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The dangers of monogamy



In this essay, I talk about the mandatory requirement and assumption of today's classic marriages: monogamy (sexual and romantic). I attempt to explain why so many marriages fail, and I suggest a solution that can save the institution of marriage. Note that I am romantically monogamous and have not practiced swinging; therefore, this essay is based significantly more on my foray into scientific facts and surveys, human psychology, and evolutionary biology, than on (likely biased) personal experience.

Our biological heritage

Humans are not monogamous by nature1. Evolutionarily speaking, a human male does best if he spreads his genes as widely as possible. A human female does best if more males take care of her offspring.

An excellent Psychology Today article entitled Do Married Women Want Their Husbands to Cheat? explains why humans are naturally inclined to be polygynous (men having multiple wives).

[...] mating among all mammalian species (including humans) is a female choice; it happens whenever and with whomever the female wants, not whenever and with whomever the male wants. The more desirable a man is (the more resourceful, the higher his social status, the physically more attractive), the larger the number of other women who would want to have sex with him [...]

All women have a vested reproductive interest to marry a man who is as desirable and attractive (physically and otherwise) as possible, but the more desirable and attractive the husband is, the greater the chances that other women would want him as well and thus the greater the chances that he would be unfaithful. [...]

There is an additional complication in the matter. Humans are naturally polygynous; humans have been mildly polygynous throughout evolutionary history.

[...] we are disproportionately descended from polygynous men, because polygynous men invariably have more children than monogamous men. So most of us are descended from polygynous men (and, disproportionately, from highly successful polygynous men with a large number of wives), only a few of us are descended from monogamous men, and none of us are descended from mateless men. So polygyny remains a significant part of human nature. Such is the dilemma faced by women, especially highly desirable women who are more likely to marry highly desirable men. The more desirable the woman is, the more desirable her husband is likely to be, and the more likely he is to cheat on her. The more likely her husband is to remain sexually faithful to her, the less desirable he is (and the greater the probability that perhaps she could have done much better than him).

Marriage and monogamy

Here are some facts about marriage and infidelity today:

  • There is a strong social pressure to get married. However, this pressure is greater in the US than in Europe: "About 85 percent of Americans are expected to marry sometime in their lives, compared to less than 70 percent in a number of European nations" 2. Given that the US lags behind Europe in most aspects, and that Europe goes away from marriage, this suggests that the number of marriages in the US will decline.

  • Statistics show that the divorce rate in the US is nearly 50%, and the marriage rate is declining (on an unrelated note, atheists have the lowest divorce rate)

  • Expectations from marriage and marriage partners are irrational and unrealistic:

    "Many of the individual couples I see are burdened with myths about what they're entitled to in marriage. If you believe what you see on television or in magazines [...] Your partner should be empathic but not weak, assertive but not aggressive, warm but not dependent, independent but not distant. [...] As a rule, expecting to find happiness in a marriage is a bad idea. [...] if you're not happy in the rest of your life, the probability of finding it in the hectic, stressful world of modern marriage with children is quite low. In addition, looking for happiness in any cluster of personality traits in a partner assumes that our needs are constant and stable. [...] What attracts us can also repel us (Beck 1988; Spring 1997). We may feel soothed by someone's warmth and attention in the morning and feel smothered by it later as we're trying to get out the door."
    -- The Marriage Makeover, by Joshua Coleman, Julia M. Lewis

  • Infidelity ("cheating") is increasing, and tolerance for it is increasing as well. A UK survey shows that 8 out of 10 couples will be, at one time, unfaithful to each other. In the more conservative US, the General Social Survey found that "Rates among older women tripled from 5% in 1991 to 15% in 2006; rates among men rose from 20% to 28%. About 20% of younger men and 15% of younger women say they cheated, up from about 15% and 12%, respectively". Also keep in mind that these figures probably suffer from significant under-reporting.

  • Romantic monogamy coupled with sexual non-exclusivity - an arrangement called Swinging - leads to happier marriages

    "If swingers have found a way to stabilize relationships, prolong family ties, and enrich the lives of couples we would be remiss if we did not take their lifestyle and their redefinition of monogamous love seriously."
    -- The Case of Swingers - Today's Alternative Marriage Styles, Electronic Journal of Human Sexuality, Volume 3, Oct. 10, 2000

  • Ethically, it is an infringement upon someone's freedom to tell them, in one way or another, "You shall only sleep with me". Of course, this doesn't apply to mutually consensual sexual monogamy; however, such consent is given in the beginning of relationships and it's rarely re-evaluated when circumstances change.

