Is monogamy natural?

Image credit: Tookapic

Of the 5,000 species of mammals on earth, only three to five percent, according to livescience.com, actually form “lifelong, monogamous bonds”. Humans, at least those in certain parts of the world, are one of them – along with wolves, swans, and barn owls. Even then, the Independent reported in 2015 that research indicates almost 60 percent of men, and over 45 percent of women, will cheat on their spouses at some point or other, which might suggest that monogamy is not a natural state after all.

Huge emphasis is placed on monogamy, nevertheless, particularly in the form of marriage. Cheating is generally seen in society as reprobate behaviour, marriage as an important step in proving commitment – Beyonce herself calls for you to “put a ring on it”. Successful long-term relationships are often praised, set up as milestones in life that prove one’s ability to commit to just one other person. Polygamists in many societies are seen as anomalies, and although not always enforced, are banned by the law in countries like the United States.

However, polygamists are also the norm elsewhere in the world. According to Wikipedia, the Ethnographic Atlas found that of 1,231 societies, 588 saw frequent polygony, including Morocco, Nigeria and Sri Lanka. It thus cannot be even said that humans value monogamy, since this would be a gross generalisation of the species, and of international culture. Statistically, even with the joint forces of monogamous wolves and barn owls, those of us who do actively practice monogamy are a minority on this planet.

Is monogamy simply just not in our DNA then? The disparity in attitudes toward it across the globe would suggest that commitment to just one partner is more a social product than a component of our biological makeup. Research still disagrees on whether we feel impulses toward monogamy, but it is safe to say that this commitment, particularly in the form of marriage, is one entrenched in traditions and culture. For those living in parts of the world where it is the norm, monogamy can feel natural because we were raised on the knowledge that it is, and many date different people (which, some might argue, is proof that humans were not meant to stay with just one partner) with the expectation of eventually “settling down”.

Yet, divorces happen, and affairs happen. Open relationships, although still less common, also appear to make up four to five percent of the heterosexual community, according to the Independent. Couples in such open relationships “report greater relationship satisfaction than more traditional couples”, and might represent a balance between committing to one person while still satisfying polyamorous impulses. We might condemn cheating, but such disapproval stems from a mindset used to seeing monogamy as the norm, so it might be possible that if we had been raised thinking otherwise, cheating would simply be viewed in a completely different way.

But all these statistics do not prove that monogamy is pointless. It may, ultimately, only be a social construct, but the willingness to commit is nothing to be dismissive of either. It can be a form of validation, of proving emotion, and should, fundamentally, be an exercise of autonomy and free will. Biological makeup does not command all of our actions – what solid proof is there for the claim that monogamy is the absolute right, or the absolute wrong? Respect for freedom of choice is perhaps most key here; we need to respect societies that practice polygamy as convention as much as we respect societies that do not. Yes, an overwhelming majority of animals on earth may not practice monogamy, but it is the glimpses of affection and love that we see between them anyway that truly matters. Love is a global phenomenon, regardless of what form it takes, and human or elephant, barn owl or dog, the emotion is what it all revolves around of. 

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