Love, Heartbreak

Does Monogamy Really Work — Or We All Just Kidding Ourselves?

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For most couples, monogamy is a normal expectation when they get married or commit to a long term partnership. Yet, as Peggy Vaughn, author of The Monogamy Myth told me, "Your wedding vows are not a one-time inoculation against infidelity." 

It is normal to feel comforted by the thought that our partner is never going to have sex with anyone else but us. Marriage can give us the illusion that our partner is bound by a legal agreement to never cheat.

This comes from a long history of marriage as primarily a real estate contract, used purely as a way to perpetuate a name or lineage.

For many centuries, marriage was completely and totally about property value; marriage guaranteed that real estate would pass on to one's own offspring, thereby keeping it in the family. The only way to guarantee that your own child would inherit your property was to keep your female mate safe (and trapped) at home.

Those were dangerous times. But today, with birth control and DNA testing, there is no longer a need to use the same harsh outside control. Today we are expected to marry not for our names or for property, but for love and for desire.

We marry someone we fall in love with and are expected to stay attracted to them and monogamous for a lifetime. When we can't, we trade our partner in for a better model, because obviously it is their fault.

It can be easier to find fault in our mate than it is to live in a culture that supports infidelity ... yet expects monogamy. We don't teach people how to stay faithful. We are expected to stay monogamous for 20, 30, 40, 50, sometimes 60 or even 70 years, yet there is no precedent in history for this kind of monogamy.

We have never lived this long, nor have we been expected to stay attracted to one person for almost a century. 

On the internet you can find dozens of websites that tell married folks how to find people to cheat with. In fact, one popular website designed for married people looking to cheat with other married people, says their biggest day of the year for female sign ups is the day after Valentine's Day.

Their advertising campaign includes the slogan, "Life is short, have an affair." Except for a handful of church related programs and marriage and family therapists, very few marketing campaigns are aimed at keeping couples together for the long haul, and the technology available for helping people do just the opposite is only increasing.

This is the first time in history that you can cheat laying in bed next to your partner, on your hand held device (no pun intended), or laptop. Cheating online is blamed for more divorces now than any other reason. 

When we first get married, we have an expectation that we assume our partner will be faithful. Yet some studies say that infidelity rates may be as high as 25 percent — others say it's more like 60 percent — if we are really honest with the researchers. And unfortunately, couples still divorce around 50 percent of the time.

So why are we shocked when a relationship that we know has only a 50/50 chance of making it doesn't work? It's because we have a built in expectation about monogamy that is fast becoming outdated and no longer applies.

Marriage as we know it is changing. It is the newest and the latest frontier in the rapid growth of this century. What makes us think that marriage should stay the same as it was for our grandparents? It won't and it's not.

Our definition of monogamy has to catch up to what is actually happening in our culture. The ideal of monogamy as sexual fidelity to one person throughout a lifetime is not working.

Even in the face of this reality, we are still trying to make it work. We are trying to desire the same person for a lifetime, but we are not working on ways to make that happen. 

I see a tectonic shift in our culture around monogamy. I think this will be the greatest shift of our century — the change in marriage and relationships.

The new monogamy will be a new definition of partnership, with more transparency, fluidity and flexibility. I think couples will still desire a primary partnership, but there will be some changes in how it looks.

These newer fluid definitions of monogamy already include pornography, open marriage, polyamory and swinging ... but they also are defined by new types of communication that make it easier to talk about the monogamy rules.

Is it okay to have friends on Facebook? Is it reasonable to watch porn alone or with your partner only? Is masturbation cheating? What about on weekends; can we fool around with another couple, just for fun, but only while we are together? 

Our parents may never have had these conversations when they got married. Maybe if they did, 50 percent of them would not have gotten divorced.

Divorce is not always the best option. Rewriting your monogamy agreements, sitting down and talking openly about the expectations going forward — both implicit and explicit — can save a marriage and even propel it forward.

We as a nation of couples are trying to manage our partnerships in ways that work. Will this new monogamy work? It's hard to say.

Is honesty, openness and a new view of monogamy the way to long lasting marriage? Only the next generation will know as they look back at how we, their parents, managed monogamy.