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Is monogamy past its use-by date?

Not exactly teeming with sexual opportunity.

Not exactly teeming with sexual opportunity.

Hey dude, the one walking three metres in front of your girlfriend - you do understand she's not a dog or a small child?

Maybe you've had an argument ... but ... no, now you've turned to show her a $247 t-shirt in a shop window and she's nodding distractedly before you charge off again, like a drum major leading a parade.

Coupledom has its challenges - the most widely nominated being sex, monogamy, children, money and "their" parents - so it seems just walking beside your partner should be a cinch.

Wherever I go, however, I see this scenario - men and women strutting ahead of their beloved, a perfect projection how out-of-step a partnership can become. 

Why? Maybe it's just momentary bad vibes or, perhaps it's a deeper contempt, dismissiveness, or frustration that "this is all there is".

After all, most couples meet at the 'right' age, have much sex, decide this is probably as good as they can get, move in together, marry, breed, get fat and become asexual because the only person they're allowed to fornicate with doesn't want to anymore.

How long's this been going on for? 500 years? 1500? 3000?

Much has changed in our modern world from the way we eat, consume information, earn money and spend our leisure time, yet ancient institutions like monogamy remain the same as back when we sacrificed goats to help granddad beat smallpox.

Many argue the human brain is not handling the pace of change of technology - that we suffer increased rates of depression, anxiety and loneliness, so the constancy of traditions like marriage are a rock we can all still build our lives upon.

What if, however, it wasn't the human brain struggling to cope with change, but our outmoded institutions - like marriage, monogamy, the 9 to 5 work week and, an education system older than this (white) country.

Consider: Before 1880, the majority of people had never seen moving pictures. If they'd witnessed a lion charging at them, it was because a lion was actually coming to eat them.

Then, along came film and people could experience a lion scaring the scat out of them without the accompanying danger.

That's a wild shift in perception, yet our brains handled it - just like they've dealt with travel at previously inconceivable speeds, flying, murdering each other in 3D surround-sound and maintaining social networks via a keyboard and phone.

Marriage, however, is an institution thousands of years old, designed largely to protect hereditary property (via monogamy), ensure "someone for everyone" in small, sparsely populated rural communities and to produce children to work the farm.

Today, less than one in a hundred Australians live on farms, the majority of us bumping around cities that provide every opportunity for anonymous sex with multiple partners.

I'd like to include the following extended quotation on the matter, only because I found it so fascinating, it's written by my favourite historians Will and Ariel Durant, and I reckon they learned a thing or two about human nature during the 50 years it took them to complete their 11 volume History of Civilisation.

History does not tell us just when men passed from hunting to agriculture-perhaps in the Neolithic Age, and through the discovery that grain could be sown to add to the spontaneous growth of wild wheat. We may reasonably assume that the new regime demanded new virtues, and changed some old virtues into vices.

Industriousness became more vital than bravery, regularity and thrift more profitable than violence, peace more victorious than war. Children were economic assets; birth control was made immoral. On the farm the family was the unit of production under the discipline of the father and the seasons, and paternal authority had a firm economic base. Each normal son matured soon in mind and self-support; at fifteen he understood the physical tasks of life as well as he would understand them at forty; all that he needed was land, a plow, and a willing arm.

So he married early, almost as soon as nature wished; he did not fret long under the restraints placed upon premarital relations by the new order of permanent settlements and homes. As for young women, chastity was indispensable, for its loss might bring unprotected motherhood. Monogamy was demanded by the approximate numerical equality of the sexes. For fifteen hundred years this agricultural moral code of continence, early marriage, divorceless monogamy, and multiple maternity maintained itself in Christian Europe and its white colonies.It was a stern code, which produced some of the strongest characters in history.

Gradually, then rapidly and ever more widely, the Industrial Revolution changed the economic form and moral superstructure of European and American life. Men, women, and children left home and family, authority and unity, to work as individuals, individually paid, in factories built to house not men but machines. Every decade the machines multiplied and became more complex; economic maturity (the capacity to support a family) came later; children no longer were economic assets; marriage was delayed; premarital continence became more difficult to maintain. The city offered every discouragement to marriage, but it provided every stimulus and facility for sex.

