April 27, 2012

Discussing Monogamy and Non-Monogamy: Taking a Balanced Approach

Aliza Saraco-Polner sheds light on the social and biological bases for monogamous and non-monogamous relationships in humans.

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Poly Party!

Poly Party!

Why are so many Americans so quick to assume that polyamorous or polygamous relationships are abnormal? In a recent conversation on how our culture views non-monogamous relationships, I was surprised to realize that even some of the most open-minded people have difficulty understanding the various reasons why one may choose to pursue a non-monogamous lifestyle. The many negative connotations associated with polyamory or polygamy range from one partner not being sexually satisfied, to issues with infidelity, jealousy, and immaturity. Since our culture tends to be critical of any relationship that is not monogamous, perhaps the stigma associated with non-monogamy has clouded our perception on the definition of a healthy and loving relationship.

To define these terms:

  • Polyamory is a lifestyle that involves multiple romantic partners. In theory, all partners consent and share both physical and emotional intimacy.
  • Polygamy is a marital/mating system in which more than two partners are involved. In in most common form, polygyny, a man may marry multiple wives. In a less common form, polyandry, a woman may marry multiple husbands.

Biologically Speaking…

While our society may attempt to legally define a relationship as being between two people, biological evidence might also endorse this view. Dr. Justin Garcia, an evolutionary biologist and Kinsey Institute researcher, says that the few mammals that participate in monogamous relationships do so for the purposes of survival and reproduction, by forming pair-bonds. These pair-bonds define social monogamy and are described as deep emotional bonds that are analogous to romantic love in humans. Pair-bonding is also important for survival, including mutual territory defenses and shared resources, as well as parental care in offspring

Similarly, Garcia explained during an interview, humans are generally socially monogamous (rather than sexually monogamous). He explains that it is often biologically difficult for humans to direct their time and energy towards more than one person at a time. While many societies practice polygyny, there are often conflicts between spouses and between co-wives. Garcia contends that in almost all cultures, “the hallmark of human mating is long-term socio-sexual bonds.” Additionally, our culture expects both partners to invest equal time in responsibilities such as raising children. In that sense, monogamy could be common because of the physical and emotional complexities associated with balancing multiple relationships at once. But at the same time, many people have successfully discovered healthy and fulfilling ways to maintain these relationships simultaneously.

Preference is Personal

Relationships are not black and white. Both monogamy and non-monogamy are about one’s personal preferences and values. That said, non-monogamous relationships are not abnormal. In fact, some researchers have argued that strict monogamy is experiencing a decline, and non-monogamous relationship models are increasing in acceptance and exposure. This increase in numbers is accompanied by the media’s interest in exposing us to different lifestyles that counter the hegemonic norm, like the TV shows “Sister Wives” on TLC and “Big Love” on HBO.

Evolutionary biology and research may never yield objective facts about whether monogamy or non-monogamy is the “better” or “more natural” relationship model. As with any consensual life-choice, personal preference should be respected. Perhaps we should just agree to approach alternative lifestyle choices as well as socially normative ones with the same level of open-mindedness and critical thinking.

Aliza Saraco-Polner is a senior at Indiana University with a major in Mathematics and minors in Gender Studies and Studio Art.  She is also the undergraduate liaison for The Kinsey Institute and a volunteer at the Center for Sexual Health Promotion.

  • Lewis Litterini

    book:  “Sex at Dawn – How We Mate, Why We Stray, and What it Means for Modern Relationships”
    Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jetha

    my synopsis:  human monogamy is a social construct, as of late (in our evolutionary story), and not an innate behavior!