Still, monogamous marriage has a number of advantages:

  • avoidance of hurt feelings caused by extramarital relationships
  • economic benefits - "Compared to those continuously married, those who never married have a reduction in wealth of 75% and those who divorced and didn't remarry have a reduction of 73%"3
  • a sense of security and comfort (however, psychologically speaking, continuous comfort leads to boredom4)
  • a deeper knowledge of one's spouse than allowed by polyamorous or open relationships

Why Sexual Monogamy?

Given the high incidence of infidelity, and the non-monogamous nature of humans, aren't we lying to ourselves when we enter into a marriage contract based on the assumption that we'll have sex with the other person, and that person alone, for the rest of our lives? Do note that the human lifespan is steadily increasing, and with advances in hormone therapy, so is the onset of menopause. While a few hundred years ago, 20 more years with someone didn't seem that long of a time, nowadays at an average marriage age of 27, we're facing 45 or more years with only one person. Would it perhaps be more honest to partner up with someone, have a "normal" two-person family, but share all of the sorrows and joys, including sexual joy? That is, sharing the joy of the first sexual experience with someone new, or the thrill of experiencing a different lover? Not a better lover, just different, as is the case with eating something else than your favorite dessert once in a while. Or maybe mixing two desserts together.

Such an arrangement is the swinging lifestyle. It attempts to combine the best of both worlds: marriage but not sexual entrapment, romantic monogamy, but not sexual monotony, a "classic" stable family but a progressive social sexual life. Swinging is based on some key principles:

  • Mutual consent, and most often full disclosure. Both partners understand that the presumption of sexual exclusivity does not exist, and most partners pursue their sexual interests together. That entails no need for doing something behind one's partner's back, because the desire for a human being other than one's spouse is understood as normal, natural. Thus "cheating" becomes a non-issue. As one researcher puts it, "couples swing in order to not cheat on their partners". Jealousy also becomes a non-issue. (for a deconstruction of jealousy, please see Jealousy - Think about it)

  • Love and sex do not really need to be separated, something which would ordinarily be quite difficult given the strong emotional and cultural tie between the two. Instead, most swinging happens while the couple is together, and a common outcome of shared sexual experiences is that of the swinger couple running home excited from the swinging event and jumping on each other again.

Given the incidence of cheating in sexually exclusive marriages, it is clear that the exclusive approach, generally, fails. Swinging approaches the problem in a different, honest, shackle-free way. By removing the necessity for deceit from the relationship, a new level of trust and openness can be achieved without the destructive baggage of jealousy.

The following paragraph from Wikipedia accurately describes of the swinging philosophy:

ABC News reporter John Stossel produced an investigative report into the swinging lifestyle. Stossel reported that more than four million people are swingers, according to estimates by the Kinsey Institute and other researchers. He also cited Terry Gould's research, which concluded that "couples swing in order to not cheat on their partners." When Stossel asked swinging couples whether they worry their spouse will "find they like someone else better", one male replied, "People in the swinging community swing for a reason. They don't swing to go out and find a new wife;" a woman asserted, "It makes women more confident - that they are the ones in charge." Stossel interviewed 12 marriage counselors. According to Stossel, "not one of them said don't do it", though some said "getting sexual thrills outside of marriage can threaten a marriage". Nevertheless, swingers whom Stossel interviewed claimed "their marriages are stronger because they don't have affairs and they don't lie to each other."5

A note on the confidence of women: many women may feel insecure in a swinging situation, when a man can choose among multiple sexual partners. However, extremely few women understand and accept the male evolutionary desire for sexual diversity. Such women are a scarce resource, hence precious, and treasured by men who are also aware of this.

Why Domestic Monogamy?

As author Laura Kipnis pointed out in Against Love, a peculiar aspect of romantic movies is that at the end of the movie, after the couple gets married, the screen fades to black. Why? Not a difficult question: because not much is to be shown about the married state. The excitement of overcoming the difficulties of getting married is gone. Note also how extremely few songs speak of marriage at all, let alone in favorable terms. Songs mention love, passion, desire, but not marriage. Why? The reasons are the same. As a cultural mirror of a social aspect, film and music do a very good portrayal of classic married life: relative romantic monotony, sometimes degenerating into emotional deadening. A quote from Before Sunset is telling:

Jesse: [about his marriage] She's a great teacher, a good mom. She's smart, pretty, you know. I had this idea of my best self, and I wanted to pursue that even if it might have been overriding my honest self. I mean, that nobody is gonna be everything to you and that it's just the action of committing yourself, meeting your responsibilities, that matters. I mean, what is love, right, if it's not respect, trust, admiration? And I... I felt all those things. Cut to the present, and I feel like I'm running a nursery with somebody I used to date.

