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Monogamous Relationships Do Not Work

by Lucy 2 years ago in science
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Unpopular Opinion Challenge

What is Monogamy?

The Oxford Dictionary defines monogamy as “the practice of marrying or state of being married to one person at a time.” This concept can also be applied to purely sexual relationships where two people exclusively engage in sex with only each other, known as sexual monogamy. In zoology, the term can be interpreted as having only one mate at a time (Lexico, 2020).

How do I know that “monogamous relationships do not work” is an “unpopular opinion”? Well, I ran the title of this piece by my monogamous parents and my boyfriend and, safe to say, it did not go down too well. This reaction is one that is reflected generally in the Western World.

Opie (from University College London’s Anthropology Department) states, “[t]he modern monogamous culture has only been around for just 1,000 years” (Senthilingam, 2016). However, White et al (2009) suggest that human monogamy had evolved by 4.4 Ma based on the logic that Ardipithecus ramidus, an early hominid species, displayed traits associated with reduced sexual dimorphism at that time.

Sexual dimorphism is the phenomenon whereby two sexes of the same species have defining traits (in size/appearance) to tell them apart (outside of the obvious difference in sexual organs) (Lexico, 2020). Peafowl offer a great example of sexual dimorphism. Males (peacocks) possess a vast and vibrant collection of tail feathers, which they use to win over mates. Meanwhile females (peahens) look comparatively underwhelming. Reduced sexual dimorphism in a species indicates that it is more likely to be monogamous, as these distinguishing features have only evolved to help males compete to mate with multiple females. Where monogamy is present, competition is less intense so the need to stand out carries less significance (Gabbatiss, 2016).

Lukas and Clutton-Brock (2013) note, “[o]f the 2545 mammalian species whose social systems could be classified, breeding females were classified as solitary in 1741 species (68%), socially monogamous in 229 species (9%), and living in social groups in 575 species (23%).” (Social monogamy encompasses the social and reproductive behaviour of a monogamous partnership, but allows room for infidelity because it is so common among certain monogamous species, including humans (Bryner, 2012).)

Why does Monogamy exist?

Monogamy is thought to exist for several main reasons (Gabbatiss, 2016; Lukas and Clutton-Brock, 2013). Firstly, proximity. If there are limited numbers of a species in a specified location, then members of that species are more inclined to find a single mate nearby and stick with them. Secondly, two parents working together can increase an offspring’s chance of survival into adulthood in a dangerous or hostile environment. Monogamy can help prevent male infanticide, as male parents stick around to fend off their competitors who may want to kill their offspring so they can reproduce with the female instead. Thirdly, monogamy helps to support male mate-guarding.

However, how relevant are these reasons to humans today? Firstly, global travel means that the issue of proximity no longer exists. Dating apps like Tinder and Happn mean that - figuratively and literally speaking - our next mate(s) could be just around the corner. Secondly, we have designed our environments to protect us from danger; many of us are fortunate enough to have access to clean water, food readily available at a local supermarket and a roof over our heads. As for male infanticide? If a man attempted to murder another man’s child in order to win his wife, he would be imprisoned and, well, the wife would hopefully run a mile. Male mate-guarding these days is more commonly referred to as “cock-blocking” but how successful such a tactic is in today’s modern world is somewhat questionable.

Regarding humans, according to Gray (1999) in his correction of Murdock’s Ethnographic Atlas recording the marital composition of 1,231 societies globally (from 1960 to 1980), approximately 15% are monogamous, 37% are occasionally polygynist (a man having multiple wives), 48% are frequently polygynist and 0.003% practise polyandry (a woman having multiple husbands). These figures indicate that monogamous relationships are actually a minority! So, why is it that in today’s Western World, we are sold this ideal of marrying “the one”, having 2.4 children and living happily ever after?

Is Monogamy natural?

It has long been debated whether monogamy in humans is “natural”. It is instead argued that humans invented the concept to achieve order and benefit from a paternal investment in offspring (Bryner, 2012). However, a monogamous pairing is not the only kind of bond that achieves such outcomes and there is nothing “ordered” about infidelity, which too commonly results. In fact, order and paternal investment can be achieved by a variety of marital arrangements.

