Sexual monogamy is traditionally considered mating for life. Serial monogamy may be considered mating for finite periods of time. Is monogamy of some type always the right answer? Is it better than the alternatives? Or is monogamy irrelevant?
We hear about infidelity at every turn — boyfriends who hook up with others then blame it on the alcohol; girlfriends who do the same, though they may be better at not getting caught.
We have tales of unfaithful wives, unfaithful husbands, and adages insisting “once a cheater, always a cheater” with facile movie scripts that reinforce this pronouncement.
Facing off against sexual monogamy is the reality that people engage with more than one partner, invoking all kinds of hurt (and drama) when there is an expectation of exclusivity. So is the real dilemma one of communication and expectations? Or has society so brainwashed us that we cannot openly admit to wanting something other than the monogamous marital model?
Convention and Conversation
These subjects came up in conversation that began with an offhand set of remarks from a very slight acquaintance.
We were chatting about this and that when he asked about the man in my life, if I was still seeing him, and why we aren’t married. That led to: “Living together is a sin. You two should tie the knot.”
“Are you married?” I asked.
“Not anymore,” he replied.
“Would you marry again?”
He hesitated. “I’m not sure. Probably not.”
“But you believe in committed relationships?”
“Do you want one?”
“Then how is that different from what I’m doing?”
He quoted more scripture, declared marriage as being essential for having children, agreed that people may need sex (regardless of marital status), and then politely dodged further questions. As I wasn’t interested in pursuing that line of discussion further, I steered us back to more general comments and we said our goodbyes.
Definitions and Contradictions of Monogamy
If we consider the pros and cons of monogamy (“serial” or otherwise), we ought to ask — as compared to what? We also need to examine the context.
Here is one definition of monogamy:
… form of relationship in which an individual has only one partner during their lifetime or at any one time (serial monogamy)…
That definition goes on to contrast monogamy with various multi-partner configurations, and also notes distinctions between marital monogamy and social monogamy, the former being an arrangement of one partner only during the lifetime of a marriage and the latter being monogamy in cohabitation, that typically includes not only sex but pooling of resources similar to that in marriage.
Of course, the basis for some of our contradictions in monogamy is the fact that many will claim we are not “by nature” monogamous. Whether you buy into this or not, won’t you agree that to feel sexual attraction for others regardless of your relationship status is nothing out of the ordinary? Won’t you also agree that we are all different in what we want and need?
Still… Our bodies want what our bodies want. Whether we give in to those yearnings (or actively pursue them) is, to my mind, the heart of the matter.
The Advantages and Disadvantages of Sexual Monogamy
Do you rely on a single person for your emotional mirroring, emotional sharing, or your emotional well-being — besides yourself?
I don’t. I never have. I don’t expect one other person to be my “everything” and I certainly don’t want that pressure on me. (How small the world would seem; how much we would miss.) So should I deem this a resistance to emotional monogamy? Diversifying my emotional risk? Flourishing in emotional abundance? Perhaps that’s a discussion of a different stripe for another day. Playing devil’s advocate: Isn’t restricting oneself to a single sexual partner similar? Are you shocked by that perspective?
Most reach a point when one partner is what we choose — due to convention, because we’ve satisfied our curiosity, we’ve learned what we like, and we arrive at a stage where we appreciate the advantages of a single sexual partner.
Among those advantages:
- Emotional security, belonging, trust (intimacy)
- Familiarity (comfort, being oneself)
- Reduced risk of sexually transmitted diseases
- Societal approval, religious approval
- Certainty of parentage (for those bearing children)
- Boredom (too much familiarity)
- Sexual incompatibility
- Less pleasure, sexual and otherwise
In my list of disadvantages, I’m certain to get into trouble with some of you by the inclusion of that last item. Can’t we admit to a preference for certain sexual practices over others – and that we may feel limited in certain relationships and therefore seek out a more suitable partner even if only to rule out what we don’t enjoy?
