Couple with Heart
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Is monogamy natural?

Well, yes and no.

But, more importantly, is that really the right question we should be asking?

I’m starting here because it seems to be where a lot of people go with this discussion. But before we can even answer this question, we first have to ask what we mean by “natural” anyway. And for that matter we need to settle on what we mean by “monogamy” as well.

Most would agree monogamy means having sex with only one person, but does that mean only one person for life? Or does it mean merely with one person at a time (i.e. per season of life)?

For example, if you stick to one partner exclusively for five or ten years then break up and start a new relationship for another five to ten years—keeping only to that person—that’s still monogamy, although some would give it a more specific name, like serial monogamy.

But the kind of monogamy I was raised to believe in was more like lifelong exclusive monogamy: You only have sex with one person for life, and never with anyone else.

Truth be told, relatively few people stick to this, and that includes those who swear it’s the only legitimate way to be. Half of those couples who marry will eventually divorce, and a large portion of the marriages that survive will only make it to the end because one or both of them successfully avoided getting caught with someone else. Or maybe they did get caught, but they simply decided it didn’t have to be grounds for breaking up a family, so they stuck it out anyway.

Which leads me to suspect that lifelong exclusive monogamy—a commitment to have sex with one person and only that person for life—is ultimately impractical for a majority of Homo sapiens. Lots of people pay lip service to the idea, but only a small minority of people actually live up to it.

But does that mean it’s unnatural? What does “natural” even mean?

What is “Natural” for Human Sexuality?

Biologically speaking, it’s pretty obvious that as a species humans are wired to have a lot of sex with a lot of partners. While [most] animals can only procreate during a limited mating season, humans are wired to be able to conceive all year round. Human females cycle through periods of fertility 12 months out of the year, subjecting them to a potent cocktail of hormones that incline them to want some lovin’ on a pretty regular basis.

Even the shape of the male member hints at humanity’s promiscuous past. In case you haven’t noticed, it’s shaped like a pump. It’s not just a straight rod like most other primates have—ours is shaped like a piston, featuring a head that is rounded on top and has a lip around the bottom edge, a shape that’s ideal for forcing out competing sperm left by the female’s previous suitors.

In other words, early humans were freaks in the sheets, or in the bushes, or the tall grass, or wherever. Even the speed with which human males ejaculate evidences a primordial competition of some sort in which multiple contenders vie for the same female, showing off whatever goods they possess to win her approval only to turn around and split after a lamentably brief engagement.

Suffice to say, exclusive monogamy is not necessarily woven into our DNA.

But is what is biologically “natural” really where our discussion should end? Should what is “natural” in this sense always be what is “right?” Is biology our final measuring stick?

From a certain point of view, one could argue the “natural” way to resolve conflicts is for people to beat each other over the head with clubs to see who wins. Or maybe use their fists.

You may think you’re too evolved for that, but if you pay attention to what your body does when you get angry toward someone you will notice your body gearing up for a fight. Your heart rate increases, your muscles tighten, and your fists almost involuntarily clench themselves. Sometimes people even bare their teeth when they get really worked up, just like other animals do. Holding back these impulses can leave us emotionally drained even when we aren’t aware of the source of our exhaustion.

Moments like these remind us that we aspire to rise above the predispositions of our biological urges in the interest of building the kind of world we want to live in, and in that world people don’t just beat each other up whenever they get into a disagreement. I teach high school for an inner city district, and I can assure you that some people still resolve their differences by fighting. But even my students will tell you they’d rather get away from that kind of life.

In other words, the “natural” thing to do isn’t always the best thing to do—not if we want to continue evolving, reaching forward toward the kind of species we want to become.

So what kind of species do we want to become, and what are the ideal conditions under which we want to “flesh out” our sexuality? For a second, let’s ignore what is “natural” from a biological perspective and ask:

Is Monogamy Good for Us?

In many ways, yes, it is.

For one thing, humans are nothing if not insecure. We’re a species that seems to be halfway between one thing and another, and we don’t yet know what that next thing will look like. But one thing we know for sure: We still have an awful lot of “kinks” to iron out of our social systems and their accompanying expectations.

Exclusive monogamy, it turns out, encloses two people into an emotional bubble, focusing each other’s attentions and affections toward each other inside of a kind of protective cocoon. This kind of commitment continually assures each person that, no matter how little anyone else in the world regards them, one person in particular thinks they are the bee’s knees.

