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.
You might be surprised that I completely agree with you. I have always felt that way. Sorry I can't offer a good argument!
Funny you should pick this topic… a friend of my confided in me the other day that she was unfaithful to her husband and she doesn't know what is going to happen. Well said Dennis relationships are work and not our nature to be in a monogamous one, but if you are in one that is worth holdning on to, you are lucky. Keep up the writing, I love reading!
“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.” By Dennis.
What you’ve defined here as protectiveness and love is actually Jealously. These things should not be confused. If you are talking entirely protecting your genetic investment, biologically speaking you’d be better off find more women to have sex with, not trying to protect this one. In nature two males will contest for a females attention, in species where the male is not needed for rearing or protection the male moves on and finds more females. Also in cases of protecting to the death your family, if we were entirely driven by the needto breed than you’d be better off letting them die, escaping and finding a new female to mate with (Lionesses certainly do not protect their cubs to the cost of their lives from an infanticidal new male if the male has taken over the pride).
Everything I’ve ever read on these topics or studied points toward serial monogamy. Every evolutionary biologigist or psycologist I’ve seen talk on the subject bristle at the notation that this is an excuse for infidelity.
Relationships are complex, and not necessarily able to last a life time (some do though). However the drive to form society is as every bit natural for humans as the drive to procreate. Society makes procreation far more successful. Society makes survival far more successful. The social mores that stem from society are specific to the economic and resource profile of an environment. What we are encountering these days is that our enviroment (we are no longer agrarian) has changed much quicker than our culture. We are still catching up.
I like monogamy, its less stressful and easier for me. If you are going to not be faithful than don’t get into a relationship that is committed. Its amazing how many “open” relationships fail miserably. I’m not saying that any single relationship will last my whole life (though I seem to strive for that) but if I’m going spend my time with one person that social cotract is as important as any drive to spread my genes.
“If you are talking entirely protecting your genetic investment, biologically speaking you’d be better off find more women to have sex with, not trying to protect this one.”
That’s not necessarily true. As I mentioned, in environments where resources are scarce, males who stick by their mates’ sides exhibit more reproductive success than promiscuous males because single females attempting to raise offspring on their own are usually unsuccessful. In such cases, serial monogamy evolves, and males will even evolve to be protective of their mates.
Of course, the key question I haven’t answered (and which is still subject to debate) is… what are humans?
I believe we are serial monogamists. But that still doesn’t negate the fact that, once the kids reach a certain age, there is no longer any benefit for the couple to stick together. That’s when cheating starts to happen.
As for using this fact as an excuse for infidelity… well, that was kind of the point of this article. I believe that humans are *not* naturally permanently monogamous. However, I do not believe that this is therefore an excuse to cheat. To me, cultural and societal norms are every bit as valid as evolutionary norms.
But… you are talking entirely from a biological perspective. I mean, animals don’t clean their asses after they poo, or their teeth, or put clothes on, or make up, or write, or make trips to space, or mess with microwaves, or heat their food, I could go on. And I am leaving out the feelings…
So, what, we shouldn’t do anything that is not “in our nature”?
I mean, we are still animals, but we have done a lot of things to set us at least a little apart from “other” animals.
Here, check out this subsequent article I wrote:
It elaborates on my position a bit.