During a recent interview in Playboy (as reported in Elle), actress Scarlett Johansson discussed her attitude toward marriage and monogamy, about the same time she and her husband Romain Dauriac announced their split. She says that she regarded monogamy as difficult and unnatural, and although it might work for some, it doesn’t work for her.
"I think the idea of marriage is very romantic; it's a beautiful idea, and the practice of it can be a very beautiful thing… I don't think it's natural to be a monogamous person. I might be skewered for that, but I think it's work. It's a lot of work… [Marriage is] something I have a lot of respect for and have participated in, but I think it definitely goes against some instinct to look beyond."
While it may be unusual—even shocking or refreshing, depending on how you look at it—to hear an A-list Hollywood celebrity speak so frankly about having issues with monogamy, what she said about it will likely not to be novel to readers of Psychology Today or books such as Sex at Dawn by Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jethá or What Love Is by Carrie Jenkins. It is almost accepted wisdom today that monogamy does not come naturally to most humans and that it takes effort to stay monogamous (if one chooses to). To some, that effort is concerned a sign of love and devotion, but to others it is too high a cost to bear; in the end, it is up to each person to decide for themselves how they feel and then to be honest about it with their partners. (See the end of this post for some related posts on monogamy, commitment, and adultery.)
More interesting to me was the response to Johansson’s interview by Tim Lott in The Guardian, in which he also fails to be alarmed and instead puts a different spin on her statement:
I think that she may have something of a skewed perspective on monogamy. When you are one of the most beautiful and highly paid actors in the world, it may be that the temptation to “look beyond” takes on a more concrete form than it does for someone working on a jam doughnut production line in Woking. The often-unacknowledged reality about monogamy is that it frequently has less to do with integrity and more to do with demand, supply and opportunity.
To illustrate his point, he admits that “I have been monogamous during my two marriages, but I’m not sure that it’s entirely about my extraordinary powers of self-control. Truth is, I have not been inundated with offers.” Lott goes on to write about adultery in more general terms, but it is this insight that I want to explore here.
Lott’s point about monogamy and opportunity speaks more generally to our perception of our own morality and character, and the fact that it is easy to regard oneself as moral and above temptation if you have never faced it. As Lott admits, he has been successful at remaining faithful, but then again he has not had a wealth of opportunity to be unfaithful. But Scarlett Johansson is in a different situation: she is, according to a great many people, a very attractive woman, and we can safely assume that she does not lack opportunities to be with willing people outside of her relationship. She and Lott may be equally attracted to people other than their partners, but if she has more opportunity to be with them, she experiences more temptation to be unfaithful and it takes more work for her to resist it. If Lott has had less opportunity and less temptation, it would take less work for him to resist what little temptation he has.
To acknowledge the importance of opportunity and temptation is not to excuse infidelity; it does, however, remind us not to glorify those who remain faithful. We all like to imagine we would do the right thing in a moral dilemma we’ve yet to encounter, but we can’t be sure what we would actually do in that situation until it arises. As Immanuel Kant wrote, our strength “can be recognized only by the obstacles it can overcome” (The Metaphysics of Morals, p. 394). Temptation can definitely be a formidable obstacle to fidelity, but only if the temptation exists. As Lott wisely acknowledges, he’s been faithful but he’s not sure he deserves any credit for it but his willpower has not been tested very much. We can presume from Johansson’s comments that her willpower has been tested, and whether or not it was broken, she now knows how much work it is to remain faithful and can move forward in that knowledge.
In whatever form of relationship we choose to enter, whether monogamous or not, it is important to keep whatever promises to our partners that we make. What we can learn from Scarlett Johansson and Tim Lott is that we also need to be realistic about our chances of keeping those promises, especially before we make them. Promises made with little confidence about being able to keep them are meaningless and will only end up hurting the person you made the promise to. If you know that monogamy is hard for you, you should be careful about entering into a monogamous relationship until you’re sure you’re willing to put in the work to remain faithful.
As Ms. Johansson admits, that work isn’t for her. All of us should be that honest with ourselves—and with our prospective partners, whatever type of relationship we have.
For more on monogamy, adultery, and commitment, see my other posts, including:
A more complete list of my posts on adultery, relationships, and other topics can be found here.