Sunday, May 18, 2014

What's the Deal with Monogamy?

I recently read an article about the development and FDA trials of a pill that would increase women's sexual desire. The idea is to create a fix for the decreased desires (which could be effectively described as "horniness") women typically feel toward their partner in long-term relationships. They aren't happy, and this will help fix a problem. I realized this pill perfectly illustrates the conundrum we face about monogamy- As a society, we celebrate the idea of lifelong pair-bonding. Yet most of us, despite our best attempts, really aren't that good at it. 

Topics like this have always fascinated me because it combines the biology of sexuality, attraction, and pair-bonding with the sociocultural aspects of our intimate relationships. Since I'm between book-writing projects, it seemed like a fun way to jump back into active blogging.

So the question: Are we, as humans, designed for monogamy?

Before we begin, two issues need to be addressed: Individuality and morality. First, we're all different. Research seems to indicate some humans are more adept at monogamy. Some of us are like prairie voles. We find a mate and maintain sexual exclusivity until one partner dies (for the most part... there are a few PVs that like to get a little action on the side.) On the other hand, some of us are live the free-lovin' bonobo monkeys that treat sex as recreation. Researchers attribute this variability to neurotransmitters, specifically the presence of high levels of oxytocin and oxytocin receptors. Other variables, like culture, religion, and other such factors clearly play a role in monogamy.

The second issue is a bit tricky- morality. In the United States, the idea of serial monogamy (only having one partner at a time, but other partners are generally okay if the relationship ends) is the cultural norm that's continually reinforced by many societal institutions. Anything other than serial monogamy is generally frowned upon by the majority. This makes open, honest discussions somewhat tricky. Personally, I prefer to silence my own moral code when discussing such matters. It's useless to try to impose my morality on others, just as it's pointless for them to impose theirs on me.

So let's get to it. What do we know about monogamy?


In the animal kingdom, roughly 4% of mammals appear to be monogamous. Recent DNA testing of offspring has shown almost all previously-believed monogamous animals, to some degree, aren't having sex exclusively with their mate. This means 96% of our mammal cousins are nonmonogamous.

History of Monogamy

Way back in college, I took a few human sexuality courses. I remember a discussion on the origins of "marrying for love." Shocking to me at the time, that idea wasn't formulated until the Enlightenment in 17th century Europe. Prior to this, marriage was done for political, social, or economic reasons. The idea of monogamy simply didn't exist.

Once people started marrying for love, the concept of sexual jealousy among spouses was introduced. Emotional possessiveness became an issue. The idea of monogamy was born.

This wasn't a huge deal, however, due to the logistics of the era. The mortality rate was pretty high. The odds of a spouse dying, thus freeing the survivor to find another partner, was quite good. Death during childbirth, industrial revolution accidents, or just good ole' disease made for early grave. "Same partner to death" really wasn't that much of a commitment.

Compare that to today. Let's assume you get together in your mid-twenties. With a life-expectancy stretching well into the seventies, that means fifty-plus years of trying to keep the spark alive.


Specifically, neurotransmitters. This is a complex topic, so I'll greatly oversimplify it. We have two neurotransmitters that have a profound effect on sex drive- dopamine (increases) and serotonin (decreases.) When balanced, we're pretty normal. When dopamine increases, sex drive increases. This is why novelty, exercise, and cocaine all make us at least a little bit horny. When serotonin increases, we lose sexual interest. This is why SSRIs (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, or antidepressants) kill sexual interest.

This is important because dopamine decreases the more time we spend around our significant other. Early in relationships, our brains are flooded with dopamine. After awhile, it decreases. This causes us to get bored with our partner. This effect seems especially prominent in women. It even has a name: Hypoactive sexual desire disorder.

Oxytocin, at least to some degree, counteracts this effect by emotionally bonding us with our partner. It's also the same neurotransmitter that bonds parents to kids. This system is what keeps us together in what I would define as "social monogamy." We identify ourselves as a couple socially. Unfortunately, oxytocin doesn't boost sex drive. In fact, it have have an opposite effect.

Emotional closeness requires a sense of safety. Passion requires a sense of danger. The two constructs, by definition, are mutually exclusive. Masters at seduction understand this, which is why the pushing and pulling of sexual interest is so alluring. It plays these two constructs off each other. That's another topic for another day, however.

How we Interpret the Lack of Interest in our Partner

Let's say you've been in a relationship for a few years. In the beginning, you were like jackrabbits. You fucked at every conceivable opportunity. Eventually that tapered off. Maybe you got married. Had a few kids. Bought a nice house in the 'burbs. Whatever.

