In almost every Disney movie, every beloved Romantic Comedy, every fairy tale, the handsome man falls for the beautiful woman and they live happily ever after. It doesn’t often play out that way in real life; in fact, it almost never does.
If we are honest, the expectation of one man and one woman completing each other, fulfilling each other’s dreams and meeting each other’s needs physically and emotionally for even the span of ten years is far-fetched, much less an entire lifetime. This ideal also does not account for anyone outside of the heterosexual realm.
For that rare couple who has been married for 50 years or more, if you were to take a look deeper into that span of time, you would likely see something that looked more like a strategic business partnership or a determined companionship that is willing to overlook many deviances from the romanticized model of monogamy that we have been sold for generations.
Monogamy: Is it working for families and society?
Many couples quietly or publicly go through the heartbreak, shame, and betrayal of one or both partners straying from the relationship in some form over the years, and they must decide whether or not to move past it or cut ties. The effects on men, women, children, and ultimately society are far-reaching. Entire families have ripped apart over this dirty little issue that no one (except for tabloids) likes to talk about. People end up feeling like failures for not living up to the unrealistic standards of unwavering monogamy.
Husbands and wives often feel guilt for hurting loved ones, and partners blame themselves that they were not attractive enough, thin enough, fun enough, loving enough, rich enough or any other form of “enough” to keep their loved one from cheating. There is something very liberating about realizing that the truth is, almost no one can live up to the demands of what turns out to be, more often than not, a setup for failure- not a fairy tale.
If we, as a society, would be more willing to engage in an honest and open-minded examination of this taboo issue instead of blindly accepting it as the standard and watching the romantic lives around us crash and burn attempting to uphold it, then maybe we could find some clarity and understanding on a different approach. The old adage is appropriate here: “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.”
Some individuals, aware of these inconsistencies, pressures, and troubles associated with the typical approach to monogamy, have set out on their own path with diverse mating strategies, including a variety of open relationship strategies known collectively under the umbrella of consensual nonmonogamy (CNM) which can include polyamory (typically allows multiple sexual and romantic relationships to occur at the same time with consent and knowledge), swinging (committed couples agree to exchange partners specifically for sex), and a recently popular label of “monogamish” (primarily monogamous with some degree of sexual contact outside the relationship under various conditions).
At a bare minimum, more studies should be done on factors that could increase the success of monogamy, and determine the primary breakdown of what is continually going wrong. An honest discussion and study of alternative relationship approaches should be done in order to discover relationship standards that better serve the needs of both men and women, and possibly save marriages, relationships, and families along the way.
Monogomy vs. NonMonogamy
In an interesting study of monogamy versus consensual nonmonogamy, it was found that for the general population, people are saying that they want to be exclusive, but either end up cheating or moving on to the next “exclusive” relationship when they become tired or unfulfilled with the current one and the cycle repeats (Mogilski, 2017). “Consensual non-monogamy (CNM), by comparison, may constitute an alternative mating strategy that affords an individual both long-term and short-term benefits while minimizing negative interpersonal outcomes inherent to EPC (i.e., extra-pair copulation/adultery) and serial monogamy” (Mogilski, 2017).
In other words, the couples who practice consensual non-monogamy may be striving to “have it all” with the benefits of a deep, meaningful long-term relationship, in addition to the variety and sexual fulfillment of a short-term relationship, without suffering the negative consequences of infidelity. Recent research supports this theory and concludes that “polyamory may provide a unique opportunity for individuals to experience both eroticism and nurturance simultaneously” (Balzarini, 2019).
Some consensual non-monogamists might be using their strategy to avoid losing a partner in the long run. By offering that freedom to their mate, certain common pitfalls of the monogamous relationship might otherwise be avoided, including sexual unfulfillment or restriction, dishonesty, infidelity, a break-down of trust, or divorce.
Another potential benefit of the consensual nonmonogamy strategy is the release of intense pressure upon both partners to be the sole source of sexual (and sometimes emotional) fulfillment for their mate. Monogamous partners have far more pressure to worry about meeting all of the other person’s needs, including the frequency and quality of sex and their bodies, and must constantly try to keep things “fresh and exciting”.
Particularly the women are known to stress over the pressures of keeping the man happy in order to keep him from straying. Entire industries are built on women’s insecurities, that keep them scrambling to fight aging, lose weight, look beautiful and sexy, wear the right makeup, lingerie, and clothing, or have cosmetic surgery in order to be more desirable. In traditional heterosexual relationships, no matter how much effort that the woman puts in, she can never ultimately beat the inevitable process of aging, and she is limited to only creating the illusion of variety by her attempts to change hair color or looks, or increase spontaneity.
