I want to start this out by saying that I, personally, am monogamous by nature. I have never felt the urge to cheat on either of my boyfriends… not that it was a wanton desire that I had to resist to maintain my own moral standing… it was just never a thing that occurred to me. Even when I have casual sex partners, I have one at a time, not due to some kind of rule I have, but because I seem to neither want nor need multiple sexual partners. On top of that, I would imagine that having multiple partners, whether romantic or just sexual, would take too much management for me to deal with… the supposed “thrill” of having multiple partners just wouldn’t be worth the effort. Monogamy is not a struggle for me… it’s just sort of the way that I am.
Monogamy has been a facet of human relationships and sexuality at least since the advent of the big monotheistic religions, and in some places even before that. Even human societies in which non-monogamous relationships are accepted and common, people still seem to form bonds with one other person, resulting in some degree of monogamous behavior. It’s pretty well entrenched in modern western society, and as a result there is a kind of assumed moral superiority given to monogamy.
Polyamorous relationships and open relationships (for the purpose of defining terms, an open relationship is what we shall call a relationship with a primary partnership in which both partners have agreed to one arrangement or another by which it is acceptable to seek sex outside of the relationship, and polyamorous, or “poly” relationships are what we shall call a relationship consisting of more than two romantically and sexually involved people) are becoming more common, and their advocates are becoming more outspoken. As is often the case when people are facing what is perceived of as a restrictive moral majority, there is some degree of demonization that happens… I have heard poly advocates claim that people are monogamous simply due to the repression of judeo-christian cultural norms, or due to an outdated view of morality. That we are monogamous out of fear, or out of a need to control our romantic partners. That monogamous people expect the impossible; to have all of their emotional needs met by one person. That there is no biological reward or urge for monogamy, that it has been imposed on us as a kind of repressive stricture. I have even read one article go so far as to claim that monogamy is sociopathic behavior.
Let’s not get all crazy here.
I don’t know a single monogamous person who meets all of their emotional needs with one person. I don’t; I have a host of friends and family members who meet emotional needs for me. I have people that I talk to about writing and art, people that I talk to about faith and spirituality, people that I talk to about politics and economics. I have people that I can depend on for affection, and people that I can depend on for intellectual stimulation… and I don’t have to have sex with them to meet those needs. I can maintain emotionally intimate and caring relationships to people with whom I am not sexually involved. These people are called friends. I’m not really sure where the idea that you have to exchange carnal delights with someone in order to have emotional needs met came from, but it seems ridiculous to me. As a person who spends long periods of time without a partner (I’m very picky), I would lead a pretty miserable life if all of those emotional needs went unmet during those times.
Some contend that the biological imperative demands that males mate with many females in order to sire the largest number of offspring. This is correct, but it is a simplistic view of the biology of the situation and assumes that all animals face the same social and reproductive situation, which they do not. Humans are unique among the earth’s animals for the length of time that we spend rearing our young. It takes a lot of time and energy and resources to raise a human child to self-sufficiency, and these offspring are normally single-birth, rather than litters. The chances of the offspring’s survival is increased by having male involvement, and the level of male care in not just humans but in other monogamous primate and bird species is markedly increased by monogamy. Monogamy prevents infanticide, a relatively common occurrence among our primate cousins.
Our big big brains are hungry organs; the human brain consumes roughly twenty times more calories than a comparably sized piece of muscle. The brain is the source of human ascendency, and it required a lot of calories to evolve to the size and complexity that it currently enjoys. Monogamy among our early ancestors may have contributed to that surplus of calories by ensuring male involvement in the rearing of offspring.
The biological side of things involves bonding and hormones. We are social animals, and as a result it is to our benefit to form social bonds with other humans. It increases our likelihood of not just survival but success. As a result we have a hormonal system put in place to reward the formation of social bonds. Oxytocin is a neurotransmitter released by the brain in response to social activity. It’s found in other social animals as well, and it’s a reward chemical. It’s become known as the hormone of physical touch… it’s released in response to hugging and kissing, and plays essential roles in childbirth. It’s released by nursing mothers, and facilitates maternal bonding with offspring. It has been found to play a role in not just sexual arousal, but also in orgasm… women with higher levels of oxytocin are more likely to orgasm and experience stronger orgasms. It also encourages romantic bonding.
Some recent studies suggest that oxytocin encourages monogamy in men. Men in relationships, under the influence of elevated levels of oxytocin, have evidenced a lower degree of attraction to women who are not their long-term partner. This makes sense in light of the fact that monogamous mammals seem to produce more oxytocin.
None of this is intended to promote monogamy or to discredit non-monogamous relationships. With the exception of expecting monogamy from my long-term partners, I don’t really care what you do. If it makes you happy and you’re not hurting anyone and your partners all know what the score is, go for it. Even monogamy presents itself as a range of behaviors… monogamy doesn’t mean that we mate for life, and it doesn’t even preclude cheating. Around half of people admit to having cheated on a partner in a monogamous relationship… hell, even monogamous animals cheat sometimes. And regardless of all of this, the assumption that things that are most within human nature are the “right” way to do things misses the point of even being human.
What I do want, though, is to challenge the assumption that monogamy is a relic of the past; a social behavior engaged in because it’s all that we know and that the monogamous are too repressed or too uncreative to fulfill some deep desire for multiple sexual partners. Some of us are just monogamous. And that’s okay.