Animals are programmed with basic instincts to encourage them to reproduce. Their sole goal is to create future offspring to inherit their genes. A female can benefit from mating with multiple males to create more genetically diverse offspring. This polygamic approach helps to increase the chance of her producing offspring who will survive. From the male perspective, sperm is far easier to produce than a female’s eggs but he is restricted from reproducing with unlimited numbers of females in a monogamous partnership (Brown et al, 2009). Both sexes can therefore benefit from polygamy.

According to Fisher (1989), in humans the “divorce risk peaks” among couples who are at “the height of [their] reproductive and parenting years.” This may be the reason why, in species that do form monogamous pairbonds, they tend to last only long enough to see the child through infancy, which is roughly four years. Moreover, she explains how “brain architecture may also contribute to infidelity” because “humanity has evolved three broad, basic, distinct yet interrelated brain systems for mating, reproduction and parenting: the sex drive; romantic attraction; and feelings of deep attachment to a mating partner” (Fisher, 2014). These above points support the fact that monogamous relationships are not destined to last.

Given that approximately 85% of cultures are polygamic (having more than one spouse at a time), we cannot really classify humans as monogamous, although cultural factors like religion (for example, mainstream Christianity) have encouraged a trend towards monogamy in humans. Monogamy existed before Christianity but became the norm when Christians embraced the idea. As Christianity spread across Europe, monogamy was accepted as a result. Ironically, despite many Christians denouncing polygyny, the Bible does not oppose it and the Old Testament actually includes a number of prominent polygynist patriarchs like Abraham and Solomon (Price, 2011). Moreover, religious beliefs generally are changing as the Pew Research Center (2019) declares, in the U.S. “Decline of Christianity Continues at Rapid Pace.” In other religions, such as Islam, polygyny has historically been accepted and is still permitted today. Because the Western World is so used to the idea of monogamy, it now views polygyny as an abnormal practice, despite it once being ubiquitous.

Polygyny may help satisfy a man’s natural sexual urges. Children from multiple wives form an available labour force and can encourage important social, economic and political connections through the process of arranged marriages. The wives can enjoy increased autonomy. When wife number one has a “headache”, she can hope that wife number two is ready and willing. These arrangements can encourage population growth in war-stricken areas where male mortality rates are high, as women have a greater chance of finding (and sharing) a mate (Burton, 2018). Such arrangements are common in sub-Saharan Africa where polygyny is mostly legal or not criminalised (Lawson, 2015).

A far less common sub-group of polygamy is polyandry. Such an arrangement may be beneficial in cases where land or resources are scarce or population growth needs to be restricted (as one woman cannot be simultaneously pregnant with the offspring of several men) (Burton, 2018). Examples of polyandry can be found in North India and Kenya (Akinyoade, 2019). Frankly, who wants to wake up to the same face every morning when you could marry the entire “Magic Mike” cast simultaneously and go to sleep to a private show each night, safe in the knowledge that you are doing your bit to prevent overpopulation?

Both forms of polygamous relationships outlined above can benefit from shared housekeeping and parental responsibilities, as well as resources such as time and money. Participants can also enjoy the social support and abundance of love that result from such arrangements (Burton, 2018).

There are several misconceptions and stereotypes surrounding polygamy that make the idea hard for people to swallow. These may stem from religious cults, pornography and cultural conditioning. Some people assume that men who marry multiple wives are focussed on sex and power. Whilst this might be true in some cases (just as men may be in some monogamous arrangements), it is not the rule. Many polygynic men work hard to provide for their multiple wives and children, just like many men in monogamous relationships. Another misconception is that women are forced or abused into polygamous relationships. This is not true for the most part. For those in polygamous relationships, it has been the norm for some time and actually they view the Western World’s ideal of monogamous relationships as foreign and unusual and are quite happy with their family dynamic (Barlow, 2015). Moreover, monogamy is subject to patriarchal traditions when compared to polygamy and therefore encourages greater oppression of women (Ziegler et al, 2014).