A small part of all of that burden can be lifted in the CNM set up because the primary partners could feel that their needs are being met and that there is less threat of losing their mate to another person and having the relationship fall apart. “Given that mate retention behaviors increase with perceived infidelity/defection threat (Buss & Shackelford, 1997; Starratt et al., 2007), it may be that CNM individuals experience fewer feelings of jealousy (Jenks,1985) or may be less likely to defect from a relationship compared to their monogamous counterparts” (Mogilski, 2017).
The issue is taboo, in that people do not like to admit what an immense pressure and likely impossibility it is for one partner to satisfy another exclusively for an entire lifetime, particularly for one female to satisfy a male for an entire lifetime, given the natural desire for variety that has been demonstrated in the male sex by research for years. “Indeed, one reason for engaging in CNM (consensual nonmonogamous) relationships may be to satisfy sexual needs that are not met by a primary partner” (Mogilski, 2017).
Harsh Realities of Infidelity
Society has been made aware of some harsh realities through the media and news regarding the prevalence of marital infidelity. The popularity of websites and apps like AshleyMadison and Tinder, as well as all social media portals, were shown to be the primary contributing factor of thousands of separations and divorces.
It is not surprising that studies which have been done on the effects of social media on relationships have found negative consequences. “Based on the findings from both studies, Twitter and Facebook use can have damaging effects on romantic relationships, including cheating and divorce” (Clayton, 2014). In addition to that bad news, it seems that a new scandal is popping up every week about another famous husband engaging in sex outside of his marriage, even when they happened to be married to beautiful, young supermodels. There are too many to name, but just to bring up a few memorable examples:
Maria Shriver and Arnold Schwarzenegger, Ashton Kutcher and Demi Moore, Tiger Woods and Elin Nordegren, Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston, Sandra Bullock and Jesse James, Jude Law and Sienna Miller, Ben Affleck and Jenifer Garner, Ethan Hawke and Uma Thurman, Jeff Bezos and MacKenzie Tuttle, the list goes on and on.
Some would argue that those cases are rationalized by the fact that celebrities lead different lives than the general population. If that is true, then why do we see the same scenarios play out every day in our own families, our neighbors, teachers, friends, pastors, politicians, and everyone in between? Another argument could be made that the failure rate of monogamy is a product of our time, of our instant gratification, over-sexually stimulated culture.
Pornography has also been implicated as a factor in changing the way men view women, and the way women view themselves. Those factors may be exacerbating the problem, but certainly, do not explain its root cause or limit it to recent generations. Unfortunately, the failure rate of monogamy is seen in many examples throughout history. “As per the Holmes and Rahe Social Adjustment Rating Scale, divorce has been identified as one of life’s most significant stressors, second only to death” (Steiner, 2015).
Post Infidelity Stress Disorder
Research also has shown that victims of infidelity experience the same symptoms as those who experience PTSD, and the psychological term given by professionals for those exhibiting this stress response is Post Infidelity Stress Disorder (Steiner, 2015). That gives new meaning to the phrases, “All is fair in love and war” and “Love is a battlefield”. For the past sixty years, marriage rates have been consistently declining and divorce rates consistently climbing (KITANOVIĆ, 2015). It seems that this is a curse that has plagued families throughout time, and hits everyone regardless of race, class, age, economic status, religion, or culture.
NonMonogomy Across the World
“Anthropologists estimate that of the approximately 1,200 known cultures in the world, 75%–85% of them (depending on who is counting and what domestic forms are being counted) recognize polygamy as a valid form of marriage” (Witte, 2015). With all of our modern intelligence, surely a civilized and advanced society should be able to come up with some definitive answers about what marriage and relationship practices best serve men, women, children, and families. It is important to realize how far reaching this issue is across the globe.
Whether in the form of cheating or with consent for economic motivations, social conditions, the desire for more children, sexual satisfaction, or other reasons, all kinds of sex outside of monogamy is occurring every day worldwide. “Even in Asian countries such as Pakistan and Bangladesh, where polygamy is more common, state laws insist, on pain of fine and imprisonment, that a Muslim man may marry up to four wives only if the first wife consents and only if he can support his wives and children equally and fully” (Witte, 2015).
The question remains, who has found the best mating strategy? Is it those who practice arranged marriages, the ones who approve polygamy, the ones who choose to never get married at all, the ones that accept only monogamy but consistently fail at living by it, or is it some other approach?
NonMonogomy: Opening up a Can of Worms?
While it is true that the various alternative and open approaches to relationships offer encouraging benefits, it is also important to point out that they are not without their own set of complications or flaws. Opening up one’s relationship to other individuals, even for brief sexual or romantic encounters, could possibly open up a can of worms so-to-speak within the lives of both the primary and secondary partners. While many of the problems facing monogamous couples can be avoided with the CNM strategy, the couple must now carefully determine and navigate a complex set of new rules, issues, and outcomes.
