Defining monogamy is a tricky task, according to Dr. Elizabeth “Eli” Sheff, a sociologist, researcher, relationship coach and author of the book, The Polyamorists Next Door. Linguistically, it means “marriage to one.” That said, it’s typically used more broadly. Generally speaking, monogamous relationships are rooted in some form of exclusivity — whether in terms of romance, sex, resource-pooling, or all three.
The definition of monogamy is broad
Dr. Eli tells O.school that,“For some people, the definition of monogamy is obvious. But for many people it is not at all obvious. And sometimes, couples only figure that out when they disagree. It’s a very slippery concept.” For example, some people might consider watching porn to be non monogamous behavior, whereas some might be fine with their monogamous partner having sex with other people. That’s why Dr. Eli thinks that having a Define the Relationship (DTR) conversation can be even more important in monogamous relationships than in other relationship formations.
Definitions of monogamy are also often idealized or romanticized. Dr. Eli notes that, “Classical monogamy — where two people meet as virgins and are each other's sole sexual partners their entire lives — is actually fairly rare, not only now but even historically.” She notes that we’ve moved beyond purely “classical monogamy” in recent decades, saying that, “The romanticized version of monogamy that we currently have allows for a little bit of searching… until you find true love. And when you find your soulmate, you’re sexually exclusive with that person for the rest of your life. And that’s kind of romanticized monogamy.”
Monogamy appeals to many different kinds of people, but not to everyone. Still, our society generally presents monogamy as “normative,” or even the only way to structure your relationships. But why do we center on it, and is monogamy even natural for human beings?
The idea of monogamous relationships has historic roots
Monogamy has historical roots in religion and patriarchal capitalism. Simply put, as human societies grew, wealth accumulated, and patriarchal structures flourished. Cishet Men, and especially upper-class men, became concerned about inheritance. Specifically, they only wanted to bequeath their wealth to their biological sons. Because of that, Dr. Eli notes, “You needed to know who your wife had been sleeping with. So you needed to control her sexuality. And that’s basically how monogamy began, as a way for men to hand their property down to their male progenity.“ The fact that monogamy really just originated as a way to keep wealth concentrated in the hands of biologically-related men makes its continued salience and relative-ubiquity today all the more surprising.
Monogamy is not necessarily natural for humans
It’s commonly said that humans are simply wired to engage in monogamous relationships. But, as Kit Opie, an evolutionary anthropologist from University College London told CNN, “The modern monogamous culture has only been around for just 1,000 years.” There are different theories as to why human beings started veering towards monogamy: One hypothesis suggests that it was to avoid the risk of sexually transmitted diseases, which proliferated as human communities became larger.
For her part, Dr. Eli sees monogamy as a social construct, and not only because its definition has changed over time. She says, “Is it natural for people to have sexual desire for only one person across their lifetime? As a social scientist, I would say absolutely not. If it were, we wouldn’t have all these rules around constructing monogamy, we wouldn’t have to work so hard to enforce it.” She notes that even with all of this social and religious enforcement, any given monogamous relationship has a real chance of failing, as most clearly indicated by America’s divorce rate. The fact that, in spite of social conditioning and societal pressures, so many monogamous relationships don’t work out further suggests that monogamous pairing is far from implicitly “natural.”
It's also interesting to note that in the animal kingdom, monogamy among mammals is very rare. According to Live Science, “Of the roughly 5,000 species of mammals, only 3 to 5 percent are known to form lifelong pair bonds. This select group includes beavers, otters, wolves, some bats and foxes and a few hoofed animals.”
6 reasons why some people choose monogamy
If being exclusive with just one partner is not totally natural for humans, why do so many people choose monogamy? There are a number of benefits to this relationship structure that make it appealing to so much of the population. While monogamy certainly isn’t right for everyone, here are just a few reasons why some people do choose it.
1. It makes things simple
One of the primary benefits of monogamy is simplicity. Dr. Eli explains that, “You know who your date is for your birthday and Mother’s Day and New Year’s Eve. It comes with this assumption of social connectedness that this person is your go-to. If you’re in a monogamous relationship, you know who to put as your emergency contact.”
