Is Monogamy Still a Thing?

Has the world changed its expectations regarding monogamous fidelity?

Posted Oct 18, 2017

Sexual fidelity and emotional fidelity have typically held different meanings and values for romantic partners based on gender.

Males typically have a lower tolerance for partners who are sexually engaged with another while a partner’s emotional infidelity hasn’t presented quite the same level of threat. Women, on the other hand, are much more negatively affected by a partner who is emotionally involved with another person than by a partner who is sleeping with someone else. Men typically equate sexual access to their mates as the ultimate exclusive privilege while women are more protective of a partner’s emotional attention than a partner's sexual expression.

The tie to evolutionary forces is pretty easy to identity—men’s certainty of their fatherhood of a partner’s offspring is not nearly as sure as the mother who gives birth. Investing energy and resources into a child that is not your own is not seen as a wise investment from a biological perspective. However, there is also a sociocultural relationship between gender and cheating that results in cheating women being viewed much more pejoratively than cheating men. Women should be good girls, but boys are indulgently allowed to be boys. The practices of some politicians and other men in dominant positions are proof enough that standards on the accepted treatment of women are greatly influenced by status, power, or celebrity.

Equal Risk for Equal “Play”

A recent review of the literature indicated that women are now as likely to cheat on their partners as men are (Fincham & May, 2017) and this has been tied to women’s growing engagement in the professional workforce.

Research statistics also suggest that one in five partners will cheat on a spouse at some point over the course of a lifetime, although the typical “one-year prior rate” is around 2 to 4 percent. And if you cheated in a prior relationship, you’re even more likely to cheat in subsequent relationships. And if you’ve been cheated on before, you’re likely to be cheated on again—and a lot more likely to suspect a partner of cheating than those who have not been in a prior relationship marred by infidelity. And as most of us want to blame our own shortcomings on our parents, research does confirm that if we grew up in a home where infidelity occurred between our parents, we were twice as likely to be unfaithful to our own romantic partners in adulthood.

Polyamory: The More the Merrier?

Although infidelity is still perceived by many as the “make or break” crisis in a marriage—and a top reason cited for divorce—there is a growing wave of support for polyamory, which involves emotional involvement with more than one partner. While it’s not everyone’s preference, it’s an upfront way to address the need for novelty and variety in romantic relationships. An interesting finding is that consensually non-monogamous partners are much more likely to use safe sex practices than partners who are cheating on the sly. Knowing what a sexual partner is up to when the partner’s not with you—and coming to a place of willing acceptance—can be healthier than not, both physically and psychologically.

However, non-monogamous partners of partners who expect monogamy bring distress and heartache into the relationship. As technology has done with so many other forms of communication and the vocabulary, the internet has totally shifted the definition and performance of cheating between partners. Online flirting, sexting, Skype-sex, and emotionally involved chatters and email-pals represent a variety of forms and definitions of relationship infidelity. Determining exactly where the line is drawn between “okay” and “not okay” behaviors varies between couples. Some prefer to know that a partner’s dalliance is geographically inaccessible while any kind of extra-relational personal communication with romantic overtones is out-of-order.

Stay and Fight, Surrender, or Walk Away?

While infidelity remains a leading cause of relational break-ups, the decision to stick it out or walk away when a partner has wandered is a uniquely individual decision. Religious beliefs are often a reason for sticking it out while religious beliefs about adultery are also a reason for walking away. Relational power and the associated benefits of the relationship also strongly influence a wronged partner’s decision to stay or go. If children are involved and a partner is willing to give up the “side partner,” or is willing to “try” and give up the extra-familial relationship, a person may believe it is definitely worth the work of patching up the relationship.  

The popular question that is most often asked about relationship breakdowns is applicable here, “Is the partner (or the relationship) worth it?” Answering this question is not always easy due to the multiple factors that must be weighed in the decision, including both emotional and material resource investments prior and potentially upcoming in the future.

Regardless of gender, most of us want to feel acknowledged, appreciated, cherished, and respected by our partners. Whether you choose monogamy or consensual non-monogamy, the key to healthy relationships remains the same: honest and open communication. Being able to talk out differences and express complicated emotions predict greater overall relationship success. Sharing your expectations is the only way to ensure that your partner understands who you are and what your needs actually are. If you’ve got zero tolerance for cheating, then make that clear from the outset...healthy relationships are based on mutual understanding, respect, and open communication. Facilitate these in order to ensure the greatest likelihood of a satisfying relationship—for you and your partner.

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Fincham, F. D., & May, R. W. (2017). Infidelity in romantic relationships. Current Opinion in Psychology, 13, 70-74.