Monogamy: are we - can we be - monogamous?
Are we - can we be - monogamous?
Posted March 12, 2010
When I ask this question, people look at me with surprise and answer derisively. My friend mutters, "It's about time we gave up on that one! It's a myth." A colleague from Europe tells me, "Oh, no-one is getting married these days. They are just so discouraged. What is the point? Monogamy is unrealistic, impossible." So when I am asked this very question by a television host, I take a very deep breath before I answer, "YES. I think we are naturally monogamous." You can hear jaws dropping everywhere. Cynicism wins hands down. And yet we still glory in the ideal of monogamy. We spend fortunes on whiter than white weddings and act much of the time like the 90% of teenagers in a recent study, who affirm that they hope to marry and remain with the same partner till death do them part! Are we deliberately delusional?
The easiest rock to sling at the big M word is that the media is awash with news about people having affairs. Brief sexual dalliances do indeed occur in nearly all socially monogamous animals like the grey wolf or great northern loons who nevertheless prefer to mate and bond with one partner at a time. In our species, some surveys have wildly exaggerated the occurrence of affairs. Reliable studies suggest that around 25% of men and 11% of women will end up in bed with someone other than their partner at some point in their lives. The mundane fact that most of us do not have affairs is overshadowed by titillating public stories of intrigue and deception.
A more basic argument against monogamy is the theory that affairs are, in fact, inevitable precisely because sex is the most powerful instinct of all. Men in particular, as this theory goes, are sex addicts at heart. Given any opportunity at all, they are wired by evolution to pass on as many of their genes as possible and so achieve a kind of immortality. Oh please! This is a long way from more mundane motivations whispered in the pick up lines that I can remember. Having worked with and researched distressed couples for 30 years, I am more convinced by the view that most affairs are the result either of unbearable loneliness that happens when we don't know how to make love work, or of preemptive attempts to grab at a loving monogamous bond when the one we are in seems to be dying and taking us with it.
The second apparent nail in the coffin of monogamy is that we do indeed divorce. About a third or more of us (and yes, the rate is going down in North America) don't make it to the "death do us part" bit, especially if you marry young. But so called serial monogamy is still monogamy, even if, like everything else, it's not absolute and for all time. I think the divorce rates simply mean that most of us just don't know how to get it right - we don't understand how to create a strong loving bond. We try desperately to dance a love-you-forever tango often without ever having even seen the steps! As a couple therapist, I see how intently invested partners are in this struggle on a daily basis. And when we fail, most often we find another partner and keep right on trying!
There are other arguments against monogamy. One is that polygamy dominates in many cultures. Romantic love, however, seems to exist everywhere and given half the chance, rears up and takes over. When people have a choice and do not have to marry out of fear or just to survive, they marry for love. They choose to bond with a special other. But, some naturalists say, only 7% of mammals are socially monogamous. My response is, "Yes and we are one of those 7%". It is accepted by scientists that 90% of birds are monogamous, even though birds, like seagulls, have about a 25% divorce rate. The arguments are probably different in seagull couples though. They might go, "That stick you found does not go with the feng shui tone of this nest". Some animals are actually better at monogamy than us! The pygmy marmoset is faithful, dedicated, and shares symptoms of pregnancy with his lady. The Californian mouse is socially and sexually monogamous and this matters; if the babies aren't cuddled constantly by Mr. Mouse they don't make it.
Now we come to the reasons for my belief that monogamy, based on deep bonds of romantic love, is natural for humans. First, monogamy shows up in animals who invest time and work in rearing their kids and dealing with survival challenges. Beavers work as a team to rear young, build dams and gather food. They have to coordinate their movements, synchronize efforts, and read each other's cues. They depend on each other, and this is an important word, depend.
The second and most potent argument for monogamy is that we are wired for it! A huge part of our brain is designed not just for social group interaction but for the intimate synchrony of emotional connection and bonding. The pacing, the give and take, the tuning in, the adapting to the other's emotional cues between parents and infants and between adult lovers, are all about bonding. The main message of the new science of adult bonding is that the instinct to reach, connect and rely on loved ones is primary, more fundamental even than sex. Monogamous mammals like us have special cuddle hormones like oxytocin or OT - the so called molecule of monogamy. It turns off stress hormones, turns on reward centers, and fills us with calm contentment and well-being. OT is released at orgasm and even when simply thinking of our partner! When primed with this hormone, our brains find it easier to tune into another person and read intentions. When scientists increase OT in little monogamous prairie voles, they cuddle more and mate less. When they block OT, they mate but don't cuddle. Our brains are wired for a certain kind of connection with those we depend on. As the Dali Lama suggests, human affection is the one indispensable necessity in life.
We are bonding animals who live best in the shelter offered by another's love. An attachment bond is persistent. Once made, it is specific to another "irreplaceable" person. Once we are bonded, we seek out closeness with our loved one and we are deeply distressed at emotional or physical separation. We seek comfort and a sense of security with this person. We can have more than one bond of course. But for most of us, there is a hierarchy of one or two loved ones, and our sexual partner is usually at the top of the list. We are emotionally invested in these relationships and they penetrate key aspects of our lives. These bonds have incredible survival value. We are healthier, happier, psychologically stronger, and we live longer when we are close and connected. This deep desire to matter to another, to be able to turn to another as a safe haven, gets lost in our culture of mine, me and myself. We forget to mention that being the best you can be inevitably involves being connected to somebody else! We are not meant for so called self-sufficiency and the emotional isolation that comes with it.
Behind the sappy romantic novels and sentimentality associated with love is a bred-in-the-bone longing. It is wired into our mammalian brain. This is why, even though we might get distracted into a one night sexual adventure, we still fight to connect and to hold onto our love relationships. Our most natural and longed for state is a strong, nurturing monogamous pair bond and on this bond we base our families.
The real issue here is that we have not known until very recently what the bond of love, the basis of successful monogamy, is all about and how to shape it. When we fail the monogamy test it is most often because we have no blueprint, no map for loving connection. Science now offers us such a map. Now that we know how to love, let's see how good monogamy can be.