Is Monogamy Really Possible? Adultery, polyamory, and Psychology Today

Slug Signorino

Psychology Today advocates multiple partners and open marriages and offers “evidence” that monogamy isn’t possible. Comparing man to animals is weird to me—we’re supposed to be separated out by reason and morality, right? —The Good Wife, Austin, Texas

Psychology Today, ever on the cutting edge, has had monogamy in its crosshairs lately. A casual search turned up at least nine articles on the subject in the last year. Here’s a representative quote, from “The Truth About Polyamory” by Deborah Taj Anapol:

“Our cultural obsession with monogamy is going the same way as prohibition, slavery, the gold standard, and mandatory military service. In other words, while serial monogamy is more popular than ever, lifelong monogamy is pretty much obsolete, and for better or worse, polyamory is catching on.”

Let’s break this down:

Monogamy is on a par with prohibition, slavery, etc. Spare me. Polyamory is catching on. Depends how we define the term. If strictly, show me your cites, lady. If more liberally, we can talk. More below. Serial monogamy is in, lifelong monogamy is out. True beyond dispute. However, we need to clarify what we mean. Time for the straight dope.

Let’s start with those investigations of animal mating habits you take issue with. It’s often said 9 percent or some other low proportion of mammals is monogamous. So? A puppy reaches maturity in a year; a human newborn needs 11 to 12 years. There’s an explanation for monogamy right there.

Except it doesn’t hold up. Among chimpanzees, the species most closely related to us, the young reach maturity in 8 to 15 years, comparable to humans. But chimps mate promiscuously and never pair off. Although the young remain with their mothers, there’s otherwise minimal family structure. Alpha males dominate and have sex more often than males farther back in the alphabet, but they don’t have harems to organize and defend.

My point is, there’s nothing in our biology that demands monogamy. Sure, it has practical advantages. For humans, rearing the young is a more labor- and resource-intensive process than for chimps, who don’t have college tuition to contend with. But I’ll bet we could come up with some free-love it-takes-a-village kibbutz thing if we put our minds to it.

A lot of Psychology Today contributors think that we’ve arrived at an advanced state of civilization, and we’d be happier if we abandoned the impossible dream of happy lifetime pairing and tried something else. The question is whether we’re actually doing so in significant numbers. Answer: Of course we are. It’s just not called polyamory, or some other trendy term. It’s called divorce.

Let’s look at monogamy alternatives, from least to most common (I’ll ignore celibacy):

Open marriage—that is, a married couple who expressly allow each other to have other sex partners. I don’t doubt there are secure, stable individuals who can handle this long-term without tears. But not a lot. PT contributor Michael Castleman cites unnamed “sexologists” as saying 1 percent of married couples are “committed to occasional non-monogamy,” with “another percent or two ‘curious’ enough to visit sex or swing clubs.” Self-report of sexual activity is notoriously unreliable, but never mind. We’ll say 1 to 3 percent.

Adultery. American men currently have a 28 percent likelihood of being unfaithful to a partner by the time they reach age 60, and women a 15 percent chance. Possibly this is more than in the past, but the change isn’t dramatic.

Polyamory. In its purest form, this term is apparently used to mean having sustained, emotionally intimate sexual relationships with multiple partners who all understand they’re sharing. Nothing persuades me this is common on my planet. However, if we expand the definition to cover the behavior of unmarried individuals who juggle multiple lovers at times, the number obliged to fess up would surely be impressively large. This provides useful context for our last category.

Divorce. Here we arrive at the heart of the matter. As of now, how many Americans will experience lifetime monogamy? Answer: less than half. As of 2011 for every 6.8 marriages there were 3.6 divorces—a 53 percent rate. This is significantly more than just 10 years earlier, when the divorce rate was 49 percent.

Even more striking: According to Pew Research, in 1968 the number of unmarried U.S. adults (including those widowed, divorced, and never legally married) was just 28 percent. As of 2010, it was 49 percent.

In other words, half of us are single and playing the field, and a sizable fraction of the other half will eventually shed their partners and join the fray. Conclusion: Lifetime monogamy has ceased to be the default American condition, even if the time of first marriage is when we start the clock. —Cecil Adams

Our Readers Say

A lot of info here. Interesting at the very least, and probably a bit controversial for most. I understand the monogamy issue. I didn't get married until I was 43, obviously marriage wasn't my priority (divorced many years; still isn't), but I did respect and commit to my vows (non-religious). If you're going to engage in a monogamous commitment, then take your expression of commitment seriously and do what needs to be done in order to see it through. Granted, not all circumstances are workable, either way, emotional intelligence is required, along with learning curves. Better that type of hard work rather than suffer through the devastating aftermath of infidelity. I know, I've been on both sides. It's blatantly evident people tend to head toward emotional knee-jerk reactions and quick fixes, instead of contemplating their issues; personal and relational.

All this to say, reeducation is needed on many fronts. The "norm" is shifting and we need to provide information and evidence that supports being healthy (in all manner of speaking), personal accountability and growth, whatever that may mean to each individual.
"Comparing man to animals is weird to me—we’re supposed to be separated out by reason and morality, right?"

uh...if not animals, then just what, pray, do you suppose humans to be?

speaking of "humans and animals" is the same as speaking of "oaks and trees," "tulips and flowers," or "bluejays and birds." if you don't understand this, you're quite incapable of exercising the reason on which you pride yourself. and if you've never seen an animal other than a human evince reason and morality, you've never met a dog.
I can attest from personal experience that polyamory is catching on. My life partner and I have been together since 1961 when we met at a small liberal arts college whose official unofficial motto is "Communism, Atheism, Free Love". We have been poly since 1967, have raised two children who were OK with our being poly, have both had a number of sexual loving relationships, two in common, and some who've stayed stalwart friends after the sex ended. We know many people with similar stories. We are part of a poly community in Seattle that communicates through email lists, has socials and potlucks, and hosts events where people new to poly can find out about it. This community was nascent, at best, in the '60's. Then it was hard to find people who wanted to do poly, now it is much easier.

I think most people, if they could shake the gunk of our social pressure, would say that they wanted two things: Committed, long lasting, supportive relationships and the freedom to have more than one sexual partner, and the latitude to become close to additional partners if that worked out.

Having come of age in the '50's, I can tell you that we have transcended much societal gunk as bad or worse than monogamy. The old taboos against being gay, miscegenation, mixed religion, and intergenerational relationships to name a few, now seem quaint instead of motivation for suicide.

And I think it might be worth looking at the half of marriages end in divorce stats. I think that there may be more than a half of first marriages that survive until death, and the folks that are getting divorced are doing it over and over again. So maybe 1/3 of people are into divorce while another 2/3 stay together. But the question has to be asked, what soul drowning compromises and betrayals does it take to keep those union together.

And when you site the stat that 49% of us, in 2010, are single, that needs a deeper look, too. That 49% includes a lot of people looking, however futilely for Mr/Ms Right and even more who are coupled but haven't committed the foolishness of buying a license from the government (socialized marriage, if you will). When this sleeping giant awakes, and gets pissed off at societies putting them down for not being married and the monetary losses they suffer from foregoing the govt license, we'll see a much bigger brouhahas than the gay marriage fight.

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