News: Happily Never After

Questioning the cult of monogamy, one study at a time.

By Leonora Desar, published September 2, 2013 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016

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Sleeping with one other person till death do you part may be challenging, but it's superior to any alternative. Or—is it? Less rigid relationships are neither rare nor dangerous; in some cases, they may actually be stronger. 

Myth: Monogamy protects against STDs.

Fact: Monogamists may be harboring a false sense of security. "Couples often have sex before getting tested and stop using condoms early in a relationship," notes Ali Ziegler, coauthor of a meta-analysis reported earlier this year in the journal Personality and Social Psychology Review. But people in monogamous relationships can actually be at increased risk of STDs: When they cheat, they are less likely to practice safe sex than couples who have agreed to be nonexclusive.

Myth: Monogamy curbs jealousy.

Fact: Openly non-monogamous couples may actually experience less jealousy overall than their traditionally paired counterparts. People who are naturally less jealous might be more inclined to opt for nonmonogamy to begin with, but choosing to stay with their primary partner—despite dating other people—can also make couples more confident in the strength of their relationship, says lead author Terri Conley, director of the Stigmatized Sexualities lab at the University of Michigan.

Myth: Monogamy is better for families.

Fact: While experimental data are limited, children can thrive in polyamorous families, where there may be many adults to provide supervision and attention. "There tends to be someone to pick the kids up or be there when they come home from school," says sociologist Elisabeth Sheff, author of The Polyamorists Next Door: Inside Multiple-Partner Relationships and Families. Many of the parents Sheff studied practice honesty with their partners and kids, creating a family environment that emphasizes trust.

Myth: Monogamy is natural.

Fact: "When Westerners first started to look at human societies not touched by their influence, they found that an overwhelming number of them were not monogamous," observes David Barash, coauthor of The Myth of Monogamy. Lifetime pairs are also extremely unusual among animals, especially mammals. "The renowned emperor penguins from March of the Penguins were touted as a wonderful example of monogamy," Barash says, "but their bonds usually last for one mating season only."