Other forms of open relationships, where a couple (married or unmarried) includes an additional member or members whose role is secondary, also exist. The primary couple may both have involvement with the additional relationship members or may have separate involvement and this will be based on a set of agreed rules. Open relationships include swinging (couples agreeing to exchanging partners sexually), monogamish (primarily monogamous relationships which permit outside sexual contact), polyamory (permits multiple consensual open romantic and sexual relationships at the same time), polyfidelity (similar to polyamory but within an agreed, closed group, whereby sexual/emotional infidelity outside of that group is not allowed) and polyaffective (refers to a co-spousal relationship, say between two wives of one husband, whose connection is emotional but platonic) (Sheff, 2014).

Are relationships causing us unnecessary suffering and is there really any need to commit to anyone at all?

“We are never so defenceless against suffering as when we love,” according to Sigmund Freud (1961), and Oscar Wilde (1895) said, “[t]o love oneself is the beginning of a lifelong romance.” We saw above that 68% of females from mammalian species were classified as solitary. Outlooks have shifted over more recent years. Women are proud to be independent; “[a]ll the women who are independent, throw your hands up at me,” said Beyoncé (Knowles, 2001) who admittedly is in a monogamous marriage but has had her fair share of rocky patches with Jay-Z. Feminism is helping to drive an ever-increasing equality between men and women. Women are being recognised in the workplace and the gender pay gap is declining (albeit slowly) (Office for National Statistics, 2019a). Moreover, current welfare states mean that women do not need to rely (especially financially) on men like in the past and so are perfectly happy to be unattached and independent.

The Office for National Statistics (2019b) reports that: “[i]n 2019, 14.9% of the families in the UK were lone parent families (2.9 million)”; “between 1999 and 2019 there has been a statistically significant increase of 14.5%” in this figure; and “[t]he number of people living alone has increased by a fifth over the last 20 years, driven mainly by increases in men aged 45 to 64 years living alone.” Maybe these figures demonstrate a gradual shift away from monogamy.

The introduction of birth control means that people are engaging in sex without the consequence of children, so people can be promiscuous without it resulting in lifelong responsibility. We even have the option of sperm donors, surrogates and adoption, so individuals do not need to commit monogamously to someone to have children. The Human Fertilisation & Embryology Authority (2019) notes that between 2007 and 2017 there has been an increase in IVF treatments obtained by people without a partner. This figure is expected to keep rising in coming years. Between 2016 and 2017 alone there has been a 4% increase in fertility treatment cycles for patients without a partner.

Sometimes love turns sour. BBC News reported last year that the “number of people killed as a result of domestic violence in the UK is at its highest level in five years” (Mackintosh and Swann 2019). Rates of uxoricide (killing one’s wife) are substantially higher than those of mariticide (killing one’s husband) (Office for National Statistics, 2019c). Perhaps it is best to stay safe and stay single.

Monogamous relationships are perceived to cause less jealously between partners than consensual non-monogamous relationships. However, research suggests the latter arrangement results in lower levels of jealously (Conley et al, 2013). According to the U.S. Department of Justice (2000), women are significantly more likely to suffer domestic abuse from partners who exhibit jealousy and control issues.

Whilst people in consensual non-monogamous arrangements may still experience some jealousy, the format permits multiple simultaneous relationships. This fact may be the reason why participants “report high degrees of honesty, closeness, happiness, and communication and low degrees of jealousy” (Conley et al, 2013). In fact, polyamory can result in compersion, a sense of joy created by seeing someone else happy because of their other relationships, which is considered the opposite of jealousy (Ritchie and Barker, 2006).

When relationships are not ending in homicide, they are sadly too frequently ending in divorce. The Office for National Statistics (2013) estimates that “42% of marriages in England and Wales end in divorce,” whilst “[t]he average duration of marriage among opposite-sex couples who divorced in 2018 was 12.5 years” (Office for National Statistics, 2019d). This statistic is ironic given the significance monogamous partners place on marriage, commonly spending large amounts on engagement and marriage ceremonies and honeymoons.

