My Ultimate Confession
Today, I’m about to make a confession that will surely land me in the relationship outhouse.
You see, I don’t believe in monogamy. I love my girlfriend, but I’m just not sure that she’s the only one I’ll want to be with for the rest of my life.
The fact is that monogamy is not in my nature. It’s not in yours, either. Or any other human being’s. Any sense of loyalty we feel for a singular partner arises from social constructs. We stay faithful because society tells us it is right, not because it is our natural instinct. To the contrary, our instincts drive us to seek out multiple sexual partners.
So where do these notions of monogamy come from then? Perhaps we can blame the hopeless romantics out there, the bards and the poets of yore. Those who would woo us with legends of the noble, romantic creature—like the swan that mates for life, or the boyfriend who buys tampons. Sadly, reality is not so poignant. Yes, some species form monogamous pair bonds, but they rarely last. In the animal kingdom, promiscuity reigns supreme. In case you doubt me, take a look at the mating systems that arise in the natural world….
In populations where resources are plentiful, only one parent (or maybe even no parent at all) is needed to raise offspring successfully. In these cases, the male of the species increases his reproductive success by mating with as many females as possible. At the same time, the female gets stuck rearing the offspring on her own, so she increases her reproductive success by being selective and only choosing a strong male to sire her offspring. In short, males attempt to mate with as many females as they can, while females select the best male out of the pool of potential suitors. Sound like Friday night at the local college hangout?
In populations where resources are scarce, it may take two parents to raise a newborn successfully. In these species, monogamy evolves. If the male abandons his mate, she won’t be able to raise their offspring successfully. As a result, he increases his reproductive success by staying with her. Even so, these pair bonds only tend to last as long as necessary to raise the offspring. Once the young are able to fend for themselves, the male and the female usually separate to find new mates. Maybe that’s why Mommy and Daddy wait until we go off to college before they get divorced.
The sad reality is that virtually every species in the world is known to take multiple mates. In its truest form, monogamy only exists in angler fish, wherein the male attaches himself to the female and lives parasitically off of her for the rest of his life. Does that remind you of…. (Oh, come on. Do I really need to make a deadbeat-boyfriend analogy here?) In its contrived form, temporary monogamy develops as a way for males to protect their seed.
Across the mating spectrum then, the pair bonds that form between males and females are fleeting. To that end, my manly sense of loyalty to my girlfriend is but a byproduct of my drive to protect my potential offspring. When another guy starts hitting on her at a bar and refuses to leave her alone, an intense urge to kick his ass starts coursing through me. Never mind that the guy is three times my size and has more tattoos than teeth, and any confrontation with him will likely end with someone—if I should be so lucky—dialing the paramedics on my crumpled behalf.
My instinct drives me to face inevitable dismemberment in order to protect the potential mother of my potential offspring. Are all these “potentials” worth one rather painful “inevitable”? Natural selection seems to think so.
It’s through these feelings of protectiveness that I know I’m emotionally attached to her, that I know I love her. And yet, there’s nothing romantic or noble behind these emotions. They are simply the desires that the little caveman dwelling in my brain stem exudes. My so-called “love” for her is nothing more than my primal instinct to shield her from competing suitors and ensure the propagation of my own genes. (Man, I should get into the Valentine’s Day card business with these awesome aphorisms.) When the… ahem, “propagation” is done, my instincts will tell me to move on. As will hers at some point.
So does this mean that all human relationships are doomed to fail? Perhaps not. Much as the first step in overcoming alcoholism is admitting that we have a problem, maybe the first step in building a successful committed relationship is admitting that monogamy is not in our instincts. So, if monogamy is something we choose to embrace, then we have to work hard to maintain it.
Because we do have something that sets us apart from the animals: We have a sense of society. We build relationships, we learn how to treat others, and we can distinguish right from wrong. Whether you believe that this sense evolved through natural selection or was instilled in us by a higher being, the end result is the same:
Despite what our instincts tell us, we learn that to cheat on our loved ones is to cause them pain. Therefore, it is wrong to stray from a committed relationship. So when those feelings of intense attachment inevitably fade, when we’re confronted with the temptation to seek out new love, we have to turn to our higher consciousness, not to our lower instincts. Do we simply obey our animalistic side and discard the relationship we’ve built, or do we trust our intellect and decide that it is worth maintaining?
Maybe this is the true foundation of a successful relationship. Not love. Not emotion. But a higher sense that this is what we want, and what we want is right.
And so, I will eschew my most primal instincts and choose to remain faithful to my girlfriend. Because I’m not an animal and I don’t operate on instinct alone. Because I care about her and it’s the right thing to do.
And because this outhouse is particularly stinky and I’d like to get out of it now.
For more on monogamy and mating behaviors in general, here is an expanded version of this post.