Some Say Monogamy Is the Only Way
As I look at the pros and cons above, the pros have it — certainly for me. In my twenties, I was in a serious love relationship in which he wanted to marry and I knew in my gut it wasn’t for me. A few years later, there was another serious relationship and marriage was again discussed, though we never progressed beyond the discussion stage. I have occasionally said that had I accepted the offers I was extended in my twenties and early thirties, I would’ve been married and divorced four times by now.
Is that better or worse than loving and not biting off the expectations inherent in marriage?
As for the last disadvantage above, allow me to clarify. Let’s take this example. Suppose you’re in a long-term monogamous, loving relationship and your partner is All Missionary All The Time? I wouldn’t call this sexual incompatibility exactly, but if you are unsuccessful in encouraging your partner to engage in a broader set of mutual pleasures, couldn’t that become stifling? Is “a little on the side” an alternative to ending the relationship?
Having found myself in that situation years ago, I did not seek those pleasures elsewhere — it’s not my style — but I did reach a point when I could no longer remain in the relationship. I felt my sexuality shutting down, and likewise my self-worth.
Are Monogamous Relationships “Better?”
Psychology Today will point out all the reasons that monogamous relationships are better… maybe… in what I find to be a well-reasoned article. In particular, I agree with this viewpoint as expressed:
… contemporary American society has gotten carried away with its insistence that there is a right way to engage in sex (have lots of it, with just one person – or just one at a time). I think we should recognize that all sorts of approaches to sex (including asexuality and CNM) can be just fine for some people, and we should not keep trying to make everyone act and feel the same way. (This is not an endorsement of hurtful sex, of course.)
And that brings me back to the conversation I had in passing, wherein my acquaintance put forth a position that was rife with contradictions. It is also a position I’m very familiar with — one that would tend to incline toward notions of sin (to which I do not ascribe), and what equates to a gender-slanted determination of right and wrong.
False Sense of Security?
When most of us marry, we assume we are entering a monogamous relationship, or more specifically, continuing one — unless we agree otherwise. For some couples, as the years wear on, a practice of looking the other way becomes the norm as long as health, safety, and the core of the family unit are not put at risk. I would venture to say that this is more common than we realize, which is not an endorsement of the practice but rather, a recognition that it exists.
As for marriage, which we view as the “ultimate” commitment, the divorce rate suggests otherwise, and surely the expectations we bring to the table are part of the problem – not only of our partners (and marriage as safe haven), but expectations of ourselves as well. How can we possibly know how life will change us? How can we know the ways in which we will respond?
Moreover, why do we deny that people enjoy variety, especially during times of exploration (typically when young), or in times of transition (when rediscovering oneself)? I am not judging; I am acknowledging. Breaking one’s word (or a vow) is a terrible thing, but why can’t we admit that infidelity is widespread?
As this About.com article on infidelity notes: “Extramarital affairs are as old as marriage.” The writer offers her views on the matter:
Some say that monogamous relationships are not natural. They believe human beings are not biologically inclined to mate for life. I say that for every person who has had an affair there is probably a reason to justify it, in their eyes. My opinion is that we set our expectations of what marriage is too high. When our expectations aren’t met we look outside the marriage for someone who can meet them.
I personally believe that whether or not it is “natural” isn’t so much the point as whether or not it is advantageous and expressly agreed to.
Issues of Culpability
The article makes an especially excellent point about the other person involved in an act of infidelity:
… we like to pretend that if it hadn’t been for that other person there would have never been an affair. Problem is, there would have been, it just would have been a different other man/other woman.
We love to point fingers and blame someone for our own troubles. For example, we demonize “the other woman” though rarely do so when talking about “the other man” — more apt to take a “guys can’t help themselves” approach.
But the bottom line is this: breeches of infidelity should cause us to examine our own actions, words, and behaviors. Acts of unfaithfulness rarely take place in a vacuum, which is not to say – in my opinion – that we always play a role. The “slip” does indeed occur for both sexes in relationships that are fundamentally happy, satisfying, and intact.
If I am lingering on the notion of the drunken slip, it may be due to an excess of reality television in which this seems to be a recurring problem with both the young men and women as their relationships play out in front of the cameras.
And when infidelity isn’t a one-off, it is indeed a problem to be dealt with.
Long Term Relationships: Is Boredom Inevitable?
