Monogamy: “it’s not natural”

January 24, 2014

monogamy“Do you think monogamy’s natural?” I asked a girlfriend at lunch the other day.

“Absolutely  NOT!!”   She was emphatic.  “We’re raised to believe it’s natural and easy–no one tells us just how much work it takes.”

We laughed, because we are both serial monogamists who know just exactly how much work monogamy can be.

6109707440_292b0ef62f_z“I’m not particularly monogamous,” a long-married friend committed to their spouse confided not too long ago.

And I think that is pretty much the norm.


Before you freak out, think about it:

As much as we want monogamy to be natural –and every indication is that we do, we even take vows pledging it– there’s plenty of evidence that it’s not particularly natural.  Our divorce rate. The development of polyamory as a lifestyle option. The long history of polygamy in certain religious groups. “Cheating” scandals. Sex clubs. The swinging lifestyle. Hugh Hefner.   PLENTY of evidence.

It might not even be related to fidelity, if you look at the dictionary definition of fidelity.

2202281932_f6bebec9e6_zMarriages died young way back when, because people died young.  They just didn’t live long enough to…get bored, maybe. I think that plays into it. But the truth is that cheating has always been built into certain cultures as unspoken “arrangements,”  more so in the last century than in this one. You don’t have to dig very deep to get through the facade of monogamy.

So, I’m asking:

Is monogamy unreasonable? Difficult? Is it dead?  What other relationship options might future generations grow to accept?

I’m way interested in what you think on this subject and would love your comments below.

34 comments on “Monogamy: “it’s not natural”
  1. what an interesting article. I don’t think monogamy is dead, in fact I think it’s become more popular. Personally, I think it’s up the individual. The older I get, the less I judge what others do. “Whatever gets you through the night” by John Lennon has more and more meaning to me these days!

  2. Wow, great post, but lots of issues presented here, not just monogamy. I do think that monogamy is biologically motivated – survival instinct and all that. Lifetime, well, like your article mentioned – it takes work. But to sum up the demise of monogamy based on divorce rates and cheating and the other evidence raised is to completely ignore the high rate of dysfunction in our society. I think the trend away from monogamy is more evidence of a society full of people who are emotionally unavailable trying to find the ‘idea’ of love but incapable of emotionally attaching in a healthy way rather than people evolving and changing and moving away from monogamy because it’s not natural but learned. That said, relationships are work and take time. Maybe we don’t all desire to put that effort in because being monogamous is not a core value to us.

    • admin says:

      Wow, Carolyn, that comment took me all over the place, really good points. The possibility that monogamy might not be a core value is something broader society might not want to accept –or even some people might not want to believe about themselves, because monogamy is so ingrained. Thanks for the thoughtful response.

  3. Janie Emaus says:

    I don’t think it’s dead. But it sure is a lot of work.

  4. CAC2 says:

    In the biological sense, monogamy is very unnatural especially in males. Our genes direct our brains to constantly seek novelty when it comes to sexual partners, so that we can spread our genetic information as rapidly as possible. This novelty-seeking behavior is fueled by the neurotransmitter dopamine, which is heavily involved in our reward mechanisms. This is also the neurotransmitter manipulated by drugs such as cocaine and amphetamines — dopamine feels good. When we observe other organisms, it is clear that males stay with their mate long enough to allow to offspring to reach a viable age, at which point they begin to “philander.” This behavior helps to explain the “seven year itch” we see in humans. That being said, the urge humans will feel to be polygamous will probably never go away — it is hardwired into our DNA (and thus our brains) and played an essential role in living organisms, past and present. Now, is monogamy dead? No. Human beings are unique in that we have a prefrontal cortex that allows us to decide whether or not we act on the impulses we receive from our limbic system (aka the “reptilian brain”). As long as we have a prefrontal cortex, monogamy is very much alive. Then again, as long as we have the limbic system, so is the urge to be polygamous.

    For further reading, see Richard Dawkins’s 1976 book “The Selfish Gene”

  5. Carol Graham says:

    Reading your post, I put myself into it at different points of my life (and my 41 year second marriage). Circumstances, emotions, trials, opportunities all played a great part in the decision to remain monogamous. My daughter is 28 and started dating her husband in their sophomore year of high school. They were together 7 years before they married. They were both virgins on their wedding night. This took a lot of strength and character and I applaud them. My point being, they made the decision to be “monogamous” even before marriage and it is a mind set. That does not mean that there will not be temptations through their lives but they took this decision very seriously and was not influenced by their peers. I firmly believe that there are very few repercussions to stepping outside the circle of monogamy in our society because “everyone” is doing it. I am certainly not standing in judgment in any way, shape or form but felt that one of the answers to this question was looking at the youth and how their attitudes have changed and what it takes to remain true to one self and the choices made. Most of their friends wish they had “waited” before marriage because the attitude carried through into their marriages. They felt that if they were monogamous before marriage, it may not have been a problem after marriage, often ending in divorce with this being a huge factor.

  6. I agree that monogamy is not the natural state for animals (and make no mistake, we are animals), but I guess as human beings we aspire to holding certain values that may be difficult to maintain. I’ve been with my husband for 16 years and he’s the only man I’ve made love to in that time. What I realized going in is that you have to take monogamy one day at a time, like its own mini-12-step program. If you think about monogamy lasting until your spouse, or you, die, it’s just too much to handle. There’s my sage advice.

