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kevbo's avatar

Are humans serial monogamists? If so, why do we pretend otherwise?

Asked by kevbo (25634points) August 1st, 2008 from iPhone

I realize the question is a bit leading, but what, in your mind, are we, and why is it so important that we try to be more virtuous than that? Feel free to disagree with the premise if you believe it’s untrue.

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21 Answers

La_chica_gomela's avatar

define “serial monogamists” ...

susanc's avatar

Who’s pretending? Most people who get married, surely the most serious of statements regarding loyalty, get divorced.

tinyfaery's avatar

What I have qualms about is the idea that humans are essentially anything. Culture is such a deciding factor in determining ideas about love, matrimony, kinship ties, even sexual pleasure.

Having said that, I do not believe monogamy is innate; I think its culturally imbedded in our psyches to believe that humans are meant to be monogamous after choosing a person with whom to procreate. Surely, when proscriptions developed that targeted non-monogamy, no couple was burdened with the possibility of staying together for 20, 30, 40 years. Its cruel to have to abide by such ancient standards. We now have DNA testing; we can know who the father is without marriage or fidelity being involved.

However, I am a married woman, who has, so far, felt no urge to wander. I love my wife <3

aaronou's avatar

Can we use this as our definition of serial monogamy: “the practice of having a number of long-term romantic or sexual partners in succession” (

However much culture does play a role in the customs of marriage, I would still say that it seems that most people tend to naturally gravitate towards something very similar, or lifelong companionship. To me, it seems that this is a common desire. People get married, and after a short time, they may begin to lust for more than their spouse, or perhaps other issues create a desire to split up. Is this proof that we are, at heart and soul, naturally serial monogamists? I don’t know, I think it might just attest more to the fact that we are never satisfied. For me, if the world worked out perfectly, I’d find just the right companion, and stay with her for all my life. I think that’s ideal, and it just doesn’t always work out that way. But I think our ideals often can tell us something about ourselves, in this case, being that I certainly have a desire for longterm companionship. What is it that we dream about in a perfect world? Do we dream of marriage with only one, that perfect one, for all our lives? Maybe some of us don’t. But I know some of us do.
Back to reality, we have divorces, and remarriages, and numerous g/f’s and b/f’s. Yet, I still think most of us are on that search to find one that’ll bring a little piece of heaven into our life. And we’d like for that to stay.

kevbo's avatar

@susan, I guess the pretending part would be standing up and vowing for better or worse, etc.

@tinyfaery, why does the expectation for lifelong monogamy persist, despite the changes in life spans, technology, etc.?

@aaronou, well put. Why do we (individually and collectively) persist in this ideal instead of the reality? Why not just say “I want a LTR.” or “I want the feelings that I get in the beginning of a relationship, so when that’s done, I’ll look for another relationship.”

What is the benefit of maintaining this as an ideal? (Again assuming reality is different.)


btko's avatar

Perhaps trying to control animal instincts leads us to act in such a way.

nikipedia's avatar

Great question, Kev. I’m having trouble finding an original source for this, but I have read that people who get married (and stay married) are, on average, happier than those who don’t. That seems to be as good a reason as any in my book.

marinelife's avatar

We are caught between our biology and our longings. I think this is worse for men than for women. Biologically, women are programmed to pick out powerful, strong males for procreation. Staying with that male for protection for herself and her offspring makes great biological sense. Men, on the other hand, are biologically programmed to scatter their seed. That certainly does not make serial monogamy a biological imperative.

We have now evolved beyond our biology culturally. Most of us want more than the sex act, more than procreation.

Most of us want more than the historical interim in human history in which marriage was created to cement alliances between men, and women were merely pawns in their power games. (Please do not think I am going off on a feminist rant here. I am merely talking about the historical facts regarding arranged marriages.)

The idea of romantic love being the basis for marriage is relatively recent in human history. I would say that we have not perfected it yet and are evolving toward monogamy and potentially life partnership. But we are definitely not there yet. For one thing, we are sort of a disposable society. We walk away from all kinds of commitments at the drop of a hat. Colleges, jobs, the service, friendships. It makes sense that don’t stick around to work on our marriages either.

The interesting thing is that in the face of that 50% divorce rate, the number of marriages is not falling. I see that as a sign of hope. People long for the deeper connection not possible through a purely romantic or sexual relationship. That, to me, is why working at marriage is worth it. That is why going through the inevitable ups and downs is worth it. If you stay in connection with someone, sometimes painfully, but still in connection, a deep intimacy that surpasses any quick rush of chemicals in the long term is possible.

