Are you asking monogamy what? What is it, is it realistic, and am I normal if I don’t believe in it? Today I’m going to answer these questions, and hopefully give you some background so that you can begin to answer these for yourself.
Historically, monogamy has been defined as being married to one individual. Over time, this definition has expanded such that monogamy includes having sexual encounters or intimate relationships with one individual. The reality is that when we look back in our origins of how we evolved, monogamy actually wasn’t where we started.
Historically, humans actually weren’t monogamous. Families were polygamous when humans were hunters and gatherers. Men who were good hunters were able to support their families or were perceived as being good providers, and in turn would have multiple wives and children. Women would also try to mate with different men to expand their families. It wasn’t until about the last thousand years when rather than competing for status marked by the way they could provide, they focused a bit more on heightening their worth by providing more caring and nurturing. This introduced the idea of a new nuclear family and monogamy became more prevalent. Once Christianity or religions became more predominant and reaching more cultures, as well as our awareness of STDs and the financial costs of non-monogamy became more apparent, monogamy evolved.
In the last 30, 40 years where research is demonstrating more infidelity, more divorce. Therefore, this concept of monogamy has really been challenged. More research has been aimed at understanding relationship dynamics, so that from a health perspective, we can actually better understand some of the behaviors around monogamy, some of the positive and negative implications of when that is challenged or within a relationship on both the individual who is making that choice, as well as their partner.
This year, a group of researchers published results from the National Sexual Health and Behavior Survey, amongst 2700 participants who were asked about their relationship status and sexual preferences. Of these individuals, about 89% reported being monogamous, about 4% reported being in open relationships, and about 8% reported being in non-consensual non-monogamous (NCNM) relationships, meaning that they were having relationships outside of their primary relationship, whether that be marriage or a long-term partner. Other estimates have shown that more men and women, are going outside of their relationship, whether that be sexually or for emotional connection, and now the exception that women were doing this is actually changing. First there was this study a few years ago that came out of the U.K. where it was showing that for the first time, women actually were reporting more extramarital relationships, and most of the time, those were more on the emotional aspects rather than sexual, and men still are having more sexual encounters outside of marriage. The game’s changing.
What a lot of people are struggling with is actually coming to terms with this reality, and asking themselves just like what you might be asking, is this is normal? Am I a bad person? The reality is that monogamy is a spectrum, and the way we define it is socially constructed. As I started off with historically, and I definitely encourage you to read this more on your own, but monogamy and this idea has actually shifted. When you think about particularly here in the United States, the prevalence of monogamy, as well as the rising rates of divorce, that’s really where a lot of confusion comes.
One of the biggest aspects surrounding monogamy is that oftentimes people don’t talk about it within their relationship or with their partner. What they don’t do is they often don’t talk about what their needs are or what their desires are or what makes them unhappy. Often individuals look outward rather than inward to try to manage that discomfort, distress or that ambivalence about how to work through that sense of often loneliness or tension in their relationship or disconnect.
A lot of the focus on non-monogamy and consensual non-monogamy is for healthcare providers and research to better understand the context of relationships, sexual health or STDs, being aware of what the different dynamics are and their health implications. When you talk about non-consensual non-monogamy, a lot of people describe that they’re having affairs, and there’s a lot of stigma towards that. Some of the implications of this are divorce in marriages or breakups in long-term relationships and distress, the person who is actually engaging in that extramarital affair, as well as the individual who isn’t. Oftentimes the partner who didn’t engage in that extramarital affair is going to report higher distress, feelings of self-blame, guilt, feeling as if generally they didn’t do enough.
This idea of monogamy is tough. It’s really hard, and I encourage clients to take some time and look for this for yourself. Our relationships are not just defined by our social norms or our cultural norms, or perhaps even our religious beliefs. Relationships are between ourselves and someone else or others, and it’s really important that we clarify what are the dimensions or factors that are influencing our beliefs, and in turn our thoughts of how we perceive our own sexuality, what we need from relationships, and also how we actually externalize or act within relationships.
Strategies I encourage individuals to take to actually begin to answer these questions for yourself are first and foremost take some time to reflect. Read a little bit. Find out. Read more about the evolution of monogamy and some of the opinions, vantage points, from all these different perspectives to see which one resonates most with you.
The other thing is begin to talk. Find out ways to talk about your thoughts and your beliefs about monogamy with your partner if you’re in an ongoing relationship. Too much shame, guilt, and stigma exist around how we are within relationships and this idea of being monogamous or non-monogamous, and so that stigma and guilt often keeps people silent, so they make assumptions. They make assumptions like, “oh, we’re unhappy and of course my partner knows this, and so they won’t mind that I’m exploring that connection with others” and that’s an assumption. That’s an assumption that may go against the contracts or the commitment that you might have made. The reality is that there doesn’t need to be all this judgment around it. Keep in mind- It is not too late to re-explore or renegotiate the contracts or commitments that you’ve made in a relationship, and talk openly with your partner about what it is you need. Again, your partner may not be on the same page, but what you’ve done is open the door for that communication so that together you can negotiate.
In new relationships, again it’s incredibly important for there to be transparency and to talk about what you’re looking for. If you are looking for a monogamous or non-monogamous relationship, what your ideas are about that, how you feel about marriage, whether that be very early on in the relationship or as your relationship grows. I always recommend talking with potential partners earlier on I think because it sets the tone of the relationship and leads to more open communication. Wherever you are in relationships, it’s important for you to share your thoughts about this, and again, not to make a lot of assumptions.
Take Homes: What is monogamy? Monogamy is a social construct that is defined along a spectrum. Each individual and couple needs to actually figure out what monogamy means to them and how they want to be within their partnership when it comes to monogamy, and that is a very individual or couple-based decision.
Yes, you are normal to challenge this or to think about it. Even if you’re not necessarily considering acting on it, it is only human when we engage in any type of relationship for us to think about the outs, what if I wasn’t in this relationship, what if I was to expand my connections with others. Transparency, honesty with yourself and with your partners is generally going to be an easier route. It doesn’t have to be so hard to talk about this and to own your feelings about it, and to begin to openly discuss this and have a dialogue so that you can actually meet each other’s needs within a relationship.
Don’t make assumptions, and try to really just be honest, not defensive, and open about how you’re feeling, and understand that just because you’re feeling something or have a certain belief does not mean that your current partner or future partners will be on the same page, and that that is okay because the idea is that most couples, you want to actually try to find a middle ground, find a way that you are seeing, you are embracing each other’s beliefs without necessarily challenging or trying to oppress them.
I hope that this was helpful, and that your understandings of monogamy and questioning it and challenging it for yourself and for your current or future relationships, I say embrace that.
If you like what I talked about, feel free to like or share this video, and subscribe to my YouTube channel, or you can check me out and join my group, Psychotherapy Without Borders on Facebook, or check me out online to see if perhaps I can help you work through some of this ambivalence or uncertainty around monogamy at www.drcatalinalawsin.com. Cheers!