“What’s the difference between monogamy and mahogany? Wood,” (Anonymous, no date) a joke that nicely encapsulates the idea that monogamous partnerships lead to tedium in the bedroom. This may explain why, whilst most couples do not condone infidelity, according to the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy (2016), “some national surveys indicate that 15% of women and 25% of men have experienced intercourse outside of their long-term relationship. And, by including emotional and sexual intimacies without intercourse, these percentages increase by 20%.” Billie Holiday (1939) once sang, “[l]ove is like a faucet, it turns off and on.” Perhaps she has a point given that infidelity ranks highly as a common cause for divorce. The National Health and Social Life Survey in the United States during the 1990s found that the chance of women cheating in heterosexual marriages was highest in the seventh year of marriage and fell after that. Men were also more likely to cheat around the seventh year, but the chances of cheating then fell until roughly the eighteenth year, when the rate rose again (Liu, 2000). It seems that humans may not be suited to monogamous relationships.

Even the Royals struggle to maintain their monogamous relationships. A prime example is Prince Charles’ affair with Camilla Parker Bowles while married to the late Princess Diana; a scandal which ended particularly badly.

Emotions and biology

I know from my own experience that when monogamous relationships end, they can be intensely painful. We invest so much in this one, irreplaceable person that the heartache of the departure can cause us deep suffering. At the end of Bob Geldof’s 20 year relationship with Paula Yates, where she had been having an affair, he said, “I thought a broken heart was a metaphor for distress, I didn't understand it was literally, physically that. The pain in my chest was unbearable." He found the split so painful, struggling with an “existential sense of loss, where universes collapse, where there are oceans of grief and chasms of loss” that he even contemplated suicide (O’Riordan, 2011). Moreover, research indicates that both physical and emotional pain affect the same brain regions (Kross et al, 2011). Are monogamous relationships destined for heartbreak because we are trying too hard to fit a mould for which we were biologically not designed?

With that in mind, it is interesting to learn that when we fall in love, it alters our brain chemistry and hormone levels. According to biological anthropologist Fisher (1998), the three stages involved in this process are lust, attraction and love. In the first stages of love, we tend to lust after someone and are drawn towards their physical attractiveness. In men, this attraction is fuelled by testosterone, whilst in women it is fuelled by oestrogen. This primal instinct can be found across different species and may be justified by a biological need to pass on our genes.

In the second stage of love, attraction comes into play whereby we become more obsessive about the object of our affections. During this stage, dopamine and norepinephrine levels increase whilst serotonin levels decrease in the brain. These chemical reactions are to blame for this increased level of infatuation with a person. Heightened dopamine urges us to pursue someone, heightened norepinephrine leaves us with a feeling of excitement and reduced serotonin encourages our obsessiveness regarding that person.

Attachment is the final stage of love, which results in desire for long-term commitment such as making agreements regarding cohabiting, marriage or children. Research shows that dopamine falls approximately four years into a relationship and attraction subsides. However, in successful pairbonds, oxytocin and vasopressin come into play instead and an increase in these chemicals can encourage a lasting bond with your partner.

In fact, oxytocin is so powerful that it can even impact on social behaviours. A study compared the prairie vole and the montane vole, which are closely related. They share many similarities but their social behaviour is noticeably different. The prairie vole favours monogamy and social bonds, caring for its offspring, whereas the montane vole leads a more solitary existence (Carter et al, 1995). This difference in the voles’ behaviour has been linked to contrasting distributions of oxytocin receptor sites in the brain (Insel and Shapiro, 1992).

Schneirderman et al (2012) note that when comparing new lovers and new parents, oxytocin levels of the former are significantly higher than the latter, “indicating that the initial period of romantic love may induce the most intense activity of the oxytocinergic system.” If monogamous bonds are reliant on chemicals like oxytocin and their levels fall over time, are such relationships destined not to last? Do they purely serve a biological function, which keeps a couple together just long enough to raise children?

Bergner (2013a) suggests that monogamy is one cause of diminished sexual desire within relationships. Women have sexual desires like those of men, but societal pressures may mean that they feel too oppressed to admit to them (Bergner, 2013b). It seems that women are more prone to boredom in the bedroom than men and need new and exciting ways to help keep the spark alive. Hypoactive sexual desire disorder affects many more women than men and causes declines in arousal with long-term partners. This lack of lust in women in monogamous relationships begins after one to four years (Bergner, 2013a). Does this need for “novel stimuli” mean that monogamy is less likely to work for women? May this issue increase their risk of cheating in monogamous partnerships?

