In our society, monogamy serves as the normal and desirable foundation of civilized life. The majority of us accept it as the norm, giving at least lip service to the idea of staying with one partner as a lifestyle choice. Considering that our society is very sexualized and that we can find opportunities to be unfaithful (if we want to), is monogamy possible?
Mating for Life
In the animal kingdom, some species “mate for life.” Although this means that partners live together, it does not necessarily imply sexual fidelity. Very few species (less than 5%) are truly monogamous. An extreme and literal example of being joined for life occurs among the anglerfish. According to Wikipedia, the adult male anglerfish is unable to digest food independently. To avoid certain death, he finds a female and bites her. While biting, he releases an enzyme that physically bonds the two of them together for life. Over time, the male deteriorates into a set of gonads capable of fertilizing eggs produced by the female. Although this bizarre form of monogamy is less than kind to the male, it offers enormous survival benefits to the species.
Monogamy and Homo sapiens
Does monogamy make sense for humans? It depends on the context. Back in the days when our ancestors were living in caves, sexual practices greatly affected the survival of the species. A male kept his gene pool strong by mating with several females, but no matter how many sexual partners a female had, she usually carried only one baby at a time. Even if the baby developed to full term and the mother gave birth, the high infant mortality rate often claimed the life. From a survival-focused point of view, it made sense for males to be opportunistically non-monogamous.
However, in this decidedly pro-male situation, females had a bit of an advantage in knowing that the babies they carried were theirs. Males had no way of knowing for sure (until fairly recently) that the offspring they were protecting were truly their own flesh and blood.
This paternal uncertainty may have led to the idea of keeping women monogamous by treating promiscuous females as social outcasts. The stigma continues to this day, as it is still quite insulting for a woman to be called a derogatory name because of her presumed number of partners
Despite this social bias against sexual unfaithfulness, adultery is nothing new. Many jurisdictions still consider it as grounds for divorce—and one that parties cite quite often. Accurate statistics about infidelity are understandably hard to claim, as many people being surveyed may be less than candid about their extramarital activities. According to WomanSavers.com, 9 out of 10 Americans expressed the view that infidelity is wrong, yet their behavior does not reflect this attitude. Over 20% of men surveyed admitted to having been unfaithful on at least one occasion, and 14% of the surveyed women said they had strayed.
A number of people practice serial monogamy, having a series of faithful relationships rather than choosing one sexual partner for life. This seems like a viable option, as young people today date earlier and marry later than those of previous generations. Even if someone meets a compatible person while a teenager, the chances of remaining with that partner for life are slim (but not impossible). When you are considering the question, “Is monogamy possible?”, the practice of serial monogamy points toward the affirmative.
Polygamy as an Alternative to Monogamy
In the United States and other industrialized countries, polygamy is illegal. However, the perpetrators are not often prosecuted. A number of arguments in favor of this lifestyle do make sense. Consider the following ones:
If the main objection to a man’s adultery is that he will leave his wife for the other woman, living in a polygamous arrangement means that he can have multiple partners without leaving his first wife (or any of his subsequent wives) “out in the cold.”
Women can share the childcare duties and household chores. Wives who wish to pursue careers can do so without feeling they have to shoulder most of the responsibility for running the household themselves.
In a situation where the male population decreases significantly while the female population remains constant, polygamy might make sense. We want the human race to continue, and the women would simply share the men who are left. The bigger tragedy of extinction might occur if the female population were cut in half, say, while the male population remained constant.
It is interesting to note that very few societies embrace polyandry (where one woman is married to more than one man at a time). We may not be as far advanced from our cave-dwelling ancestors as we think.
The answer to the question, “Is monogamy possible?” seems to be “Yes.” It is possible to choose to stay faithful to one’s partner for life. That is not to say that it will always be easy. Those people who do stay faithful may cite religious or moral reasons for their decisions. They may fear that their partners would leave them if their infidelity were discovered. Others may not want to run the risk of exposing themselves or their partners to STDs.
Whatever reasoning prompts it, the decision to remain faithful may not be one that a person makes once and then never thinks about again. We can all be tempted to stray, especially if we are having a difficult time at home. It’s also very flattering to know (or think) that another person finds us attractive. With day-to-day responsibilities, romance tends to fly out the window once we have said, “I do.”
Maybe the best course for those who wish to remain faithful is to keep making that decision over and over again. In order to be unfaithful, both adulterous parties have to say, “Yes” to stepping outside of their respective relationships. It may not always be easy to stay monogamous, but one can argue that it is well worth the effort.