The story of monogamy is one sold to many of us our whole lives; we are saturated from birth with the idea that the key to a happy life is marrying your one true love. Breaching the constraints of monogamy is sometimes even legally prohibited, with some states in the US, such as Oklahoma, punishing cheating with up to 5 years in a state penitentiary. But once you reach adulthood, it becomes increasingly harder to reconcile this happily ever after story with the simple fact that humans are so bad at staying faithful. With nearly 1 in 2 marriages ending in divorce and adultery the premise for countless books, films and songs (when life gives you lemons…), if monogamy were as natural as its inevitability suggests, surely this would be different?
A Short History
Monogamy is actually a relatively recent social invention. For the first 288 000 years of human existence, there is little to no evidence that homo sapiens coupled up and were then sexually exclusive for life. Hunter gatherers shared everything, so why wouldn’t this apply to mates? Furthermore, sexual monogamy is almost unheard of in the animal kingdom. Bonobos and chimps – who are closer to humans genetically than the Indian elephant is to the African elephant – are wildly promiscuous. Humans share many anatomical commonalities with these animals, for example the shape of the male penis, biologically indicating that humans were not intended to be monogamous.
Evidence suggests that it’s only 12 000 years ago at the start of the agricultural revolution that monogamy began to be popularised in Western societies. As property rights became increasingly important, it began to make sense to ensure that whoever’s child you were raising was actually your own. Inheritance now had larger financial and legal implications – including the legacy of your hard earned land – bringing with it much stronger incentives to not let another’s seed find its way to your soil. Marriage was also used tactically as a means to build alliances, gain influential in-laws and also increase your family’s labour force. All of these advantages would have been redundant without sexual exclusivity. Coupled with this economic incentive, was the reality that women’s autonomy was essentially non-existent. Women relied on men for shelter, food and income. Promising sexual loyalty in exchange for the ability to live under a roof was therefore an arrangement that suited both parties.
By the 1700s, things had started to change. Where before marriage was primarily seen as a practicality, the age of romanticism slowly introduced the idea that marrying must instead be for love. Worrying that this could result in women refusing to marry, the social narrative began to change. Individuals were now, despite appearances, not human beings in their own right but actually one half of a whole, patiently waiting for someone to come along and be their better half. While a man might no longer be necessary for a woman’s financial stability, they were now necessary to complete them. If one could only find this person, then foregoing sexual experiences elsewhere would surely be a small price to pay.
Monogamy equals love equals monogamy?
And so the idea that monogamy and love are co-dependent arose, becoming the narrative which has now been prevalent for the last few hundred years. It seems logical enough, right? Except for the fact that love is a feeling and monogamy is a rule.
Loving somebody is a beautiful thing; it’s one of the most redeemable qualities of human kind, bringing with it endless enrichment and fulfilment. When you truly love somebody, you want nothing but joy and happiness for them. Seeing them live their life to the full, embracing each and every opportunity that they feel will allow them to grow, learn more about themselves and the world around them is a wonderful feeling. Naturally, you encourage them and help them to achieve this in any way you can, but on one condition: that this does not under any circumstances involve a tiny subset of behaviours which may or may not involve them finding somebody else that they like a little bit better than you.
Essentially, unconditional love works hard but insecurity works harder.
Monogamy is founded on the premise that being with the person that you love is rooted more in possession than in experiencing them. You view their behaviours in the context of yourself and place limits on them to protect your own sense of self-worth. Insecurity means that the way that you value yourself is often reliant on the validation you receive from others. If somebody is sexually exclusive with you, then their actions imply that they find you more desirable than anybody else. Any deviation from this must therefore somehow implicate their view of you, meaning that you are no longer worth being loyal to.
What if this was flipped on its head? What if the view was that, in reality, somebody’s sexual experiences with other people and how they feel about you are completely unrelated. You love this person and want the best for them, you accept that it is unrealistic that one person can completely fulfil another in all aspects for the rest of your lives and, given that this is done with honesty and trust, allow them to experience things which make them happy? Even if the worst case scenario occurs and this person does leave your life following a sexual encounter with somebody else, this could well be something that would have happened anyway. The initial premise of you only experiencing that person rather than owning them should build up the inner security to realise that this is never personal and should in no way implicate your sense of self-worth.