Moreover, a human’s susceptibility to cheat may even be dictated by genetic make-up. Garcia et al (2010) report an increased likelihood of promiscuity and more than a 50% increase in sexual infidelity cases in people with a dopamine D4 receptor gene variation.

Are we expecting too much from one person in monogamous relationships?

Mitchell conveys an explanation of why male and female partners may experience a decline in sexual appetite with the passage of time (Bergner, 2013a). He suggests that, “it’s threatening to desire the same person from whom we seek security and true understanding. It leaves us feeling too vulnerable.” This sentiment would mean that we could find more sexual satisfaction in polygamous relationships, where we are not relying on one individual to fulfil all of our emotional and physical needs. Polygamy can therefore reduce dependence on one person and participants can instead gain both a greater sense of self-esteem and social support, inside and outside of the relationship (thereby combating loneliness) (Ziegler et al, 2014). Such benefits may help individuals manage common reasons for infidelity such as lust, anger/revenge, commitment issues, neglectful behaviour from a partner, falling out of love with a partner or in love with someone else, dissatisfaction/tedium with the current relationship (emotionally or physically) and self-esteem issues (Lehmiller, 2018).

According to Ziegler et al (2014), increased levels of sexual satisfaction are reported in polyamorous relationships. Polyamory encourages women to explore their sexuality and helps them to regain power lost in a monogamous arrangement, as it prioritises equality, regardless of gender. It results in feelings of increased sexual agency, liberation and growth through expanding “their familial, cultural, gendered, and sexual roles” (Sheff, 2005).

Aside from infidelity, other reasons for divorce include commitment issues, excessive arguments, premature marriages, inequality within the marriage, abuse or falling out of love (Hawkins et al, 2012). Marilyn Monroe (2010), “[a]lways admired men who had many women. It must be that to a child of a dissatisfied woman the idea of monogamy is hollow.” Could these problems be more easily avoided if we moved away from monogamy? Would relationships be more satisfying and meaningful? George Clooney once claimed, “No, I won’t marry again. I don’t want to screw anybody else up. I don’t want to do that anymore” (Goalcast, 2020). Are monogamous relationships destined to screw us up because we struggle to make them last? If only we could ask Amal!

In the midst of divorce, the parties rack up costs in court fees, legal fees, financial settlements to the spouse and child maintenance. Not to mention the mental, emotional and physical turmoil such a process can cause. Perhaps this is the reason that in 2016 marriage rates had generally declined since their peak in 1972 (Office for National Statistics, 2019e). Are we realising that monogamous relationships are not very successful?

Changing views

There has been a change in moral outlooks over more recent years (Gallup, 2019). In 2019, 18% of Americans considered polygamy to be “morally acceptable”. This figure indicates that overall, people favour monogamy and so “monogamous relationships do not work” is currently still an “unpopular opinion”. However, this statistic was only 7% in 2003, which demonstrates an increased acceptance of consensual non-monogamy over time. Meanwhile, 9% considered infidelity to be “morally acceptable” in 2019 and 6% in 2003. These statistics show that just because opinions of polygamy are changing, opinions on infidelity remain more consistent, indicating that whilst Americans are more willing to accept the idea of open relationships, they would prefer that the concept of other partners be discussed openly, rather than people engage in secret affairs (Lehmiller, 2018).


Monogamy does not seem very practical in my opinion. Science suggests it is challenging for humans because of our very biology. Polygamy was, in fact, once the norm. The reasons the Western World became monogamous in the first place, such as religion and proximity, seem out-dated. Monogamy more commonly results in negative emotions and therefore negative outcomes, such as domestic abuse, infidelity and divorce. Instead, polygamy can help to foster relationships with better communication, more equality, greater satisfaction and increased happiness. Although there is still a significant reluctance to embrace polygamy, people are morally more willing to accept the notion than ever before. Perhaps this “unpopular opinion” in the Western World is starting to make more sense to more people and we shall see a movement away from convention.


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