Sex & Relationships

Why Is Monogamy Idealized When Most People Aren't Monogamous?

Monogamy is exceedingly uncommon in the natural world -- and, as it turns out, the human world.

According to the animal kingdom, and research with creatures from insects and fish to birds, apes, lions, tigers and bears (oh my), monogamy is exceedingly uncommon in the natural world. In fact, with advances in the technology of genetic testing, many of the species previously lauded as being lifelong monogamous, are now known to actually have many sexual encounters outside their seemingly monogamous partnerships. While they may maintain long-term pair bonds with a single partner, they do not maintain sexual fidelity. Swans, geese, and eagles, species long romantically described as monogamous, have now been revealed to have engaged in nonmonogamous sexual activity in as many as one out of four births. In fact, according to some researchers, it’s more newsworthy when evidence of monogamy and sexual fidelity is actually supported in the animal kingdom.

Among mammals, only a very few species live in seemingly monogamous arrangements, and fewer still maintain sexual fidelity within those relationships. Man certainly does not seem to be one of them. There is increasing evidence that many men are not biologically or psychologically disposed to sexual monogamy.

When one considers the seeming universality of the expectation of monogamy in today’s world (or at least the world presented by Western media), it is perhaps surprising that monogamy has not always been the expected state for man. Despite the vehemence with which many Christians defend monogamy, many men in the Bible, including David and Solomon, were far from monogamous. In fact, whenever conservative marriage advocates espouse “traditional marriage,” I always have to laugh – even in Christianity, traditional marriage included polygyny (a marriage arrangement with one man and multiple wives), and was not explicitly limited to a monogamous arrangement between “one man and one woman.”

Throughout the history of man, most societies practiced a range of relationships, with monogamy and polygyny the most common, and only rare societies that mandated monogamy. Historically, polygyny has been one of the most common and prevalent forms of marriage, worldwide, with evidence that the acceptability of marriage of a single male to multiple females has been present in all human cultures through history. (Polyandry, a single woman with multiple male husbands has been very rare, and typically tied to unique economic circumstances.) Currently, less than 20 percent of world cultures require monogamy, the overwhelming majority allowing polygamous marriages. Less common were societies that practiced polyandry, where one woman has multiple husbands (which reportedly were found in less than 1 percent of worldwide societies).

Throughout history, many powerful men have eschewed monogamy for the privilege of having multiple female partners, typically through having multiple wives, concubines and mistresses. It was not all men who could support multiple wives, but usually only the wealthiest, most powerful men who could attract, protect, and provide for multiple wives and their children. But, in modern Western culture, men with multiple wives are seen as sinners and lawbreakers – in America, bigamy and polygyny is illegal, and was deemed a danger to society by the US Supreme court when it was outlawed in Utah in the 19th century.

Monogamy is enforced by law in the United States with criminal adultery statutes, laws against bigamy and in child custody laws. Infidelity is punishable by law in twenty-five states, and is subject to civil lawsuit in eight. While violations of such laws are rarely prosecuted, statutory penalties against these crimes range from two years’ imprisonment to commitment for treatment of insanity.

Even when partners do not sexually violate marriage expectations, with divorce rates as high as 60 percent in some cases, monogamy has less meaning than it once did. Serial monogamy is now the truer term, where individuals are monogamous as long as they are in a given relationship, but move on to other relationships, sexual and otherwise, once that relationship ends. Why then is monogamy the expected, required, and enforced marital ideal? Marriage laws, according to most experts, have more to do with contract and property law. Monogamy offers important assurances regarding parentage that support and clarify inheritance laws and precedents. Some writers and historians suggest that monogamy represents a political and economic compromise, between the needs of the powerful and the need to have a self-sufficient, satisfied, and motivated workforce.

Regardless, monogamy works, or at least the idea of monogamous marriage works. A commitment and bond between two partners meets needs for social, emotional, and physical intimacy, as well as financial, familial, and pragmatic needs in ways that no other relationship strategy has as effectively satisfied in current society. But, despite the effectiveness of a seemingly monogamous relationship, history shows that the ideal of monogamy, with the expectation of sexual and emotional fidelity, is not apparently suited for everyone.

Currently, debates over gay marriage have raised the spectre of polygyny, with arguments that legalizing gay marriage could open the door to polygyny, with the fear of significant social consequences. Reality shows like Sister Wives, and HBO’s Big Love have elevated public dialogue and legal issues around the practice of polygyny. In my home state of New Mexico, an 85 year-old man in a rural town was recently arrested for bigamy, after he apparently became lonely during a very long separation from his wife, and married another woman – I don’t know the details of the case, but wonder how this marriage came to lead to criminal charges in the first place – where is the harm and threat to community here? Why does society fear polygyny, and believe that it poses a risk to the structure of our culture and society?

I’m not arguing here as to whether polygyny is healthy or not, nor am I discussing or denying the negative effects that polygyny has on women, including young girls. I am interested in discussing the question of why, if there truly is a patriarchal control of society, why did these men supposedly in charge give up the historical sexual privilege of polygyny?

A piece of the answer, and evidence for the cultural “cost-benefit” explanation of monogamy is revealed in recently published anthropological research. In “The puzzle of monogamous marriage” by Henrich, Boyd and Richerson, the authors present evidence that monogamy actually has significant social benefits. In polygyny, powerful men gather the most desirable women for themselves. And less powerful men “go hungry,” wifeless. In fact, throughout human history, while 80% of women have reproduced, only 40% of men have (this is a fascinating statistic, that I really invite you to think about. Imagine the downstream implications of this, as it affects which men in history reproduced, and how their characteristics were passed down to us today). Those men who couldn’t compete, didn’t get to have even a single wife, and thus didn’t have children. So, what did those men do with their time? According to Henrich, Boyd and Richerson, it appears they got into lots of trouble. Societies where polygyny has been (and still is) practiced, have higher rates of crimes involving males, especially violent crime. Apparently, if you can’t get a wife, what’s the point of following society’s rules?

But just because the men ostensibly in charge of modern societies “decided” to give up the right to have multiple wives, they clearly didn’t give up their interest in having sex with multiple women. The sex lives of leaders like Mao Zedong, Jack Kennedy, and Newt Gingrich, show that while these men may have imposed monogamy on other men (under Mao, infidelity was a punishable crime, and Gingrich vociferously attacked Clinton’s sexual infidelity), they haven’t been all that interested in following these rules themselves. It sounds like a case of “Do as I say, not as I do.” Famed psychoanalyst Carl Jung once wrote to Sigmund Freud that “The prerequisite for a good marriage, it seems to me, is the license to be unfaithful.”

As it was throughout history, the rule of monogamy was for the common man in society, not the leaders, who still got the privilege of having mistresses, with tacit social approval. Interestingly, this arrangement has even benefited the men in power, who are now no longer obligated to marry and support these other women, in order to pursue sexual variety. Nowadays, as I describe in The Myth of Sex Addiction, many of these men simply claim to be sex addicts and retreat into pseudo-treatment. Their mistresses are then merely the by-products of an uncontrollable illness, rather than people for whom these men are responsible.

Through a (probably unconscious) social process, modern Western societies have gravitated towards emphasis and requirement of monogamous marriages, because it smoothes out some significant social problems. By preventing powerful men from having multiple wives, and allowing all men a democratic chance to get married, men spend more time worrying about looking like good potential mates, and have less time and energy to break the rules and get in trouble. Modern society’s moral emphasis upon monogamy is based upon historical, pragmatic evidence of the social benefit of requiring monogamy for (most) men.