Most people in relationships assume – in fact, require – the monogamy. For many, any violation of thesexual exclusivity means disaster. “The other cheated on me. It’s over.” Even when unfaithfulness does not precipitate breakups, it often causes serious damage to relationships. Therapists see a steady stream of couples trying to pick up the pieces. People in relationships have every right to insist on monogamy, but it’s clear that many people find it impossible to limit themselves to just one. lover for life.
Are humans naturally monogamous?
Many insist that the monogamy is “natural”. In fact, only about 9% of mammalian species mate for life, and in humans, the prevalence of infidelity clears claims that sexual exclusivity is innate:
- In the Bible, polygamy was common – multiple wives or one official wife, plus concubines. In Genesis, Jacob has two wives, Leah and Rachel, and two concubines, Bilhah and Zilpah.
- The Ten Commandments consider infidelity to be such a vile sin that not just one but two commandments prohibit it: you shall not commit adultery. You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife. Do not do that. Do not even think about it. If the elders had been monogamous, these commandments would have been unnecessary.
- Mormons were publicly polygamous until 1890. Some still are.
Proponents of strict monogamy often claim that non-monogamy just doesn’t work. For the most part this may be true, but I know of several long-term happily married couples who have practiced non-monogamy occasionally for decades:
- A first couple: 15 years together, is monogamous, but each year for the birthday of the woman, her man organizes a threesome with another man.
- A second couple: married for 20 years, are essentially monogamous, but each month the woman spends a weekend with her secondary man.
- A third: Together for 25 years, maintains monogamy at home but grants each other permission to play, when either travels on business.
- A fourth: married for 30 years, meets secondary lovers once every few weeks. The woman explains: “I am only in love with my husband, and he only loves me. But we both like to play side by side. It keeps our marital sex fresh and exciting. From time to time, in town, we meet one of our secondaries. We make presentations, chat a little. Everyone smiles. Its good.”
If monogamy is natural, why do so many novels, plays, movies, songs, and TV shows revolve around its violation?
Monogamy critic Dan Savage points out that until the 20th century, most cultures assumed that men were naturally non-monogamous. Monogamy was reserved for women, imposed by men to control women’s sexuality and guarantee paternity. In many cultures, this is still the case.
Savage points out that we humans are decidedly imperfect, but when it comes tosexual exclusivity, many demand perfection. “Isn’t it time to rethink monogamy?” he asks. “It’s like sobriety. You can be sober for years and then fall off the wagon and get sober again. If the couples have been married for 30 years and each only date a few times, they’re not objectionable. They are actually very good at monogamy. “
How common is infidelity?
Infidelity is hard to research. Few would readily admit it. I remember a survey showing that only a small percentage of married people had ever wandered off. The researchers interviewed the subjects in the presence of their spouses.
Non-monogamy admissions depend on how researchers ask the question. Scientists at the University of Colorado surveyed 4,800 married women about infidelity in the past year using both face-to-face interviews and an anonymous questionnaire. In the interviews, only 1% admitted this, in the anonymous questionnaire, 6%.
Meanwhile, controversy obscures the definition of “infidelity.” Most say it’s sex with someone other than your partner. But what about separated but not divorced spouses? Or couples separated by an extended military deployment? Or involved in unspoken marriages? Is infidelity defined as any sex outside of marriage? Or just secret sex? Or only sex with emotional involvement? What about sex with sex workers? Or ostensibly heterosexual people who have gay and lesbian affairs? And does cheating require sex? What if you’re just flirting? Or kiss?
A huge research literature has investigated infidelity. Some strong points:
- While one partner at a time is the norm, throughout history 84% of known human societies have allowed men more than one continuous sexual relationship.
- Since Kinsey’s studies in the late 1940s, credible estimates of heterosexual American infidelity have been all over the map – for men, 12-72%, for women, 7-54%.
- Infidelity is associated with: previous deceptions; boredom, dissatisfaction and duration of the relationship; expectations of impending breakdowns; and low-frequency, low-quality partner sex. In men, the risk also increases when the partner is pregnant or there are infants at home.
- Among cheating spouses, half of men (56%) and a third of women (34%) describe their marriage as “happy”.
- Infidelity is associated with several personality traits: loneliness, extroversion, anxiety, depression, mood swings, narcissism, openness to new experiences, frequent alcohol consumption, history of child sexual abuse and knowledge that one or both parents have been unfaithful. Traits associated with strict monogamy include conscientiousness and regular religious observance.
- When it comes to education, the curve is U-shaped. Those with the least and the most education share the greatest risk of infidelity.
- Working outside the home doesn’t make much difference. Half of infidels, men and women, meet their lovers through work, half through other means.
The Rutgers and SUNY Stony Brook researchers reviewed 148 studies from around the world and concluded, “Despite near-universal disapproval, infidelity is a global phenomenon that occurs with remarkable regularity.”
Unfaithfulness is so widespread that some researchers suggest it may be genetic and provide an evolutionary survival advantage. The evolutionary mission of life is to reproduce. The best way for men to do this is to mate with as many women as possible. Over the eons, as the first primates evolved into humans, the males that mated with the most females were more likely to give birth to offspring that may well have carried genes that caused them to loaf. .
Is there an evolutionary reason for non-monogamy?
The best way for women to send their genes into the future is to raise their children sexual maturity. It is a difficult task made easier with the help of a faithful man. But researchers believe females and their offspring gain a survival advantage by having “backup” males who can provide resources if their primary mates die or leave. Women may also use infidelity to “swap” for partners with more resources. Cheating wives may well have had more children – passing on genes that pushed their offspring to a continued infidelity.
The Rutgers-Stony Brook researchers concluded, “Throughout prehistoric times, infidelity has had spillover effects for both men and women, perpetuating its genetic underpinnings and today’s taste for infidelity.”
You shall not commit adultery. But evolution may well have led us astray. Civilization is only 10,000 years old, in evolutionary terms it is new. More than we’d like to admit, we may still be beasts driven by animal instincts.
Despite tons of research, the true prevalence of infidelity remains a mystery. All we know is that it happens so frequently that when we hear about it from couples we know, we are always saddened but not always surprised.