And let’s be honest: Who doesn’t love having that?

Another benefit of monogamy is that sticking with one person for years or even decades enables them to see you at your best and also at your worst. That’s a good thing if you have any interest at all in personal growth.

The confirmed bachelor who eschews long-term commitments toward anyone other than his dog may retain ample time for his hobbies and creative outlets, but he loses something difficult to quantify by keeping all bipedal adults at arm’s length. With no one around who’s heard all of his stories twenty times (and knows which details aren’t even true) it becomes all too easy for a guy to convince himself and others he’s something that he’s not.

But then one could argue the same thing for the serial monogamist. A woman who never keeps a guy around for more than a few years at a time protects herself from ever having to look too closely at her own quirks and shortcomings. For some, this becomes a recipe for a shallow personality characterized by vanity and self-centeredness.

The thing is, though, that some people just might be better off that way. Who’s to say anyone is obligated to follow other people’s template for how adult humans are supposed to live? What if some people are better off focusing all their energies on contributing to the world through the work that they do, through the children they raise, or through the creative outlets they pursue?

Growing up religious, I was taught that both men and women have divinely appointed roles to fulfill. But even Jesus shot that down at one point, asserting that some people have a calling to remain single. As I recall, the apostle Paul agreed with him on that (not as common an occurrence as you might think).

Those of us who grew out of the religious indoctrination of our childhoods feel even less obligated to follow somebody else’s dictates about how humans should work out either their identity or their sexuality. This is precisely what Removing the Fig Leaf is all about.

It turns out leaving the church doesn’t seem to dissuade a majority of godless heathens from believing that monogamy of some kind is the only right way to live and love. But why?

Why do more people seem to believe, regardless of religious persuasion, that it’s best to stick exclusively to sex with one person, either for life or at least for a decade or more at a time? Is that just the way we’re wired whether we like it or not?

I don’t think that is the case. At least, not for everyone. I think that some people, including me, are ultimately happier and more productive being monogamish.

Something In-Between

Some people can juggle multiple ongoing romantic relationships simultaneously. These people call themselves polyamorous. I don’t think I’m personally capable of doing that well, but it seems to me that some people are.

I’m as impressed by those who can maintain intimate relationships with multiple people simultaneously as I am with those who can be happily committed to one person for the duration of their lifetime. More power to them. I just don’t think I fit neatly into either one of those camps.

Speaking for myself, I seem to be drawn to focusing the majority of my romantic affections toward one single person. But I find the demands of exclusive monogamy stifling. I don’t mean I find it simply limiting or that it cramps my style, I’m saying it causes me actual anxiety. I feel quite trapped by it, imprisoned in a way, because it makes me feel owned by someone else, as if I am someone else’s property.

I’ve done that already. It didn’t work for me then, and I don’t think it will work for me now, either. Before, I felt obligated to live according to a religious commandment. Once again it was Paul who, though he says he was single, instructed his followers to see themselves as the property of the person to whom they are married.

Modern readers will chafe at that language, but it was quite natural for a religion forged during a time when slavery was the norm. Paul went so far as to say  that everyone who follows Jesus was “bought with a price” just like slaves were. So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that people like him would appropriate the same vocabulary in speaking about sex and marriage.

But we don’t live in that time or place anymore. Today it’s generally frowned upon to own other people, although it seems to me that too many people uncritically carry over that mentality into marriage even after leaving the faith that taught us to think that way.

I am suggesting that perhaps “removing the fig leaf” ultimately entails rethinking the way we view and talk about our most intimate relationships. Not because monogamy isn’t “natural,” but because, for more people than not, it’s not really working as well as we were led to believe it would.

The Trouble(s) with Non-Monogamy

There are problems, though. I won’t lie to you about this. Humans are remarkably jealous primates. Maybe at some level that’s not even a bad thing. There’s something to the idea that no matter how dicey life gets, you know there is one person who’s got your back. I think that’s beautiful.

But does that necessarily have to mean that neither of you ever has sex with anyone else for as long as you’re together? For me it doesn’t, but for some people it does. Maybe even for most people. I don’t know.

I can tell you that jealousy is quite natural. It may be an unavoidable emotion wherever sexual or romantic intimacy is involved (they aren’t always as connected as you may think). Maybe at some level, jealousy is a necessary ingredient to preserving and protecting something that’s precious to you. Maybe it’s like a suit of armor or some other defense mechanism that safeguards the things that are most valuable to us.

