thus my efforts to here describe the fact that monogamy does not exist. This “even if…”, “through sickness and health” and so on, implies non-monogamy. Monogamy undermines itself by the demands it places upon itself.