Sharing is caring
So what about jealousy? If you and your loved one have multiple sexual partners, surely the constant feelings of jealousy would be too much to live with, way worse than just accepting the limits of existing in a monogamous relationship. However according to a 2017 study, this is not the case. The study surveyed 1,507 people in monogamous relationships and 617 people in consensual, non-monogamous relationships, finding that those in consensual non-monogamous relationships had much lower levels of jealousy and much higher levels of trust than those in monogamous relationships. Further, one of the co-authors noted that monogamous couples were less likely to address feelings of jealousy at all, feeling ashamed and embarrassed of this emotion, preferring to let it stew.
Couples in consensual non-monogamous relationships on the other hand were much more likely to discuss these feelings as and when they arise and actively work together to navigate and diffuse them in a proactive way. You might argue that those who choose to enter into non-monogamous relationships are just less jealous to begin with, but many therapists argue that the change in mindset actively decreases jealousy levels in individuals the longer they are in a consensual non-monogamous relationship.
Polygamous relationships appear to have many other lessons for monogamous couples. A 2017 study found that polygamous couples excel in terms of communication, requiring a high level of honesty and openness in order to navigate the agreements and schedules on top of all existing issues which monogamous couples have to work through as well. Polygamous couples also outperform monogamous ones in terms of defining their relationship, setting boundaries and establishing what each are comfortable with. In monogamous relationships, couples might have a vague conversation about being exclusive at the beginning, but are much less likely to explicitly define what cheating constitutes, often just assuming they are on the same page which could lead to conflict and miscommunication in the future. Polygamous couples are also much more likely to talk frankly about sexual health. This is unsurprising as with multiple sexual partners, the likelihood of STIs increases and more precautions must be taken. However many people in monogamous relationships act as though monogamy is in itself a method of safer sex, with few additional precautions taken, even though not all partners are loyal nor necessarily use protection when they stray.
There is no doubt that polygamous relationships are still subject to a lot of stigma, mostly due to the prevalence of hetero-normative standards and the internalisation of gender roles. However there are plenty of examples of both individual couples and communities around the world who live their lives like this perfectly happily. A study found that nearly 50% of gay men in America had been in successful polygamous relationships. Further, communities such as the Bari tribe in Venezuela are completely polygamous, believing that all men who have been with a women during a pregnancy are the father of the child, each equally caring for the child until it reaches adulthood.
In fact, evidence suggests that before colonialism, the vast majority of communities around the world were polygamous in some sense. When collectively held indigenous land was appropriated and split into individual slots to facilitate private ownership, this was possible only with the parallel imposition of mono-normative relationships. Monogamy is central to the enforcement of patriarchal structures and capitalist values, so much so that both its normalisation and the consequential bias against other social structures became as globally prevalent as capitalism itself. While capitalism lends itself to a more couple-centric union – someone to buy a house with and create a nuclear family with – this is not to say that multiple forms of polygamous relationships are not perfectly viable in the 21st century, a fact that over 5% of Americans can attest to.
The point is not that all monogamous relationships are awful and all polygamous relationships are perfect. Every couple is different and must of course decide what works best for them. The point is, whether you are in a relationship or considering one at any point in the future, to take a moment to reflect on your decision to be monogamous. We are slowly moving towards a world where relationships do not have to exist out of coercion, be it due to financial, economic or sociological constraints. Just be mindful of where this default social structure originates from and take the time to properly reflect how you and your partner wish to exist in the context of one another. While monogamy may not be the most natural thing in the world, if humans can do anything it’s adapt, and polygamy may have some important lessons to create a deeper understanding and more fulfilling dynamic between any two people, regardless of their sexual habits.
Want to read more? Try ‘Monogamy’ by Adam Phillips, available here.