2. It ensures social recognition and validation
Another benefit of monogamous relationships is social recognition, ranging from discounts at the YMCA to invitations to dinner parties to shared health insurance. Engaging in monogamy also can protect you from the discrimination faced by folks who favor other, non-normative relationship formations. Dr. Eli does caution, however, that monogamy can’t protect you from other types of prejudice like racism, homophobia, sexism, ableism, etc.
3. It gives people a sense of safety
There’s some safety from STIs if you’re in a sexually-monogamous relationship. There’s also the safety of emotional and familial bonds, and all the reliability that comes with those bonds. For many, monogamy means knowing one person always has your back.
4. It’s usually the only relationship structure we’re taught
Unsurprisingly, monogamy may seem like the only conceivable option for some people. That’s in part because society and the media typically present it as normative. What’s more, our society centers monogamous relationships in everything from child rearing to health insurance. Dr. Eli notes that “There’s all sorts of social punishments and institutional barriers if you step outside of monogamy.” For many folks, it simply isn’t worth subverting those norms.
5. It might just feel right to you
For many people, monogamy simply feels right. Dr. Eli notes that, for some folks, monogamy is a choice made out of love for a specific partner. She explains that, “While they may feel fleeting attraction to other people, it’s not nearly enough to upset what they have with their partner. So [monogamy] just kind of fits with their values and their expectations of how they want to treat their partner and how they want to be treated.”
6. It feels like a natural relationship orientation for some
For others, monogamy can function less as a choice, and more of a natural “relationship orientation” that they can’t change. As Dr. Eli explains, “That’s just who they are. They bond strongly to one person, and focus on their little nest and their family, and are very couple oriented... A kind of ‘two halves of a whole’ mentality. For some people, that sensation comes only from monogamy and some people are wired for that.”
Some people are serial monogamists
For some folks, monogamy manifests as “serial monogamy.” According to Dr. Eli, “true serial monogamy” means you’re sexually-exclusive with one person until you break up. Then you meet a new person, and become sexually exclusive with them. Rinse, repeat. While the term may sound a bit pejorative, Dr. Eli explains that it’s merely “a description of a relationship style.” She adds, “It’s realistic. It’s what the vast majority of people mean when they say they’re monogamous: that they’ve agreed to sexual exclusivity with this one person for this period of time.”
Monogamy also exists on a spectrum
Like most aspects of romance and sexuality, monogamy exists on a spectrum. Some folks may prefer monogamy in some relationships, while engaging in non monogamy at other points in their lives. Some monogamous couples may consider themselves “monogamish.” This means that, while the couple is at the center of their romantic and sexual lives, partners can negotiate terms that allow them to explore various levels of romantic and/or sexual interactions with other people.
Of course, the fluidity of the monogamy spectrum can lead to confusion and miscommunication. If you’re wondering if a behavior you’re engaged in is monogamous, Dr. Eli suggests asking yourself this: “Would you let your partner see it without being embarrassed or trying to hide it?” She cautions that, “If you’re nervous about them finding something, then that’s probably not monogamy.”
To avoid such misunderstandings, Dr. Eli recommends addressing the spectrum of monogamy through open dialogue with your partner. She says, “When it’s relevant, absolutely ask: ‘What does monogamy mean to you?’ ‘What does monogamy include?’ ‘What does it exclude?’ ‘What can we expect from each other?’ ‘What are the boundaries?’ ‘What are we comfortable with?’ ‘If we want to change our boundaries over time, how do we do that?’ Negotiate your monogamy just like consensual non monogamists negotiate their consensual non monogamy (CNM).” Good communication and actively setting boundaries can help you avoid common pitfalls as you navigate your monogamous relationship.
The bottom line
As you can see, monogamy is far more complicated than first meets the eye, and it can mean different things to different people. While monogamy can feel safe, comforting and fulfilling for some, others may find it too confining and favor other relationship structures, which usually fall under the umbrella of consensual non monogamy (CNM). Such relationship structures can include polyamory, an open relationship, relationship anarchy, or the swinger lifestyle. Ultimately, when pursuing a monogamous relationship, the most important thing is strong communication and mutually-agreeable expectations with your partner.