For example, how many individuals is each partner allowed to engage with and under what circumstances, are only one-night stands allowed, how often, how much detail is openly shared, what if someone outside the primary relationship gets pregnant, what is the strategy for keeping down STDs, does either partner have the power to pick and choose or approve/disapprove of secondary partners, etc. Interestingly, STD transmission has been known to be lower in CNM arrangements because of the openness and honesty involved, there is often less risky behavior.
There is also the question of the division of time spent with primary and secondary partners, as well as possible competition over resources, affection, and more. “CNM participants reported greater satisfaction with the amount of communication and openness they had with their primary, but not secondary partner compared to monogamous participants” (Mogilski, 2017). Although the partners of a CNM relationship get to enjoy more sexual freedom and adventure without the hassle of hiding or sneaking around, there remains a certain amount of tact necessary in keeping the peace with everyone involved.
Even consensual arrangements can unintentionally result in broken hearts and conflict for primary or secondary partners. Depending upon the circumstances and agreements of all parties within the arrangement, CNM couples could find themselves navigating a self-inflicted love triangle situation, among other things. Those who have been repeatedly burned by the failures of society’s monogamous strategies are sometimes willing to suppress their feelings of injustice or jealousy and go to such great lengths in order to protect what matters more to them in the long run. In the CNM strategy, certain allowances are made and grievances overlooked, but it may be worth it to the individuals involved if honesty, trust, stability, financial support, unconditional love, acceptance, and companionship are preserved.
It is abundantly clear that more research and open discussion of these issues is needed in order to help men and women better navigate their relationships, and ultimately help marriages and families, which are the building blocks of all of society. All of the evidence presented, including divorce rates and the prevalence of infidelity, shows that something in the system of monogamy just isn’t working. Whether it is outside factors or a flaw within the setup itself remains unclear, but is likely a combination of both.
Those who are fed up with monogamy are creatively testing out their own experimental arrangements with various forms of nonmonogamous relationships in the hopes of finding better results. These pioneers are characterized by new levels of openness, honesty, and an eagerness to have those difficult conversations. These negotiations could be the answer to a centuries-old problem, or they could be a rabbit hole of their own complications.
One thing that the CNM couples have to their credit is a willingness to open up the dialogue about a subject which most men and women want to avoid and sweep under the rug. Instead of making vows that we likely cannot keep, perhaps honest communication and consensual negotiation of hard truths would be better than pretty lies, broken promises, and utter betrayal.
Kristi Johnson is a recent summa cum laude graduate of Texas A&M University-Central Texas and proud mother of three daughters. Her educational background is focused primarily in teaching, liberal studies, and sociology. As a divorced single mother who has experienced the trials of marriage, separation, infidelity, and blended families she is passionate about helping others.
Mogilski, J. K., Memering, S. L., Welling, L. L. M., & Shackelford, T. K. (2017). Monogamy versus consensual non-monogamy: Alternative approaches to pursuing a strategically pluralistic mating strategy. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 46(2), 407–417. https://doi-org.tamuct.idm.oclc.org/10.1007/s10508-015-0658-2
Balzarini, R. N., Dharma, C., Muise, A., & Kohut, T. (2019). Eroticism versus nurturance: How eroticism and nurturance differ in polyamorous and monogamous relationships. Social Psychology. https://doi-org.tamuct.idm.oclc.org/10.1027/1864-9335/a000378 (Supplemental)
Witte Jr., J. (2015). Why Two in One Flesh? The Western Case for Monogamy over Polygamy. Emory Law Journal, 64(6), 1675–1746. Retrieved from https://search-ebscohost-com.tamuct.idm.oclc.org/login.aspx?direct=true&db=a9h&AN=103100401&site=eds-live
Steiner, L. M., Durand, S., Groves, D., & Rozzell, C. (2015). Effect of Infidelity, Initiator Status, and Spiritual Well-Being on Men’s Divorce Adjustment. Journal of Divorce & Remarriage, 56(2), 95–108. https://doi-org.tamuct.idm.oclc.org/10.1080/10502556.2014.996050
KITANOVIĆ, T. (2015). Phenomenon of Divorce in the Modern World. Balkan Social Science Review, 6, 7–19. Retrieved from https://search-ebscohost-com.tamuct.idm.oclc.org/login.aspx?direct=true&db=a9h&AN=112975030&site=eds-live
Clayton, R. B. (2014). The Third Wheel: The Impact of Twitter Use on Relationship Infidelity and Divorce. CyberPsychology, Behavior & Social Networking, 17(7), 425–430. https://doi-org.tamuct.idm.oclc.org/10.1089/cyber.2013.0570