While the “drunken slip” may seem an easy excuse, it’s worth making a distinction between that and carrying on an affair that involves prolonged lying and sneaking around. There are also distinctions to be made between one indiscretion in 20 years, and one indiscretion every quarter… don’t you think?
Some men and women are incapable of sexual monogamy, and I won’t begin to guess at the reasons. I’m certain they’re complicated. I firmly believe that monogamy is a choice, just like the nature of a relationship between two people is a choice — their choice — easier for some than others. And infidelity can and does occur even in good relationships. In my opinion, the party line — a man (or woman) only cheats if there’s something awry in the relationship — is too pat an answer.
I also believe that it is too easy to toss out conclusions like “commitment issues” or “born cheater” and both strike me as simplistic and unfair. We love to label, don’t we? Is that because we don’t want to probe and deal with what isn’t really cut and dry?
From one of my own articles on the reasons for infidelity:
Statistics tell us that women commit infidelity with almost the same frequency as men, as some sources cite 57% of men saying they’ve cheated in a relationship and 54% of women confessing to the same.
The body wants what the body wants. Sometimes that is in direct conflict with the heart, the mind, and yes, common sense.
Serial Monogamy vs. Marriage
When I speak of serial monogamy, it is in the context of a marriage alternative or, if I am being absolutely honest, perhaps it includes a touch of marriage avoidance. I also consider any such arrangement practical, realistic, and not necessarily unromantic. It maintains all the advantages of monogamy in general, while not necessarily buying into the “marriage is forever” security myth.
This Psychology Today take on serial monogamy provides a clear “pro” that is supported by statistics. Serial monogamy is described as:
… A version of monogamy… commitment or exclusivity typical of monogamy is maintained but it is usually confined to a limited period… people still believe in some moderate form of ideal love, but give up their basic pretense that it should last forever…
The article continues by situating monogamy in human history:
There is empirical evidence indicating that monogamy has been prevalent only among a minority of human societies (less than 20%) and an even smaller minority among mammals (about 3%). Most people, throughout history and around the globe, have arranged things so that marriage and sex do not necessarily coincide. Moreover, in many otherwise monogamous societies, extramarital sex has been permitted under special conditions…
Referring to serial monogamy as a sort of “compromise” – a term about which I have mixed feelings – the article points out that research reflects:
… there is abundant evidence that people have long been prone to having multiple sexual partners. However, they also reject the claim that monogamy is unnatural or abnormal, especially since it is the way most people have been living in recent times. Human beings are enormously flexible creatures and exhibit adaptability in dealing with the issue of monogamy and romantic exclusivity.
He is a man in his fifties who would like to have a woman in his life, yet he doesn’t foresee himself marrying again. Still, he views my situation with discomfort, though he acknowledges that as consensual adults it doesn’t really concern him.
Monogamy: Wrong Issue?
Returning to the questions that I began with — whether or not monogamy is superior to having multiple partners, not to mention the relevance of “nature” in this debate — I draw my own conclusions, as you should.
I understand that marriage is a fundamental building block for contemporary society, not only as a social construct but an economic one. I am a believer in the importance of stability, which shouldn’t preclude the freedom to be who we are. Negotiating what that looks like, however, I see as the domain of individuals.
That said, family is the true core for me — partners who love, respect and support each other, and parents who work together for the welfare of their children. How that family unit is configured, to me, is a matter of consensual adults finding what works for them.
I have known few examples of mating for life — my grandparents did so, though I strongly suspect that both grandfathers may have indulged in “dalliances.” That said, their devotion to family was never in question. Is this right? Is this wrong? Is it acknowledging that over the course of 50 or 60 years a single sex partner is unlikely?
Aren’t loyalty and responsibility to family structure choices, at least as much as sexual monogamy?
As for serial monogamy, which is where I found myself in the years before I married, and certainly since my divorce, isn’t it possible to love and desire someone without the certainty that marriage is the best idea for the relationship? Isn’t this awareness more likely if you have watched friends or parents divorce, or lived through your own troubled marriage or difficult divorce? Shouldn’t we stop judging others’ consensual choices?
You May Also Enjoy