When we experience that decrease in sexual desire, most of us assign blame to our partner. It's not necessarily deliberate, it's just a self-preservation thing we do. We may love them, but we begin resenting them for little behaviors that we believe are killing the passion we once experienced. We begin to feel trapped by the societal expectations of monogamy. That subtle misattribution can lead to a fairly predictable course of action that undermines the relationship by forcing us to make a decision among a slew of options.

The Options

Option #1: Stick it out. Some of us have the requisite neurotransmitter cocktail (and associated receptors) to make monogamy a cruse in the park. In other words, we have no problem living a life devoid of passion because we're strongly bonded to our mate. This is the default mode most of society champions. The problem, of course, is that the vast majority of the population seems to be incapable of this. 

Option #2: Spice things up. This is the "Cosmo" solution we read while standing in the checkout line at the local Piggly Wiggly. Novelty releases dopamine. If we change up our game, we get a little bit of that fire back. This is actually a pretty decent solution because it's socially acceptable... except for the fact that it's exceedingly hard work to constantly inject novelty. We adapt to novelty rather fast, and if our partner is the lone source of the novelty, we have to "up the ante" every time we try something new. That light spanking on the ass and nipple tweaking will eventually morph into being caned and hung from the ceiling via piercings. 

Option #3: Get divorced. Old partner isn't exciting anymore, so we get a new one. That's the real spirit of serial monogamy, isn't it? This feels like a ridiculous option, but a divorce rate hanging north of 50% suggests it's popular. For some, this may not be a viable option due to kids, insurance, materialism, etc. 

Option #4: Have an affair. New partners certainly create a spark, so we could solve this issue by finding sex and/or love behind our partner's back. Some research has suggested THIS is how we evolved. The generally-accepted conservative statistic indicates about 20-25% of couples will be affected by infidelity, with some studies pointing to MUCH higher numbers. For example, according to these stats, around 70% of males AND females would have an affair if they were assured they wouldn't get caught. 

The Interwebz seems to be making it easier and easier to find a hookup partner other than our spouse., the leading "place to find affair partners" website, boasts over 20 million members. Let that sink in for a moment. We're talking about possibly 40 million relationships that would be affected. And this is just one of many websites that offer the same service. It's safe to say this is a popular option to solving the passion problem. 

The problem here, of course, is the negative impact on the relationship. Only about a third of relationships survive an affair, and the experience tends to be rather traumatic to the betrayed spouse. It's obviously frowned upon by society, too, but it maintains a pretense to monogamy. The system still works, just one partner happened to make a mistake. 

Option #5: Ethical nonmonogamy. Ethical nonmonogamy, which is practiced by 20-25% of the US population, is some sort of sexual and/or emotional relationship involving other people in full knowledge of both partners. At one end of the ethical nonmonogany spectrum would be swinging by adding one or more recreational (i.e.- casual) partners with no emotional attachments (sexually nonmonogamous) to polyamory, which is adding more people to the loving emotional aspects of the relationship (emotionally and possibly socially nonmonogamous.) This is a very simplified explanation of many, many diverse groups that have different goals and motives, but one fact remains: We add novelty by breaking the societal expectation that monogamy is the norm. 

This option is basically like the "spice things up" option on steroids. All parties are consensual, so nothing occurs without full disclosure. There may be problems navigating the complex feelings that arise, but those are usually worked out via communication. The real issue is acceptance. Society as a whole doesn't like competition to the "one partner forever" model. All variations of ethical nonmonogamy poke holes is the common assumptions and practices of monogamy. 

Option #6: Drugs. To bring the discussion full-circle, we come back to Lybrido, the testosterone-and-Viagra cousin that causes women to experience a surge of dopamine (and get horny.) The idea is pretty straight-forward. As the passion dies down after a year or five, a woman can take this pill to revive her sexual desire for her partner.

It's more exciting than riding out the passionless relationship, easier than continually fanning the flames by introducing novelty, avoids the pain of divorce and/or affairs, and is more emotionally easier and socially-accepted than swinging or polyamory. We live in a drug culture, and this idea would probably be more widely accepted than Viagra was back in the 90's. 

There are caveats, however. How will the woman feel about requiring a pill to feel desire for her significant other? How would the guy feel? What if the spouse isn't the recipient of that increased horniness? Are there unintended health complications? How would we ever get anything done if we were having sex all the time?


Our culture clearly promotes the idea of monogamy. Yet the amount of money spent on magazines willed with "improve your sex life"tips, the ever-growing divorce rate, the number of illicit affairs that occur, and the number of couples involved in ethical nonmonogamy tell us monogamy is not the Utopia we make it out to be. Is it time to stop teaching monogamy as the only movie shown in the theater? Should we fully accept alternatives to monogamy? Do we increase spending to find drugs that will make monogamy more palatable? Do we all become eunuchs once we pop out a few kids?

What do you think of the issue? Leave a comment!


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