Why Monogamy Actually Isn’t Natural. At All.
Is there any hope for happily-ever-after?
Back when I was married and my kids were little, I briefly became obsessed with the HBO show Big Love.
If you’re not familiar, it’s about a polygamist living in Utah who has three wives and nine kids. He’s played by Bill Paxton, a guy with such a friendly puppy dog face, he actually makes the character likeable (in spite of his being a religious nut with a mini-harem).
I’ll admit, in those days of sorting endless piles of laundry and coaxing small people to take naps in between running errands and fixing snacks, the idea of having a few sister wives to share the load with seemed pretty appealing. So what if it meant having to share my husband with them as well? It might be worth it. And if my husband was sleeping around (albeit with a sister wife), then maybe I’d get a hall pass too once in a while.
The problem with this idea – or I should say, one of the problems with this idea – is that I’m a classic Scorpio. We are jealous people, and fiercely loyal, too. When I’m with someone, I have zero interest in being with anyone else. If my eye starts to wander, it’s a sign that the relationship is foundering. And the thought of my man being intimate with someone else? Rage is not even the word.
In some sense, I ended up finding the perfect solution. I got divorced. After we split up, my ex and I shared care of the kids more equitably than we had while we were married, giving me built-in breaks when I was free to pursue other activities – and other partners.
Elisabeth Sheff, PhD, author of The Polyamorists Next Door: Inside Multiple-Partner Relationships and Families, says serial monogamy – having a series of exclusive relationships with different people over our lifetimes – is increasingly the norm, rather than classic monogamy, in which people have just one partner for their entire lives. She puts this down to the fact we’re living longer lives, women have more independence than ever before, and birth control allows us to have sex without reproducing (for the most part).
Sheff actually goes as far as to say monogamy doesn’t come naturally to humans, telling the website Hopes and Fears that “it seems more natural for humans to want a personal harem, so each of us get to enjoy sexual variety, but insist on sexual exclusivity for our lovers, so we don’t have to deal with jealousy.”
Sounds about right to me. We want to have our cake and eat it too – and we don’t want our partners to have any cake at all, except the one we baked for them, no matter how tired they get of eating it.
The biology of monogamy
So is Sheff onto something? Are humans even supposed to monogamous? According to Livescience, only three to five per cent of mammals – we’re talking 5,000 different species – are monogamous. Geese are some of the most hardcore: even if their mate is killed, they’ll never be with another goose again. They’ll just live out the rest of their days alone. Other one-animal-only types include beavers, wolves, and certain kinds of bats.
But those geese, beavers and bats are the outliers. In the animal kingdom, the most prevalent style of mating habit is serial polygyny. This means males get it on with more than one female, so as to spread their seed as far and wide as possible, while females only mate with one male over the course of their lifetime. (Er, no, thank you.)
One of the most outspoken opponents of modern monogamy is Christopher Ryan, PhD. He wrote the 2010 tome, Sex at Dawn: How We Mate, Why We Stray, and What it Means for Modern Relationships. (Side note: I once slept with a guy who had this book on a shelf next to his bed. I didn’t notice it until the next morning. Red flag, anyone?) Ryan told Hopes and Fears that as humans, “the depth of our passion for novelty” should not be underestimated – and he claims there’s nothing wrong with that.
“Why shouldn’t we be attracted to novelty in our sexual lives, when we consider the same appetites to be indicative of intelligence when applied to music, travel, food, languages and art?”
So I guess if I was checking out a hot guy at Shake Shack the other day, it means I’m super smart? Hmmm.
Love versus instinct
Ryan also seems to imply we’re fooling ourselves if we think our lovers are going to be completely faithful to us for the rest of our lives.
“Vanishingly few of us restrict ourselves to a single sexual partner over a lifetime. Some cultures demand sexual monogamy, but they need to resort to horrible punishments to enforce these brutal, anti-human laws – a clear indication of just how strong our sexual appetites are.”
Whoa. Doesn’t anybody believe in love anymore? I know Brad and Angie didn’t make it, but I went to a wedding last weekend and let me tell you, those kids looked like a couple of starry-eyed geese to me.
Evergreen State College Professor of History and Family Studies, Stephanie Coontz, says there’s hope. The author of The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap says humans aren’t necessarily programmed to be monogamous or polygamous.
“We have impulses toward both, and how we handle those depends upon our social settings, cultural traditions, personal values, and individual problem-solving techniques,” explains Coontz.
In other words, we don’t have to be slaves to our biology. It’s worth noting there’s also a difference between being sexually monogamous and socially monogamous. Being sexually monogamous means only having sex with one partner. Being socially monogamous means pairing up and raising children with just one mate, while continuing to have sex with other partners on the side. This works for some people – for example, Tori Spelling and Dean McDermott, who just announced they’re expecting their fifth child, in spite of McDermott’s many well-known romps.
Will somebody think of the children?!
Having children does seem to keep couples together, whether or not they’re seeking partners outside the marriage.
“The human species has evolved to make commitments between males and females in regards to raising their offspring,” University of New Mexico evolutionary anthropologist Jane Lancaster told Livescience.
And social and evolutionary psychologist Daniel Kruger says that humans “do have this pretty strong pair bond, and there’s more paternal investment than in most other primates.” And it does seem that more and more people might be staying together for the sake of the kids: the divorce rate is actually falling.
Although common wisdom has long held that half of all marriages end in divorce, about 70 per cent of couples who married in the 1990s celebrated their 15th anniversary, compared with 65 per cent of marriages that started in the 1970s and 1980s, according to a report by the New York Times. What’s more, couples who tied the knot in the 2000s are divorcing at even lower rates. University of Michigan economist Jonathan Wolfers estimates two-thirds of marriages today will go the distance, if current trends continue.
Whether or not those marriages are happy is another question entirely – as is whether the participants will be sexually monogamous, or only socially monogamous. Interestingly, although men are usually thought of as the partners more likely to stray, perhaps due to their inborn instinct toward serial polygyny, experts say it’s women who are more likely to call it quits on a marriage.
“Two-thirds of divorces are initiated by women,” says marriage therapist and University of Minnesota professor William Doherty, who puts the change in divorce rates down to”changes in women’s expectations.”
The people least likely to get divorced are college-educated couples who married in the early 2000s; only 11 per cent of them split by their seventh anniversary. But again, there’s no way to know how many of those couples are actually sexually monogamous. The Ashley Madison hack last year – which found a high concentration of would-be cheaters in the family-friendly haven of Park Slope, Brooklyn – would seem to indicate that not many of them are.
But maybe there’s hope after all. Let’s go back to Coontz, who reminds us that even though humans are often tempted to stray, how we choose to behave is ultimately up to us.
“Today, we are trying to figure out how to combine long-term romantic relationships with the plethora of opportunities for other forms of sexual or romantic entanglement. Different people are making different choices. The point is that we do have choices about our sexual behavior – and whatever we end up choosing, it’s always going to take work to make the best of them.”
GIFs via giphy.com.
Comment: Do you think humans are meant to be monogamous?