In the Name of Love

A philosopher looks at our deepest emotions

Is Serial Monogamy Worth Pursuing?

Kiss me quick while we still have this feeling
"Kiss me quick while we still have this feeling, because tomorrows can be so uncertain, love can fly and leave just hurting." (Patsy Cline)
"You win a while, and then it's done - Your little winning streak." (Leonard Cohen)

For many people, the exclusivity implied in strict monogamy is profoundly valuable. Romantic Ideology endorses such monogamy which requires total devotion to the beloved-it limits the whole world of the lover to that of the beloved. Consider the following popular song: "I want give you all I have, I would do anything to be with you, but one thing I won't do, is share you."

The difficulties surrounding romantic relationships in modern society have popularized a version of monogamy, which may be termed "serial monogamy." In this version, commitment or exclusivity typical of monogamy is maintained but it is usually confined to a limited period. In this increasingly popular romantic pattern, people still believe in some moderate form of ideal love, but give up their basic pretense that it should last forever. The beloved is still regarded to be unique, but in many cases he is not so for the rest of our life.

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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 (e.g., certain holidays) or with particular partners (such as the husband's brothers).

On the basis of a comprehensive study, David Barash and Judith Lipton conclude that there is no evidence that monogamy is somehow "natural" or "normal" for humans; on the contrary, 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. Accordingly, they argue that "what makes human beings unusual among other mammals is not our penchant for polygamy, but the fact that most people practice at least some form of monogamy."

The compromise required in serial monogamy is not merely in giving up the dream of eternal romantic love, but also in relinquishing certainty and living in some sort of make-belief environment. People behave as if their current romantic relationship will last forever, and they really hope it will be so, but they will not be devastated if it does not turn out that way. In this case most people will look for another ideal love and some may even find someone whom they perceive to be closer to the ideal lover; however, this again may be for a limited time. People are taking their monogamous relationship seriously, but they do not necessarily believe that it must also be eternal.

Let me illustrate this point by referring to a few real examples. Barbra had four husbands, all of whom died while married to her. She says that she dearly loved each of them and never thought of having an affair with another person. She can think of no difference in the immense intensity of her love to each of them. Later on she admitted that once when her husband was already quite ill, she did love at the same time another man, but did not manifest this love till her husband's death. She further says, "Although I am eighty-five and had four great loves, I am still hoping to meet the fifth love of my life." The movie producer Arnon Milchen said, "I was first married for ten years and had three children; then I lived together with my girlfriend for 12 years, and now I am with Amanda for three and a half years. I am a one-woman man." Milchen is indicating here that while he is in a relationship with a woman, he is indeed a one-woman man-but that his association with each woman may be limited in time.

Unlike serial killers, who may have multiple personalities, serial lovers often express their own unique personality. Thus, Lori, a divorcee who at the age of 34 has engaged in four serious consecutive romantic relationships (two of them were in the form of marriage), has considered all four men to be ideal lovers to whom she has been totally devoted. Although she considers herself to be a victim of Romantic Ideology, she still believes, though in a somewhat moderate version, in most elements of this ideology. She is just tired of the constant search for the ideal lover: "if one more time I have to tell another man how many brothers and sisters I have and what they are doing, I will seriously consider jumping off the roof" (see In the Name of Love). People may admit to being the victims of the Romantic ideology but still believe that their painful search was worthwhile, once they found their true loving home. The problem is that such people may not be the majority.

Monogamist societies prevail since they give people some kind of certainty and security that enable them to devote their resources to other issues. Serial monogamy gives such a sense of certainty and security for only a limited time, but this is the kind of accommodation people make for having greater novelty and romantic excitement in their life. Moreover, serial monogamy may reduce the old time practice of proclaimed monogamy with clandestine adultery.

Serial monogamy does not involve profound emotional difficulties; on the contrary, it is in accordance with the brief nature of emotions and the significant role that the notion of change plays for this generation. Furthermore, despite its limited duration, this pattern also provides some sense of stability and exclusivity. Accordingly, serial monogamy has been the most prevailing form of romantic relationship and is likely to continue to be so. The sought-after ideal may still be that of long-lasting monogamy, but the fallback, when such an ideal is not feasible, is that of serial monogamy.

Aaron Ben-Zeév, Ph.D., former President of the University of Haifa, is Professor of Philosophy. His books include: In the Name of Love: Romantic Ideology and its Victims.

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