Parts of the local political social media sphere melted down this week when, in a much-shared New York Times piece, former New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and his wife, Chirlane McCray, announced that they were shifting their relationship to a sort of separation while continuing to live in their longtime Brooklyn home and dating other people.
Much of the commentary was at best confused and at worst chortling at their expense. It might seem to some like a lurid or pointless public discourse, a kind of voyeuristic look at the marriage of a political public figure with an aim to keep someone in the headlines, but I think this knee-jerk assessment is rooted in the fact that when we hear about politicians’ marriages and relationships, it often is about infidelity and turmoil and corruption.
This, I’d argue, is a different, and welcome, situation. Anyone familiar with my work will know that I am far from a de Blasio fan (I recently referred to him in an essay as “snide and anemic”), but one thing the former mayor has always been is open about his personal life and struggles (less so about private consultants calling the shots at City Hall, but that’s a topic for another time). De Blasio made his family a centerpiece of his political career and, to a large extent, his administrative duties, with McCray having had myriad roles within his administration, most infamously in the much-panned ThriveNYC initiative.
For good or ill, the de Blasio family became something of a stand-in for the New York City family writ large — multiracial, two kids, lifelong New Yorkers with colorful histories — and their openness about their own evolution will, I hope, represent to a swath of New Yorkers that there many ways of being in a relationship and a marriage. We have, for reasons cultural and economic, long defaulted to the idea of a two-person monogamous relationship as the basic unit of society. What that means has shifted significantly over time, with the idea of cross-religious, interracial, and same-sex unions going from scorned and illegal to broadly accepted.
Perhaps we are headed towards accepting that this closed, two-person structure is in itself not the only way to do things. People sometimes get indignant, believing this type of tolerance will ultimately erode or dissolve the very concept of two-person monogamous relationships and families, but that shouldn’t cause fear any more than the idea that interracial or same-sex relationships can erode the viability of same-race or heterosexual relationships. (If you still feel like the very notion of non-monogamous relationships threatens the stability and integrity of your monogamous one, perhaps it’s time to think more deeply about why that is.)
Non-monogamy is not a new concept, and in fact there are records of non-monogamous relationships going back to the era of Mesopotamia. It also goes without saying that a whole lot of people who are monogamous on paper, are not so in practice. That’s not to imply that the introduction of a non-monogamous framework would or could fix relationships that already lack a certain trust and transparency, in the same way that having a child won’t magically restore untenable relationships. Yet the biggest myth about non-monogamy is that it will necessarily challenge what were previously monogamous relationships; in truth, according to many participants, the practice can often strengthen them.
It’s worth pointing out here that we don’t know the exact nature of de Blasio’s and McCray’s current arrangement, beyond their statement that they separating, will continue to live together for now, and will be dating other people. Given that a lot of folks consider this a somewhat taboo topic, there is a lot of confusion about what non-monogamy even entails, and what the terms mean.
A lot of people who’ve thought about this a lot longer and are much better versed than me have written on this — Janet Hardy’s and Dossie Easton’s 1997 tome The Ethical Slut seems to be the agreed upon starting point to really delve into the concepts — but by way of summary, the commonly used phrase “ethical non-monogamy” is seen as a kind of umbrella term for people who are in a non-exclusive romantic relationship of some sort. The other most often used term is probably polyamory, or “poly,” with the distinction generally being that this entails people in multiple relationships, sometimes in configurations where a group of people are all dating each other, or sometimes in configurations where multiple people might be dating the same person, but are not also dating each other.
Ultimately, all of this is semantics; the most important thing is open communication and trust. It’s the lack of this that fells most relationships, whether they be non-monogamous or monogamous. Whatever configuration de Blasio and McCray end up in, I commend them for doing what’s best for them and being willing to put that part of themselves in the public eye, and do so with what is in part a recommitment to each other.
It might seem a bit odd to dedicate today’s edition to this, given that our newsletter typically covers things like City Council bills and street infrastructure, but at the end of the day this is part of civic life, too. If we have more public figures coming out and exemplifying different ways to approach that most basic unit of society, I think we’re all the better for it.