Women were "emancipated"-i.e., industrialized; and contraceptives enabled them to separate intercourse from pregnancy. The authority of father and mother lost its economic base through the growing individualism of industry. The rebellious youth was no longer constrained by the surveillance of the village; he could hide his sins in the protective anonymity of the city crowd. The progress of science raised the authority of the test tube over that of the crosier; the mechanization of economic production suggested mechanistic materialistic philosophies; education spread religious doubts; morality lost more and more of its supernatural supports. The old agricultural moral code began to die.*

The British historian James Burke speculates humanity has now entered a period of transition, where we're trying to solve life's challenges using "archaic and out-of-date instruments".

"We live with institutions set up in the past to solve the problems of the past, with the technologies and values of the past and we wonder why they don't work too well anymore?" he says.

So we blame promiscuity and divorce on 'bad' morals, rather than a once good idea gone bad ... or at least near obsolete.

* This quote is from The Lessons of History, by Will and Ariel Durant, published 1965.

 You can follow Sam on Twitter here. His email address is here.

Please don't take it personally if I do not reply to your email as they come in thick and fast depending on the topic. Please know, I appreciate you taking the time to write and comment and would offer mummy hugs to all.

120 comments

  • It depends on how you define monogamy. The boundaries of what is monogamy differ in different couples. Monogamy can be a loaded term depending on how the person asked to define it has it set in their mind.
    Monogamy could be staying true to your own set of standards and values, for others it cold be no emotional and sexual attachments outside of marriage. Most are probably somewhere in between.
    Unless the boundaries have been explicitly stated and/or negotiated they can be interpreted and understood differently in a relationship.
    Does it have a use by date? For some people it doesn't and for others it does. There is no point judging another person's choice and way of living because it is different to yours. I've seen and experienced and observe a variety of ways of being in committed relationships and they are all very different. I'm yet to find the one that works for me and a partner. Regardless of what it is it needs to be openly ad honestly discussed and agreed to by all people in the relationship on a regular basis just to make sure it is still valid.

    Commenter
    M
    Date and time
    July 03, 2013, 10:41PM
    • True - most people now define monogamy as "one partner at a time" rather than "only one partner in a life", which is technically incorrect but more relevant to modern society. Although, I think a lot of your examples should be based on the word "faithful" rather than "monogamous". You can be faithful in a non-monogamous relationship if everyone has agreed on the parametres.

      Commenter
      JEQP
      Date and time
      July 04, 2013, 12:36AM
    • @JEQP, this is the definition i found, maybe it's been adjusted over time, not sure.
      1. The practice or condition of having a single sexual partner during a period of time.
      2.a. The practice or condition of being married to only one person at a time.
      b. The practice of marrying only once in a lifetime.

      Commenter
      Victorious Painter
      Date and time
      July 04, 2013, 9:07AM
    • I think I agree with you. Basically I think it is up to each individual couple to work out "what works" for them.

      I do agree with the author that in many cases we are too quick to "accept" monogamy as the norm because culturally it has been so for a long time.

      This does not necessarily make it right, but nor does it make polyamory right either.

      Each couple needs to determine what they want from a relationship, and once goal compatibility is achieved, work towards that.

      Personally, I feel that when I settle down with someone I want it to just be -someone- not some people, however. If I were married to someone for a long time and we were both unhappy I dare say we would need to reassess this.

      I think the most important thing is being open and honest in your expectations up front, but then, once in a relationship, to continue to talk about what your feelings and desires are so that if things change the temptation to cheat isn't there.

      Commenter
      Adrian
      Location
      Sydney
      Date and time
      July 04, 2013, 9:44AM
  • I hope that monogamy is still going to be the usual way but some of the relationships are less in duration. Perhaps everyone is still looking for their own version of "The One."
    I can't say I agree with poligamy or polyamory. I think someone is getting the worst of it and it is rarely the man involved.
    It does not matter whether it is man /woman or same sex couples monogamy is the ideal.
    As for myself well I think I am a poor example and best to say no more. But I do envy long term couples and recognise they way they look at one another and speak to one another. It is both love and respect with a bit of fun thrown in.

    Commenter
    The Old Guy
    Location
    Marrickvile
    Date and time
    July 03, 2013, 10:54PM
    • I just went to Morocco, and our guide was a traditional nomad until six years ago when his family sold all their goats and moved to town.

