Why Serial Monogamy Is the New Marriage


Could marriage be a concept left in the 20th century? (Photo: Getty Images)

I have heard the intimate yearnings of thousands of women who long for love. Strong women. Smart women. Successful and psychologically sophisticated women. As an internationally known psychotherapist and relationship expert (yes, the one who inspired Gwyneth’s conscious uncoupling), they come to me in droves—many of them deeply confused as to why the long-term love they crave continues to elude them.

Their questions are urgent.

Why is it so much harder for me to find lasting love than it was for my mother? Why am I swapping partners so often that my family and friends don’t even bother to ask for their numbers or Facebook friend them? And what to make of that ever-elusive “happily ever after” story I’m falling so short of year after year, as yet another hopeful romance falls by the wayside?

Helen Fisher, Ph.D., the renowned relationship anthropologist, reports that serial monogamy, rather than mating with one life-long partner, is now the new norm. Most of us will have several significant relationships in our lifetimes—not just one. Just as it was the norm in our mothers’ generation for most people to marry once, it’s now just as common to not mate for life. With over 40 percent of first marriages, 60 percent of second marriages, and 70 percent of third marriages all ending in divorce, and even higher numbers of cohabiting couple partnerships ending every day, we might have to reconsider the relationship goals to which we aspire as a culture.

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Most of us are firm believers in happily ever after. In fact, studies show that 90 percent of us will one day stand at the altar and pledge life-long love and devotion to another person, with the intent of keeping that promise. None of us ever plan to wind up on the wrong side of that tenacious 50 percent divorce divide. Yet our hard-to-match beliefs about what these unions should provide cause many of us to eventually opt out of relationships—so-so sex with your high school sweetheart, a great father and provider who works almost every weekend, for example—that the previous generation might easily have continued.

What we want from our unions, why we want it, and how we go about getting it has never been more in flux than in recent years: According to best-selling author and marriage expert Stephanie Coontz, relationships have changed more in the past 30 years than in the 3,000 years before. At the heart of these changes? Rising expectations. We’ve never expected more from our partners than we do right now.

Back in the 1960s, researchers asked a group of co-eds the question, “If you met a man who met all of your criteria for a mate but you did not love him, would you marry him?” Shockingly, over 70 percent said yes, they would. Compare that with a more recent study done at Rutgers University in which a group of twentysomethings were asked to agree or disagree with the statement, “When you marry, you want your spouse to be your soulmate first and foremost.” Ninety-four percent agreed, validating what most of us already know: We’re not just looking for someone; we’re looking for The One. It’s a beautiful thing but a tall order—and statistics prove year after year that it might simply be too much to expect to find.

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Simply put, we want a lot. Certainly more than our mothers or grandmothers ever thought possible. Many of us look at our parents’ marriage with a kind of covert superiority, recognizing that what may have been good enough for Mom is not at all good enough for us. Things marriage was originally intended to provide, like social status and financial security, aren’t the goal anymore—those are things we provide for ourselves beforehand. When it comes to marriage, this generation is seeking nothing short of a Super Relationship—a soulful, sexy, and inspired union that can help us realize our full potential in life. We want a deep connection with a best friend, an emotional and spiritual confidante, an intellectual counterpart that gets our inside jokes, matches us financially, and loves us with a passion that rivals Romeo’s.

These expectations are not all bad. In fact, there’s a lot that’s great about them. They’re driving our development as people, growing our willingness to work on ourselves, and increasing our capacity for teamwork, collaboration, and cooperation. Never before have we been so willing to lean in and further our own evolution in service to being the women we want to be to attract and sustain the relationship we desire to have. Never before have we been so interested in how to repair the ruptures that are a normal part of relating, or how to truly love another human being outside of our own self-serving agendas. Plus, never before have we been so willing to learn how to release relationships that are no longer appropriate for us to hold on to, in ways that will leave us uncluttered and free to move forward with courage, optimism, and hope in our hearts.

Whether we find that one great love or a series of great loves, or end up consciously uncoupling ourselves, the fact that we as women are inspired to realize the higher possibilities we hold for living truly self-expressed lives is a very good thing.

By Katherine Woodward Thomas, M.A., M.F.T.

Katherine Woodward Thomas is the national best-selling author of Calling in “The One,” a licensed psychotherapist, and the author of the upcoming book Conscious Uncoupling: 5 Steps to Living Happily Even After due out this fall. For more information, visit katherinewoodwardthomas.com.

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