There’s an argument brewing that says monogamy is not best for a successful relationship. But is there any science behind it? (Photo: Getty Images)
"As a child of divorce and an aspiring designer-entrepreneur in Silicon Valley, I was suspicious of marriage," the early Twitter employee writes on CNN. “Out here, we’re data-positive and solution-oriented and if your product (i.e. marriage) is failing for 50% of your customers, then you need to fix it or offer something better…
“Monogamy established itself thousands of years ago, when society was ruled by scarcity and resources and potential mates were in limited supply,” Messina argues. “We’re now living in a period of great (though unequally distributed) abundance where our basic needs are sufficiently met, and reproduction is a choice. As a result, the reasons to be with a single mate for life are less urgent.”
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This past spring a Rolling Stone feature explored this very topic in a story entitled “Tales From The Millennials’ Sexual Revolution,” underscoring a generational shift in thought regarding monogamy, sex, and relationships.
The story points out that the new faces of the “open relationship” aren’t long-haired hippies in a cloud of patchouli, but, rather, successful young professionals “who do not view monogamy as any type of ideal.” These individuals often seek out a version of polyamory “in which the goal is to have one long-standing relationship and a willingness to openly acknowledge that the long-standing relationship might not meet each partner’s emotional and sexual needs for all time.”
Is non-monogamy the new sexual truism?
Should we sit our partners down and tell them that it’s time to begin introducing some new faces to the bedroom? Well, for one thing, non-monogamy is not exactly new.
“There is an odd modern sense that sex for fun was invented in the mid-20th century and that before that, sex was acknowledged as fun but was only done within the confines of relationships,” Art Markman, a psychology professor at the University of Texas, tells Yahoo Health. “If you read the Bible, any old literature, or go to the opera, you discover that the world has always been just about as modern when it comes to sex as it is now.”
Indeed, the modern definition of marriage as between “one man and one woman” that is promoted by many religious conservative politicians flies in the face of the fact that most of the male characters in the early Bible had many wives. “All this means is that societies have debated what should qualify as normal for sex and relationships throughout recorded history,” adds Markman.
In other words, maybe Messina isn’t quite as radical as he thinks when he writes, “I’m in a monogamish relationship. We’re committed to each other, but have a porous boundary around our relationship, meaning we’ve agreed that it’s OK for either of us to express romantic feelings toward other people or to be physically intimate with other people, so long as we’re honest and transparent about our intentions with one another. These things don’t diminish the integrity of our relationship. Rather, they deepen our understanding of each other’s wants and desires, and give us the space to grow independently, without growing apart.”
Non-monogamy is not equivalent to “cheating” or adultery.
Since the relationship is agreed upon, it’s not considered messing around. Elisabeth Sheff, PhD, author of The Polyamorists Next Door, uses the distinction “consensual non-monogamy” to refer to situations such as Messina’s. She notes that “not only do consensual non-monogamists try to tell each other the truth, but this greater communication has real impacts” such as reduced rates of sexually transmitted diseases as a result of the “honest communication needed to negotiate consensual agreements that allow a variety of ways to have multiple partners.”
Sheff herself is in a polyamorous relationship and was shocked to discover that she was not jealous when her partner had sex with other people. “I resisted it for 10 years because I anticipated feeling so threatened and jealous with my insecurity that I thought I would not be able to handle it,” she says.
Won’t non-monogamy undermine the bond within a couple?
Research suggests that men and women both experience jealousy when their sex partners engage with another person. “There is a tendency for men to be a bit more jealous about sexual infidelity by their mate and for women to be more jealous about emotional infidelity,” notes Markman. “But sexual infidelity makes both men and women really jealous.”
Messina argues that there is no need for such feelings to come into play in what he refers to as the era of “Big Dating.” He claims that “Big Dating unbundles monogamy and sex. It offers to maximize episodes of intimacy while minimizing the risk of rejection or FOMO [fear of missing out]” and that “Big Dating precipitates the rising ambivalence toward commitment,” proving that “that there’s now more than one option for building meaningful and satisfying relationships.” Messina goes so far as to argue that the new non-monogamy has the potential to revolutionize the modern world in much the same way that computers have, and that technology — and the advent of “hook-up” apps such as Tinder — are the key to such a revolution.
Why is monogamy considered to be so hard?
“Ultimately, a difficulty in maintaining monogamous relationships is that people differ in how often they want to have sex, how much variety they want in sex partners, and in the level of emotional intimacy they need to want to have sex,” comments Markman, “These aspects differ for both men and women. They also differ within a person at different times of life and in different circumstances. So, what a person wants at 20 may be different than what that person wants at 30, 50, or 70. The idea that there is a one-size-fits-all format for relationships misses the complexity of human relationships. That is as true for monogamy as it is for non-monogamy.”
Can we want what we already have?
The renowned psychotherapist Esther Perel, a professor at both New York University and Columbia University in New York, continuously addresses such issues in her work, including her now seminal book Mating in Captivity: Unlocking Erotic Intelligence. In her TED Talk “The Secret To Desire In A Long-Term Relationship,” Perel asks the question at the core of all discussion of non-monogamy, that is: “Can we want what we already have?”
Perel notes in her talk that contemporary monogamy is under a great deal of pressure, as partners come into the relationship asking one another “to give …what once an entire village used to provide: Give me belonging, give me identity, give me continuity, but give me transcendence and mystery and awe all in one. Give me comfort, give me edge. Give me novelty, give me familiarity. Give me predictability, give me surprise. And we think it’s a given.”
Furthermore, Perel points to the “paradox between love and desire” — that is “that the very ingredients that nurture love — mutuality, reciprocity, protection, worry, responsibility for the other — are sometimes the very ingredients that stifle desire.”
A happy relationship is about commitment.
Perel concludes that maintaining an erotic connection in a relationship has nothing to do with monogamy or non-monogamy, but rather with a deeper understanding of the concept of commitment. Successful relationships of any length are committed.
“People need to communicate their expectations with their partners,” Markman adds. “That will not solve every problem, but it is a key ingredient to a healthy relationship of any form.”
Successful couples understand that passion waxes and wanes, like the moon. But those who have a good sex life know how to resurrect it. “They know how to bring it back, and they know how to bring it back because they have demystified one big myth, which is the myth of spontaneity,” says Perel. “They understood that whatever is going to just happen in a long-term relationship already has. Committed sex is premeditated sex. It’s willful. It’s intentional. It’s focus and presence.”
So heads up to Messina and his fellow non-monogamists: Call it what you will, but apparently commitment — both sexual and emotional — is key to any successful relationship.