In recent years, there has been a surge in popular discussion around open relationships, polyamory and other relationship permutations that challenge traditional monogamy. However, most people still desire close connection and long-term relationships, and many still hope to marry. But when monogamy is discussed in pop culture, it is common to hear reports of the struggle to find someone compatible in the digital age, and for those who do find their way into romantic commitment – discussions of infidelity, rampant dissatisfaction and marriages resulting in divorce can regularly be heard.
All of this has left many people wondering: what is the future of romantic relationships? Why is it so hard to find and maintain a committed relationship? Can traditional monogamous relationships still last, or will we find ourselves abandoning monogamy in search of alternative arrangements?
In this post, I explore whether monogamy can survive. First, I provide a brief overview that covers some of the ways culture has influenced human behavior in romantic relationships. Ultimately, I suggest that whether one pursues monogamy, non-monogamy or some other approach to romantic relationships, that the unique conditions of culture today present challenges that may make a long-term relationship of any sort challenging.
HOW DID WE BECOME MONOGAMOUS?
If you’ve read any self-help books or articles on relationships (basically, if you have an internet connection), you’ve probably heard that scientists and researchers say monogamy is not natural for humans. Among the most popular of such writings is a book by Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jethá called Sex at Dawn (2010). The authors say that open sexual relationships were practiced in hunter-gatherer societies because it strengthened group cohesion.
Monogamy is believed to have emerged around 9000 BC due to a new mode of food production and exchange – agriculture. Farming favored strength, which means that production favored men. Farming made it difficult for women to work if they were pregnant, so the former egalitarian roles in hunter-gatherer groups faded, and history would never be the same. Property ownership and settlement became important, so a competitive class system developed that we still have today.
What was formerly group cohesion now became individual competition. If sons of men were going to inherit their father’s success, men needed to be sure that the children were their own. In this way, cultural conditions favored monogamous pair-bonding over shared sexual relationships.
TWENTIETH CENTURY, INCREASING DIVORCE AND SEXUAL EXPERIMENTATION
Monogamous relationships, and especially marriage, remained important so long as there continued to exist an economic structure where women were dependent on men. This began to change in the 1960s as the feminist movement promoted equal rights among women and men, particularly as it pertains to the workplace. Women became less dependent on men, interactions between men and women in the workplace led to increased sexual opportunities, and divorce rates began skyrocketing at rates higher than they did in the mid-1900s.
With the advent of the birth control pill and the sexual revolution of the 1970s, women could now have sex for more recreational purposes with the decreased risk of pregnancy. Experimentation with sexual relationships outside of the traditional exclusive relationship encouraged alternative approaches to relationships, such as polyamory and the swinging lifestyle. The public face of these alternative sexual practices seemed to diminish in the 1980s. Some believe these alternative relationships faded from popular discussion because non-traditional relationships were not successful, and that the AIDS epidemic scared many people away from sexual experimentation. Marriage was still in question, but people generally still sought long-term commitments that led to marriage and family.
TWENTY-FIRST CENTURY, TECHNOLOGY AND INSTANT GRATIFICATION
In the twenty-first century, the mass marketing of sexuality and power (often commercially paired together) combined with advances in technology encouraged more instant gratification, mobility and anonymity. In order to grab our short attention spans and ultimately boost profits, many television shows began to condone, normalize and even encourage affairs. Marketers have long known that sex sells and that sexual taboo sells the most, and culture happened to be at a point in time where exploiting these issues – though controversial – were not so far off from what was already happening that it could be advertised without total public outrage. Popular music lyrics began to glamorize infidelity. Websites such as Ashley Madison have since started popping up, encouraging wives to cheat on their husbands. Pornography is more accessible via the internet. Smartphone apps provide and promote anonymous sexual activity with a single swipe and no trace of discovery.
Reports of statistics on romantic relationships now suggest that more than half of long-term committed relationships will experience infidelity and that roughly 70 percent of men and women would have an affair if they knew they would never get caught! Recently, comedian Aziz Ansari published Modern Romance (2015) – a book which details his sociological research experiments. Some of Ansari’s work suggests that issues such as infidelity and the inability to commit to someone for longer is influenced by the instant access we now have to anyone anywhere at any time and the privacy that technology provides.
How we use smartphones is undeniably influencing the direction of human relationships, and I wrote about this recently. Even though we have more opportunity than ever before, ironically we may not necessarily be any happier. We may actually be more depressed.
MORE CHOICE IS NOT NECESSARILY BETTER
The research on having endless choice in a culture of instant gratification suggests that people aren’t necessarily any happier. Barry Schwartz, author of The Paradox of Choice (2004), says that when we have too many options to choose from that we actually feel less satisfied than we would if we had fewer options to choose from.