    • admin says:

      That’s pretty sage, to me! Yes, I think it is a choice you make and affirm along the way. Values in a way are choices, they’re not hard-wired.

  7. Kimba says:

    I think the idea of one person to meet all your needs is unrealistic. If monogamy translates to doing EVERYTHING with just one other person, then that concept is doomed. I think you can be married and be monogamous in a sexual sense, but you have to have friends – which can be both male and female – outside of the relationship.

  8. Karen says:

    I read somewhere that in the 1800s, the average marriage lasted about 7 years–which meant that “until death do us part” had a different connotation from what it does these days.

    That said, I think monogamy is in many ways the easier choice–polygamy, infidelity, etc. all involve a great deal of emotional juggling and angst…and frankly, who has the time or energy for it? I’m in my 2nd marriage, but I’ve been here for 30 years now, and have no desire to change that.

  9. Monogamy is not natural, in my estimation, but (I run the risk of being a sexist), I think that feeling is more so with males. But aside from that, couples should stay together IF there are children because financial / guidance support is needed from BOTH parents. Child support is a hassle system and for the most part doesn’t work. I don’t feel society should be tasked with paying for the upkeep of kids for 18 years each, just because parents (mostly the male) want to opt out of their responsibilities … assuming he even acknowledges his parenthood. In the Netherlands and other less-Puritanically hypocritical countries than the USA, sex workers are unionized and have more physicals than the general population. When the legal and safe alternatives are there to sample strange wares, (speaking for both sexes), couples stay together then because they want to, without court orders or “broken” families and shattered fairy tale dreams.

    • admin says:

      “shattered fairy tale dreams” — strong words, but clearly born of experience. The Netherlands is not perfect but in so many ways they are more realistic about most things.

  10. Hi Carol! You definitely “had” me with your provocative title. As far as whether monogamy is “natural” is that it all depends upon your definition of natural. What is natural? If you are only concerned with the physical and biological, there is lots of evidence that as part of the animal kingdom it might appear unnatural (although there are certain species that mate for life). From a spiritual or soul perspective “natural” takes on an entirely different perspective. Ultimately, I think human sexuality is much more complex than a simple black or white answer….and that’s precisely why there is no one simple answer! ~Kathy

  11. Beth says:

    Monogamy over a lifetime? No way! Monogamy in a relationship? That feels good.

  12. I’m currently having the most torrid affair with my husband of 27 years. It’s freaking awesome!! But the road here was neither easy or straoght.

  13. I agree with Kathy of Smart Living 365. Many people find their hearts open to the idea of loving more than one person—if that works for all involved, why not? Monogamy is getting closer examination as people try to make sense of divorce statistics and understand the surge of alternative life styles. Who knows where we’ll be in another 20 or 30 years.

  14. Susan Adcox says:

    As one who was a young adult in the 60s, I’m not sure there’s a trend away from monogamy. I think we’ve always had many individuals who find it difficult. The work-arounds just keep changing. I also know that I’m much less shocked by the idea of swinging/open marriage/whatever than my Gen X children are. I don’t know how typical that is. I’m referring to our reactions to the idea, not to any personal dalliances.

    • admin says:

      What an interesting observation about generational differences. I wonder if we’d have been as shocked at that age?

  15. k~ says:

    Monogamy, polyamory, polygamy… They are all stages set by the players involved in the storyline. To wonder whether or not monogamy is something people determine is “natural” is almost as silly as determining whether or not their preference for a particular hair color is “natural” when they are choosing someone to mate with.

    Sex is one thing, a relationship is another. Monogamy when agreed upon between two people (of any sex) is a commitment to that relationship, based upon their own beliefs and values. It would make sense then that the divorce rate (where I am sure you are talking about one man, and one woman, because we have not the history of time behind us yet to determine otherwise), is more likely based on betrayal and a lack of communication than monogamy. Something happened to short circuit their ability to communicate effectively (if they ever could) and one or the other partner felt that the communication would be better found in another place, with another person.

    Many people get involved with each other based on a chemistry that dictates their sexual desires, not necessarily reproduction. Though I am sure that some biological component adds to the initial attraction between a man and a woman, it would be short-sighted to believe that all relationships are derived from an instinctual need to replicate.

    In my experience it is more often than not a desire to be wanted, than a desire to have multiple partners, that creates the need/want for something other than monogamy. I believe it is more common than not to have more than one partner, but I also believe that the majority of the people seeking more than one partner, do so in secrecy.

    • admin says:

      I’m not sure it’s as much a communication issue as it is a difference in relationship needs. But there’s a lot to think about in your comment. Thanks.

  16. Tammy says:

    A thought provoker to be sure. I value monogamy. A lot. I promise and I expect it in return. I think that the problem is less that it’s unnatural and more that we don’t take the time to choose our life partner correctly. Ignoring red flags, hoping we can love our spouse through it, all pitfalls that lead to dark places. Choose well, communicate clearly, set boundaries and always be willing to be there for each other. Yup, it’s a bit of work. Most things worth having are.

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