      He told us that in traditional Amazigh (Berber) society if a man had a lot of property - goats and camels and tents and stuff - he needed a lot of wives to help look after it. Hence polygamy. My wife asked if he was planning on having more than one wife and he replied: "No, we don't need to do that anymore. In the town you have a fridge, a washing machine, a stove, the woman's work is easy. Why would you need more than one? More women, more problems."

      He seemed quite relieved by the possibilities for monogamy that modern living allowed.

      Commenter
      JEQP
      Date and time
      July 04, 2013, 12:41AM
    • I don't know if one person getting the rough end of the pineapple is exclusive to polyamoury or polygamy. I reckon there are plenty of people in what they believe to be monogamous relationships who are pretty hard done by. I think people in general are horrible and treat their dearly beloved appallingly and it is tolerated.
      There are some people who treat their dealy beloved with great love and respect and are respected in turn. That's not to say the relationship is always sunshine and puppydogs, more that the love and respect overrides the bad times that can happen. This is regardless of whether it is a poly relationship or a monogamous relationship. The love and respect must be there first and be maintained and nurtured. There is no one best way to have a great relationship for everyone.
      I haven't been in a relationship for so long I have no idea what my ideal would be except that I don't want it to be like any of the ones I have had before.

      Commenter
      M
      Date and time
      July 04, 2013, 9:22AM
  • there are some skinny parts to this offering. "He could hide his sins in the anonymity of the crowd!" Of course an accurate statement on some levels but I would ask to whom are we most accountable? If we remove God from the equation, there is still the unshakeable, irrefutable self! All too often we humans know a certain path is one that will lead to contentment and mental peace and stability, yet we choose one of the other paths? Why is that? A certain blended evolutionary penchant for self annihilation combined with instinctive defense of village/offspring/brother in arms etc. I would hypothesize monogamy has NEVER been a biological evolutionary ally to peaceful existence on some levels yet the "societal construct" most certainly has stood the test of time and has enabled our civilization this far (along with 100 other reasons). Human beings thrive with construct, with boundaries, even those of us that choose to break the boundaries or rules. Especially those of us that break them. For the key requirement for we humans to be able to break boundaries is for them to be constructed in the first place.
    P.S. I am a rusty on it but I believe there is reasonable study to show that human beings in our current evolutionary state have only two "rules" via evolution, and ALL the rest are construct. One is related to instinctive fear of height, essentially from birth (ie babies will instinctively withdraw from a cliff edge!?), and the other is taxes (that was a joke.... I forget the other one!).

    Commenter
    eyeswideopen
    Location
    earth
    Date and time
    July 03, 2013, 11:34PM
    • I agree! Like running; now that we have automobiles it's such an outdated institution. I see desperate 40 year-olds plodding alongside the road, feeling proud because they've moved 10 km only to end up in exactly the same place with nothing to show for it. Now, I spent my life sitting in front of the TV and computer, eating chips and ice cream and drinking soft drinks, knowing that anywhere I wanted to get I could simply drive to. A couple of years ago some friends (*shakes fist at society*) spent so long convincing me that being able to run was a good thing that I thought I'd give it a go. Man, it was not only painful but after a few hundred metres I collapsed, thinking I'd had a heart attack! RUNNING IS JUST NOT NATURAL, WE ARE NOT MEANT TO DO IT.

      ===

      Historically, monogamy has provided a lot of benefits, and most of those benefits are still applicable - only the economic ones have disappeared. If you know how to be a good partner, and you find someone else who knows how to be a good partner, and you want to partner each other, it's the best thing you can do for yourself in your life. Many relationships go bad, of course, usually because a person doesn't know how to be a good partner (because they've spent their life practicing non-commitment) or because they feel rushed so they pick someone who isn't a good partner. Bad marriages are terrible, but so are bad everythings....

      Commenter
      JEQP
      Date and time
      July 04, 2013, 12:33AM
      • May I ask what benefits there have been in monogamy? Traditionally it is the appearance of monogamy that was important and it was women who were shamed if their "indiscretions" were found out. This probably has to do with women being property and possessions of theor husbands until relatively recently.
        The purppse of women beong monogamous was to ensure the genetic lineage of children. These days that can matter. Some aspects of traditional monogamy not so much.

        Commenter
        M
        Date and time
        July 04, 2013, 8:11AM

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