Having some options can increase happiness, but when we have too many options, it becomes impossible to evaluate every option there is to choose from. There are simply too many! What happens then is that people either don’t choose at all and feel frustrated, or when they finally do choose, they soon question if their choice was the best option out there and still feel frustrated. There are so many other options they didn’t have time to consider. Hence, the paradox of choice. This makes a lot of sense.
Consider for a moment then what happens to relationships when technology provides us access to all of these people we didn’t have access to before, when we are consumed by instant gratification and can’t tolerate anxiety or loneliness, when it becomes easier to wonder whether someone ‘better’ is out there, and when privacy around the whole thing is virtually guaranteed.
For many, compatibility may be quicker to question when things get tough. People may simply feel they don’t need to give things a chance like they used to since something else may be just around the corner. This may leave many people vulnerable to reaching toward others outside of their relationship, especially for those who find it difficult to tolerate times of uncertainty in a relationship. The vast and anonymous access to potential backup partners may then make cheating more likely. Neil Strauss, author of The Truth: An Uncomfortable Book About Relationships (2015), is so convinced that boundary crossings occur regularly in relationships that he warns if you ever want your relationship to end, you only need to say to your partner: “let me see your phone.”
BUT PEOPLE STILL WANT ‘THE ONE’
Despite all of the challenges which appear to threaten stable marriages and long-term relationships, most people still want long-term relationships and find the idea of being with one person appealing. Helen Fisher, a renowned author and anthropologist at Rutgers University, suggests that even though there are parts of our brain that do seek novelty and sexual gratification, our brains have also evolved to the point of being hard-wired to desire a deep attachment with one person. She believes this leads to a natural conflict where we commit to one person and love them, but we still experience desire for other people. It is hard to imagine a time during the culture of monogamy where this hasn’t been experienced in a relationship. Perhaps people have not always acted on these feelings so readily though at the rates in which we see today because of the social consequences.
Long-term relationships have the ability to heal childhood wounds (and reopen them as well). People discover new parts of their personality previously unknown to them – artistic creativity, a different take on humor, and some relationships have been known to inspire people to find faith in religion. Studies on marriage even suggest that couples live longer and healthier lives than singles. It is no surprise then that people generally like the idea of being with one person whom with they can share their dreams, passions, imperfections and memories…no matter how difficult that may seem.
WHAT IS THE FUTURE OF ROMANTIC RELATIONSHIPS?
Twenty-first century culture may present some unique challenges to dating, long-term relationships and marriage that make for uncertain times, but monogamy as a relationship model can and likely will survive. However, the challenges unique to this particular point in history may make long-term romantic relationships of any kind trickier to sustain – namely, the challenges we face around instant gratification and using technology to counteract difficult emotions and experiences.
People may also be less willing to commit today than in previous generations unless sociocultural conditions influence their values or behavior, such as social class or cultural background. Some people are choosing to experiment with alternative approaches to relationships in order to obviate the chance of future infidelity. However, there are often unexpected challenges that accompany open or polyamorous relationships that many people are not prepared for.
Relationships that open up the boundaries to include more than two people may involve a greater need for communication, honesty, and management of boundaries. Who can do what with whom and when? How will a couple deal with feelings of exclusion, jealousy, emotional loyalty and scheduling? Many of these same issues also come up in monogamous relationships.
Some people may be attracted to alternative relationships because they expect to bypass the difficult parts of a monogamous relationship, only to find that the challenges are even greater now. For example, someone who struggles to remain faithful in monogamous relationships may also struggle in a non-monogamous relationship to be faithful to the boundaries they agreed to with their partner regarding what is and is not okay. Perhaps it is not so much the model of the relationship that matters as much as it does the character and life skills of those who choose to embark on an intimate journey together.
Relationships are like investing in an account called ‘intimacy’. You offer qualities such as kindness, care, sacrifice, honesty, transparency and integrity as an investment in a relationship. In return, you receive qualities such as emotional support, adoration, sexual play and intimacy. But when we approach relationships to simply take rather than invest, intimacy is bankrupt and a relationship cannot survive. This applies to any romantic relationship model, monogamous or not.
We live in a culture that increasingly profits from and directs us toward instant gratification and stimulation, even at the expense of our relationship to others. There is no data to suggest that we are any happier for it. People are still longing for connections that last, but many are confused and unsure whether or not such connections are realistic to pursue.
Maybe it is not monogamy itself that is in trouble, but rather, it is our life skills that make forming and sustaining intimate romantic relationships possible that are in trouble.
Long-term romantic relationships of any variety do not seem designed to withstand the lifestyles and tendencies of contemporary culture.