Confirming a well-researched difference in libido after marriage, the male character, Jesse, continues:

I mean, I'm like a monk, you know. I've had sex less than 10 times in the last four years.

The research was conducted in 2006 and published by BBC News under the heading Security 'bad news for sex drive': "Researchers from Germany found that four years into a relationship, less than half of 30-year-old women wanted regular sex" (men had stable libidos).

Why does "Domestic Monogamy" somehow come back to "Why Sexual Monogamy"? Perhaps because sex is indeed a key aspect of couple interactions, and for another reason as well: in a "classic" exclusive marriage, if partners happen to not share some interests, they can usually pursue them on their own. One partner can discuss philosophy with a friend if their spouse is not philosophically inclined, while the spouse can enjoy postmodern painting with a friend sharing similar interest. But, if one partner's sexual desire wanes, be it for age, security, attractiveness, boredom or stress-related causes, the other partner is not allowed to pursue their sexual interest with anyone else.

Prerequisites for a happy long-term marriage

Imagine the situation just above. Let's assume that the spouse with the waning sexual drive reluctantly caves in and "allows" their partner to pursue their interests, but is not interested themselves in sharing the experience or replicating it on their own. Will that marriage stay, or become, happy? Probably not.

While in the beginning of a new relationship, the thought of exploring sex outside the relationship may not even cross any of the partners' minds, this situation may change with time, as the couple becomes more accustomed with one another, and the infatuation stage dissipates. Let's look at some of the causes for waning sexual desire:

  • routine - even if you absolutely love vanilla ice cream, you'll get tired of it once in a while, and chocolate ice cream may become curiously appealing one day. Same can be said for sex:

    How about the very simple fact that over time people lose interest in each other and find something new tempting and exciting. It's something we can admit to in every aspect of life except sex and marriage. If it were a car, or your favorite meal, or anything else in the world we could state the obvious. I know this, I've had it a thousand times, I'm tired of it. It doesn't make you a bad person. Doesn't mean you should cheat. It's simply human.6

    As all sex therapists suggest, simply trying new types of sexual play can reawaken the desire and boost the libido. And when all the accessories and positions and places have been tried, what is next? New persons.

  • partner's attractiveness - this is somewhat different for men and women. Men are visual. Assuming the wife has become less attractive, the mere sight of seeing her in a swinging situation is may very well arouse a man way more than usual. After all, how many men don't have threesome fantasies? For women, the attraction is more psychological than visual. If a husband discovers that his wife understands and accepts the male need for sexual diversity, his boost in appreciation for her is likely to trigger very positive psychological responses. Note that some level of physical attractiveness is required at the start of the marriage.

  • security - just like in the free market, competition drives competence. A partner who is guaranteed sex from their spouse has less incentive to work on their erotic skills, than a partner who has competition. Note that a level of competitiveness is required from both partners, as well as a handle on jealousy.

From the analysis above, it appears that (in addition to the usual criteria for choosing a spouse), there are two more which merit special consideration:

  • physical attractiveness - your spouse will be the person you'll spend most of your intimate time with. The stronger the physical attraction between you, the longer it is likely to last. As explained above, most other aspects of life can be outsourced, should your spouse no longer have interest in them (or not have any, from the start). Intimacy, however, is the most difficult to outsource. Also, humans grossly underestimate the importance of the attraction7 toward their partner, claiming that personality attributes such as kindness, intelligence and honesty are more important.
  • self-confidence and competitiveness (these entail lack of jealousy). As explained above, "People in the swinging community swing for a reason. They don't swing to go out and find a new wife". Also, the rarity of individuals who understand swinging makes them precious, and given that access to swinging events is mostly limited to couples and single females, women really do have control.

Similar sexual drive may also be a very important factor, but as the German research quoted above indicates, a natural decrease in the female libido post-marriage is to be expected, hence the initially high sex drive may not be an accurate predictor of future sex drive. A low initial drive, though, would.