Few things make you more vulnerable than being naked with another person. I don’t think I could do that with just anybody. Some amount of selectivity must be involved, and I wouldn’t trust my most intimate, unguarded self with somebody whom I don’t really, really like.

But there are risks. What if the other person doesn’t really enjoy you once they get to know you at this level? What if they’re disappointed? Or what if there’s nothing at all wrong with either one of you but when the big moment comes the chemistry just isn’t there? How well would you handle that kind of a letdown?

What if he or she hurts you? And I don’t just mean people who are intentionally cruel. There are a number of ways two people (or more!) can get hurt, whether physically or emotionally, which aren’t even intentional. There could even be social repercussions because while the person you open up to may be lovely, the rest of the world can often be quite cruel.

Most people will judge you for not following their sexual script. What’s worse, very often the ones who throw the first stones are themselves guilty of the very things for which they are punishing you. Ask me how I know this. No, better yet, don’t. Some things are better left unsaid.

A Personal Word About Non-Monogamy

I for one am nowhere near the point where I believe I’ve got this stuff figured out. I may have settled for myself that I don’t think exclusive monogamy is right for me, but that doesn’t mean I’ve done a good job of exploring the alternatives.

In fact, I would say I’ve done a quite miserable job of working this out for myself. Twice now I’ve tried to enter into a relationship with a partner while making it clear that I am not looking for a strictly exclusive relationship, and in different ways both of those relationships ended with the other person feeling misled.

Evidently I suck at clearly communicating my needs to the person I love most, or at least I’ve failed to insist that the other person make more explicit that they do not require that this part of me must change in order for them to be happy with me.

That’s not going to happen again. From this point forward, I’m going out of my way to make it abundantly clear that, while I believe I have a tremendous amount of love and affection to give to my partner, I do not require sexual exclusivity to be a part of that equation because for me sex and exclusive commitment are not inextricably tied together.

I do not regard my partner having sex with another person as if it were taking away from her love for me. I do not feel cheated by the thought of my partner enjoying the body nor the companionship of another person. That’s just not how I’m wired. Incidentally, you can read her thoughts about this in the article she wrote about the subject, transparently wrestling through it for the benefit of those who want to hear about it from the other side of the equation.

[Read: “When Your Lover Is Non-Monogamous“]

You may not identify with me in this, and that’s perfectly fine. I will not tell you how you should feel about any of this. The thought of sharing your lover with another may turn your stomach and break your heart. That is for you and you alone to conclude—no one else can tell you how you should feel about this.

Some will tell you that monogamy isn’t natural and that we are all fundamentally polyamorous (or at least fundamentally non-monogamous…remember they aren’t necessarily the same thing). I disagree with them. They are probably approaching this question as if evolutionary biology were somehow normative, providing an authoritative guide for how we should be rather than simply a collective diary of where we have been as a species.

The truth is we must decide for ourselves how we want to live and what kind of sexual and romantic relationships make us feel the most at home and loved. For me that necessitates a great deal of intimacy that nevertheless reserves some wiggle room for the occasional “field trip” or extracurricular activity (forgive me, I’m a teacher by trade).

Speaking for myself personally, I am happiest in a relationship that features that kind of freedom within mutually agreed upon considerations worked out by both partners. If my partner decides she is happiest being monogamous, that is up to her—so long as she is truly okay with me being non-monogamous myself. That is between the two of us to decide.

If I’ve learned anything from the mistakes I’ve made over the last few years, it’s that I need to work harder at encouraging my partner to openly communicate her needs to me, and that I can do a much better job of recognizing and communicating my own needs to her. This will likely be a lifelong endeavor for me. But I can’t ultimately be happy in love until I know I’m giving it my all.

Non-monogamy may not be for you. That’s for you to decide and no one else. But exclusive monogamy isn’t a good fit for me. You can judge me and my partner all you like (you won’t come up with anything worse than I’ve already heard) but from this point forward, you cannot say I haven’t been clear.

Love and monogamy are not inextricably joined for me, and I know I’m not alone in feeling this way. I hope you’ll keep working at figuring out what’s right for you.

[Related: “When Your Lover Is Non-Monogamous”]

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Neil Carter is a high school teacher, a father of four, and a skeptic living in the Bible Belt. A former church elder with a seminary education, Neil now writes mostly about the struggles of former evangelicals...