Ryan Anderson Ph.D.

The Mating Game


Monogamy Is Outdated

Why people want open relationships

Posted Dec 22, 2015

Zach Etienne/Wikimedia Commons
Source: Zach Etienne/Wikimedia Commons

Have you ever been in a relationship yet been attracted to someone else? Maybe it was just a passing urge, or maybe it was something that lasted a bit longer. Most people have, at some point, had experience with something like this.

We are not designed to be monogamous. So many relationships break down because one of the partners is unfaithful. The thing is, by being sexually faithful, we are going against our hardwired biology.

Cheating is horrible. Let’s get that out of the way. It ruins lives and destroys families. It is possibly one of the most morally hurtful things a person can do to their partner. Infidelity is an awful betrayal, and the emotional pain it often causes is all too real.

One big distinction to make is between emotional and sexual betrayal. It’s important to realize that they don’t always go together. It’s reasonably common for sex to occur without a strong emotional connection, or for strong emotions to exist between 2 people without there being any kind of sexual exchange. Research has shown that there is a big gender difference here. Men are more distressed by sexual betrayals, but women are more distressed when their partners are emotionally unfaithful.

When people talk about ‘cheating’ they are usually referring to sexual betrayal. In one study, nearly 2/3 of participants had experienced some kind of sexual betrayal. When they do find out, it’s not at all uncommon for women to experience some kind of trauma. This can be really painful, and have profound psychological consequences.

In a challenging video entitled ‘Why Monogamy is Ridiculous’, Dan Savage articulately explains why he thinks monogamy is “unnatural”. He argues that basing relationships around this central principle of monogamy has led to the alarmingly high divorce rates and proliferation of short-term casual relationships we are witnessing in society today.

He also suggests that instead of talking about monogamy the way we talk about virginity, where a single indiscretion means the end of your virginity, we should start talking about monogamy the way we talk about sobriety. If we do have a momentary lapse and fall off, we can ‘sober’ back up and get back on the monogamy wagon.

The thing is, we’re just not built for monogamy. This might seem like a pretty confronting statement but what I’m suggesting is that monogamy is not a biologically appropriate sexual system for humans.

Strict monogamy is pretty rare among non-humans (only about 3% of mammals are socially monogamous). There are examples of monogamy (a lot of birds), but these are exceptions rather than the rule. Historical research has consistently found that monogamy is not a very common system of mating. One study

 found that around 83% of societies studied were classified as polygynous!

In addition, given the physiology of men and women, monogamy just doesn’t make sense. Men are bigger, hairier, physically stronger, have deeper voices, and lead riskier lives (do stupid stuff like jump off cliffs, and therefore die younger) than women. All of the differences are far more consistent with a pattern of polygyny than monogamy.

People feel a sense of guilt when they are attracted to someone who is not their partner. We have to start realizing that it’s entirely natural to like more than 1 person at a time. We try so hard to fight against urges that society tells us we shouldn’t have, and it often leads to problems. About half of all marriages in America end in divorce. Often this is due to at least 1 partner being unfaithful. Perhaps more scary is the fact that in about 40% of marriages, either 1 or both of the partners admit to infidelity.

People in relationships really need to have more realistic expectations. Being sexually or emotionally attracted to someone else isn’t necessarily something you have complete control over.

Monogamy just isn’t that appealing to some of us. One partner for the rest of your life does seem a bit depressing. Welcome to the 21st century. Monogamy is most definitely still on the table, but it’s not the only option. Women have choices. Men have choices.