In 1998, the most powerful man on the planet was publicly humiliated for having consensual sex. Even now, between 5% and 30% of President Clinton’s media coverage on any given day refers to his infidelity.
Athlete Tiger Woods lost $22 million in endorsements in 2010 alone when media reported his extra-marital affairs. At least for some, no punishment can fully suppress the drive for non-monogamy.
However, instead of exploring non-monogamy as a reality in romantic relationships, mainstream U.S. culture tells us to cover our ears. The result is a monster under the bed.
As a gay man, I have a unique relationship with the institution of monogamy: On one hand, I’m part of a subculture that doesn’t assume monogamy as a default position. Gay men can approach monogamy as a topic of discussion and negotiation.
On the other hand, I’m also part of a larger culture that’s deeply invested in selling us monogamy as the truest form of romantic relationship. In fact, mainstream U.S. culture has created a Church of Monogamy. Our laws, traditions, economy, religions, and media images all serve to enchant the monogamous relationship with powerful meanings and emotions while at the same time pathologizing the infinite alternative forms that healthy relationships can take.
As a result, we risk worshiping monogamy blindly without questioning whether we actually want it.
Just so we’re clear, I define monogamy as mutual sexual exclusivity between two people. Non-monogamy therefore includes every alternative under the sun: cheating, open relationships, the occasional 3-way, mistresses, relationships with more than 2 permanent partners, and anything else you can imagine.
Based on these definitions, relationships can—and usually do—cycle through periods of monogamy and non-monogamy. Just so we’re even clearer, my intention isn’t to demonize monogamy.
Monogamy works perfectly well for many people. My intention is rather to challenge the notion that monogamy is an inherently superior form of relationship by reframing it as a religion that mainstream U.S. culture proselytizes.
The first step in reframing monogamy as a religion is to admit to ourselves that we’re not devout followers: One study revealed that 50% of all relationships include infidelity by one or both partners. And infidelity doesn’t significantly decrease even after marriage: Between 25% and 50% of married men and 30% of married women report having cheated at least once during the marriage.
It’s common even in happy relationships: 56% of males who cheated and 34% of females who cheated reported that they were happy with their marriages when they cheated. These numbers don’t even include consensual non-monogamy or those who lied about never having cheated. Like it or not, the reality is that most relationships are non-monogamous at some point.
There is clearly a huge gap between what people think they want, what they say they want to their partners, and how they actually behave.
Why the gap? And why does mainstream U.S. culture perpetuate the myth that non-monogamy is a blunder—an exception to the rule in which only sinners indulge? My contention is that institutions of power can only oppress us if they can turn love, intimacy, and emotional support into a scarce commodity. Mainstream U.S. culture requires us to live in a state of loneliness and longing.
To understand how the Church of Monogamy relates to loneliness and longing, we need to understand why humans have sex. We like it, of course, but why do we like it? According to the theory of evolution, our bodies and minds evolved to like the things that helped our ancient ancestors survive and reproduce. I say “ancestors” because evolution is a very slow process that can’t keep up with our technological advancements.
One obvious evolutionary function of sex is to make babies: Prominent figures in schools, churches, politics, and media proselytize the procreative function of sex. These leaders vehemently oppose anything that separates sex from procreation—like condoms, birth control, HPV vaccines… and homosexuality.
However, there is a second evolutionary function of sex that is just as important as procreation. Sex is social!
Humans don’t have claws or thick hides. We survived as a species because we’re social animals who help each other. For the vast majority of human history—hundreds of thousands of years—humans lived in small foraging groups of about a hundred people or less. (Some of these groups still exist today.) Foraging groups have been nearly universal in enforcing fierce egalitarianism. They distributed food equitably, breastfed each other’s babies, and depended upon each other for survival.
While mainstream U.S. culture promotes individual responsibility, survival in foraging tribes required mutual dependence and deep interrelation. Everything was shared among group members—even sex. And although foragers had multiple ongoing sexual relationships, they knew their lovers much more intimately than we do today, because of their smaller social world.
For the vast majority of human history, non-monogamous sex was the relationship glue that strengthened social bonds and formed webs of affection and emotional support. Bonds that our ancestors needed to survive.
