The myth of monogamy

by Emma Wendt


Monogamous relationships are still considered the norm in Western society. However, some people have started to question whether monogamy is doing us more harm than good.

‘True love is passionate love that never fades; if you are in true love, you should marry that person; if love ends, you should leave that person because it was not true love; and if you can find the right person, you will have true love forever.’

That’s how cognitive scientist Jonathan Haidt describes the way human beings have been wired to share romantic love monogamously, only with one person at a time. From movies to our very own parents, we have been taught by the social construct that monogamy is the norm. However, we are in the midst of a discrete but very prominent sexual revolution. Boundaries within gender identities and sexuality are being redefined as the decrease in marriages and increase in divorces leaves one question: Is monogamy failing?  

Naturally polyamorous creatures
Monogamy has shown not to work for a large share of people as many struggle to commit solely to one person for a lifetime. Divorce rates are now exceeding 40% in the UK and the US. Moreover, 70% of Westerners have admitted to committing adultery according to an article by Vogue published in 2018. These figures are part of the reason for the unprecedented number of single adults around the world. People are not staying single until they find ‘the one’; they are staying single for life. A Eurostat report from 2018 indicates that for every marriage that takes place, two divorces are filed. It is hard to deny that the facts and figures suggest flaws within monogamy.

A reason for this could be the ethnographic evidence which suggests that humans are not naturally monogamous creatures. According to our animalistic preference, humans should be sexually indiscriminate. Esther Perel, a Belgian psychotherapist, states in a TED talk that ‘originally, monogamy had nothing to do with love. It was an economic imposition on women in order to know ‘whose children these are’ and ‘who gets the cows when I die’. Now we expect our partner to be our best friend, trusted confidante and passionate lover all in one. We ask one person, today, to give us what once an entire village would provide.’ So if monogamy is not in our evolutionary imprint, then why does the Western world promote it?

One theory is linked to the ‘two parent’ advantage of monogamous relationships when raising offspring. Aurora Meneses da Silva, founder of Relationship Therapy Amsterdam, explains: ‘We are wired for survival and bonding; this is called the attachment theory. A parent acts as the caregiver for their child which creates an essential emotional bond and enhances the child’s chance of survival.’ The same goes for monogamous partners, who seek similar bonds with each other, ‘When we are attracted to an individual with the added sexual component, we want to be with them and to preserve the bond. Anything that causes a threat enables a sense of fear that we will lose our partners.’

Polyamory, a welcome alternative
Monogamy can be perceived as an emotional contract between two individuals and as stated previously, it is not necessarily a natural phenomenon. Furthermore, to be monogamous is a choice based on dedication and loyalty. Technological advancements have created new methods of cheating like being on a dating app whilst in a committed relationship or flirtatiously texting someone over Instagram DM’s. While some would consider this cheating, others not, these are the rules that people are defining within their relationship. There is much less guidance on what boundaries need to be set, which leaves monogamy to become more difficult to sustain.

Having such boundaries is what drives some to cheat and lie to their partners. Poly activist and musician Joost Verhagen recalls having ‘experienced problems with several monogamous relationships where I felt trapped. Unfortunately, I must admit that did lead me to hurt people I loved.’ According to Valentino Curti, psychologist at the Amsterdam Expat Therapist, ‘monogamy can restrict the individual’s needs. One can feel obliged to renounce satisfying some of their own needs in order to keep the relationship or to not hurt their partners. In this way, we can end up feeling frustrated and blame our partners.’

One ethical solution more widespread today is to engage in polyamorous relationships. In Latin, the term directly translates to ‘many loves’, which defines it exactly. Poly individuals engage in several sexual relationships simultaneously with the approval and knowledge of all partners. Instagram influencer and blogger Neza Slack asserts that ‘being in a polyamorous relationship allows the sharing of different universes. Every person can help you uncover parts of yourself that you never knew were there. That is what makes it so beautiful.’ Although many people assume that polyamory is just about sex, poly individuals often describe their experiences as positive in conversations. The concept is also losing its stigma. In a survey carried out by Tonic Vice, only 6 % out of 5,000 members practiced polyamory while 68 % of singles approved it.

The idea that monogamy is ‘what it means to be in a relationship’ or ‘the norm’ is hard to prove. It is rather a result of social construction from what we, particularly Westerners, see when growing up. In reality, love between partners can be expressed in multiple ways and works differently for every relationship. Although polyamory has not been legally accepted worldwide, sexual liberation on the rise could make having multiple partners ‘part of the norm’ soon. It won’t be known as an excuse to sleep around but rather as a tool to help rediscover one’s desires and to spread love.