Are we serial monogamists? Maybe. Is that our natural state? No. I would not say that we pretend otherwise. I would instead say that we strive for more.

kevbo's avatar

@niki, good answer. It gives me a little chuckle, because according to the chart I as a lifelong single person have been missing out on .2 units of happiness.

@Marina, good answer, too. I agree that we have culturally outgrown our biology (teen abstinence being another example). I guess I tend to parse “hope” for signs of delusion, but I trust as you say that deeper intimacy is possible. (It’s something I’ve longed for.) I’d be interested to see stats or evidence of deeper intimacy among long term monogamous couples.

susanc's avatar

Could I just insert my own story here? Is this self-indulgent? RSVP.

cwilbur's avatar

I think there are two impulses at play. One is the biological drive to have sex, and the other is the emotional desire to bond with a close family. These two things often work against each other.

What I’ve seen, in others’ lives as well as in my own, is that when there is a healthy relationship, the pair-bond drive subsumes the sex drive, and that leads to monogamy. When the relationship is not so healthy, the sex drive seeks other outlets.

I think monogamy is something that can be aspire to, not as an end in itself, but as a sign of an intimate and healthy relationship. And the problem with not being monogamous is that there’s usually an expectation of monogamy, and so not being monogamous tends to kick off a festival of deceit and dishonesty.

kevbo's avatar

@susan, go for it. ;-)

tinyfaery's avatar

@marina “women are biologically programmed to pick out powerful, strong men…” I guess I was busy while biology was handing that one out.

I just want to reiterate that nurture has soo surpassed nature in this instance; it is useless to talk about biology in this context.

marinelife's avatar

@tf I guess you did. Here is an summary of some of the research. This is an excerpt (emphasis is mine): “Evolutionary logic indicates that the best situation for a woman is a long-term partner with good genes who has reproductive potential and the willingness to invest this potential in her and her children. Men’s reproductive potential is determined by the ability to parent and the ability to invest social and material resources in children. One way to conceptualize men’s resources is in terms of their cultural success (Irons, 1979): that is, their social status and their control of material resources. ”

I disagree that nurture has surpassed nature. While our higher brain functions would have us choose one way, our dinosaur brains still drive us around like a stolen Ferarri much more often than we would like. The areas involving sexual attraction that light up are primitive areas of the brain. Niki, I am sure, could find the relevant research much quicker than I can.

tinyfaery's avatar

The American standard is thin—small hips, waist, stomach—, this is against evolutionary drive because women with rounder hips and larger bellies have a tendency to be more fertile. Just one example.

I have great self-awareness; I am not driven around like a stolen Ferrari.

Women have access to material resources, if desired; no need to adhere to fascist beauty standards.

nikipedia's avatar

(kev, sorry for borrowing your thread)

I think making categorical statements about nature and nurture is unwise. Like so many other things, I think they have a very complicated bidirectional relationship with one another. Our genes have had a profound influence on our culture, and our culture has had a profound influence on which genes get passed on, which affects our gene pool, and so on. (M, if you have a specific claim to back up I will do my very best to find you a lovely neuroscience paper glowing with PET scans.)

And I don’t think it’s fair to call thin the American standard. Plenty of men (and women) disagree.

tinyfaery's avatar

I’m just basing my opinion on what I see everyday, on TV, in movies, on magazines, commercials, etc. If the majority of people disagree, then I ask why is our culture saturated with these images?

@nik You’re right. It is a relationship between the two, not one or the other. I’m just on the side of nurture is more influential that nature.

marinelife's avatar

@niki The research appears to be still in its infancy from what I can tell. Here is one summary of Helen Fisher’s work, but not all neuoscientists are on board with her. One said that this is too large a question for neuoscience at this stage.

SeekerSeekiing's avatar

I think humans run throughout the entire paradigm—from very monogamous—to not so at all.

It is probably a very complicated answer as to why or who is or isn’t. Biology, inherited genes, learned behavior, economics, security—the answer is probably multi-determined….

We are all different. I’ve been with the same one guy for, since, forever. We are monogamous. For us it’s the best fit—for others not so. I wouldn’t judge them—and hope they don’t judge me.

ninjaxmarc's avatar

Its like a contract paper, you have the marriage on paper but it can be easily ripped up and thrown out the window.

Something as solid should net set in stone. Some will argue that it’s just as breakable. It will with a sledge hammer maybe but not just two hands.

kleinzeit's avatar

I know I am! I think monogamy it’s regarded as the ideal in countries with a Christian based culture; as it shows restraint from temptation, the ability to work through problems and faith in the concept. All considered ‘high’ Christian qualities. Some religions recognise that humans aren’t naturally monogamous and allow multiple wives as long as you continue to look after the old ones. Not sure I’d be interested in this as I don’t think living with my ex-wives would make for a very harmonious arrangement.

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