On Monogamy

This is not always a given within relationships.

Posted May 25, 2013

Three conversations in one week on this subject have propelled me to explore it here. One couple who came to my counseling office is struggling with forming an open and honest relationship after more than several years in which they were supposedly monogamous, but both cheated. Another client, a happily married woman, is struggling with an attraction to a friend, thus questioning her monogamous commitment. The third conversation was with several fellow therapists and was both professional and personal.

I have heard all sorts of theories about monogamy—that humans were “designed” to be monogamous when our lifespans were no more than 30-some years, and it is no longer an applicable model, that no one is monogamous out of any other reason than fear and jealousy, that monogamy is only about making a stable family, and that lifelong monogamy makes sense for all only when it is serial, which is what most of us practice anyway.

I have my own theory. I believe that, like many other human traits across most cultures, there is a bell curve of tendencies to monogamy.

On one end of the curve are those for whom this is a natural inclination. One finds the love of one’s life or chooses a mate, or one’s elders choose for you, and that takes care of companionship, sex, homemaking, co-parenting, etc. for life or until the death of one’s partner and the desire to couple once again.

At the other end are the free spirits who see more benefits in emotional and sexual independence than in being coupled. Many of these folks are capable of love, just not forever. They crave variety, are highly sexed, are quickly bored, want to keep trying what’s out there, never “found the right one,” or simply prefer keeping their options open and living single. They certainly can have children, even raise families, just not be monogamous with the other parent.

The major part of the bell curve comprises all the rest of humanity, those who are probably mostly monogamous or are only during a specific period of their lives for a variety of personal or societal reasons. Along this curve also lie people who don’t know whether they are capable of monogamy until they try it and find out that they have a roving eye, enjoy the chase and the rush of illicit behavior, who fall out of love with their partner or into love or lust with someone else. Along this curve also lie those who are sexual opportunists, compulsive adulterers, who live in societies that do not value or practice lifelong monogamy, and everybody else.

I also do not think that behavior tells the whole story. Someone’s reasons for being monogamous have to enter into it. Some people just naturally are—those on the left end of that curve. They are the ones who say things like, “I love my partner; why would I look elsewhere? S/he gives me everything I need.” If you see monogamy as a positive value, those are the lucky ones.

I believe the majority of people who are monogamous or mostly so are so by conscious choice rather than natural inclination. That choice is made for many reasons from religious or ethical principles to fear of repercussions—“My partner would leave me,” or “Those around me would condemn me,” or “What if I caught a disease or had my heart broken?” Often, a person chooses monogamy, because he or she believes that is the only way to attain stability within a relationship, a very important goal for many.

I consider an extremely crucial reason for entering into a monogamous agreement is to ensure exclusivity of one’s mate: “I won’t have sex with anyone else, because I don’t want my mate to be with anyone else.” Thus, what is based on insecurity and possessiveness frequently masquerades as a higher principle.

Many couple for the first time without thinking this topic through or considering their own nature, or even knowing it. Because coupling and particularly being married is assumed to equate to being monogamous, it isn’t questioned unless it becomes a problem for one or both within the couple.

I understand that the consideration of any possible arrangement other than monogamy can be very alarming. So fearful, in fact, does the idea make many people that they refuse to consider it.

Many of the couples who consult me in my therapy office are there because of a mismatch in sexual styles, frequency, and/or predilections. When one wants far more sex than the other or a very different set of activities, I always ask if they have considered opening their relationship. It seems to me an evident solution to their impasse, certainly worthy of consideration. I have to say that this obvious solution is generally rejected immediately and forcefully when I bring it up. So if it’s definitely off the table, that’s when the real compromising must begin.

If you are not a natural monogamist or your partner is not, if you feel unwilling or unable to make a lifelong commitment that is a standard part of almost all marriage ceremonies, I urge you to open your mind to the consideration of other possibilities. Opening one’s mind is rarely a futile exercise.