But about 10,000 years ago, everything changed when we learned how to farm. Agricultural society unlocked hierarchical, aggressive, and territorial human behavior. Humans only fight when there’s something worth fighting over—nomadic foraging tribes had no home base to defend and no desire for excess resources to lug from one place to the next.
When humans stayed in one place and started accumulating wealth, they stopped sharing resources and started competing. Competition shifted our economic identity away from the tribe and into the individual family unit. With property to bequeath down the family line, men started caring whether their children were really “theirs.” They didn’t want to waste their hard-earned resources on another man’s offspring.
Suddenly, female sexuality became another resource to suppress—and thus the Church of Monogamy was formed. Monogamy and private property arose together and depend on each other. Both tell the world, “This is MINE!”
Life in mainstream society today is competitive, hierarchical and individualistic. It’s also pretty lonely. Because our species has only been agricultural for the last 10,000 years, our bodies and minds haven’t had time to catch up to this dramatic shift in lifestyle.
Just as we haven’t evolved physical defenses against excess sugar, processed foods, and cocaine, we haven’t evolved psychological defenses against living as competitive, isolated individuals. Perhaps anxiety, depression, and addiction aren’t mental illnesses but rather natural responses to kicking ourselves out of the Garden of Eden.
Perhaps we know on a deeper level that we’re missing something important in our lives and we’re freaking out about it.
Mainstream U.S. culture depends on our freaking out about it, actually. It depends on maintaining our sense of loneliness and longing for something elusive. It needs us to be unhappy enough that we’re willing to work 40-or-more hours a week in jobs we don’t love in order to earn enough money to buy products we think will satisfy our longing but, in fact, can only offer comfort.
We settle for comfort without even knowing it and wonder why we’re still unhappy. So we work harder. Some of us born with competitive disadvantages—like being part of an underprivileged race, class or gender identity—don’t even have the luxury of settling for comfort.
These folk sometimes toil just to survive.
The Church of Monogamy promises us a way out without disrupting the system: Instead of acknowledging that loneliness is inherent in our competitive and isolated culture, it spreads the myth that we can fill the void by finding “the One.” One person to ferociously support with our entire being. One person with whom we share the deepest levels of soul-nourishing intimacy. One person to make us whole forever.
It sounds alluring. Indeed, for some people, monogamy works just fine. Given infinite options, they would deliberately seek out a single partner with whom to share sex and deep emotional intimacy for the rest of their lives. Awesome!
What’s not awesome is mainstream U.S. culture turning the option of monogamy into the Church of Monogamy by selling us the myth of the One.
Firstly, the myth simply isn’t true: There’s no magical individual who can make us whole or fulfill all our emotional needs forever. But when we believe it, we start blaming and resenting our partners for any needs they don’t fulfill.
Secondly, as the data shows, most relationships are de facto non-monogamous. Many—if not most—of us give in to the urge to spread our DNA, and our love, far and wide.
The Church of Monogamy shames us into thinking we’re sinners for wanting to explore alternatives. And when we’re shamed into secrecy, we traumatize our partners by lying and cheating instead of negotiating our needs openly and honestly.
Ultimately, the myth of the One turns sex, love, and emotional support into a scarce commodity—as supply goes down, demand goes up. Now we’re a society obsessed with making ourselves beautiful and rich so we can compete to receive the love and support that should be our birthright. We create artificial hierarchies of intimacy—friend, acquaintance, stranger—who deserve less of our love and support than our mythical One.
I’m not saying we would all be better off by giving away our private property and returning to hunter-gatherer tribes. (I wouldn’t even know which berries to eat.) I’m also not saying monogamy is inherently better or worse than any of its alternatives. What I am saying is that the engine of technological and economic advancement is fueled by our willingness to compete with each other. The Church of Monogamy supports that competition by selling us the myth of the One.
If we don’t debunk the myth of the One to honestly examine what monogamy can and cannot provide, we risk being lonely parishioners forever.
Justin Natoli, J.D., M.A. is a psychotherapist specializing in healthy sex and intimacy, sex and love addictions, relationships, and LGBT issues. Justin practices as a registered marriage and family therapy intern (IMF #75892) in Beverly Hills. He is supervised by Aaron Alan, LMFT.
You can email Justin at Justin@foundryclinicalgroup.com