Is There a Future in Monogamy?

monogomyThe classic model of marriage and partnership is changing. One reason is because internal and external pressures on marriage cause increasingly undeliverable expectations. Where once we were socially connected to communities and extended families over a lifetime, couples now expect their primary relationship to deliver all that comfort and connection.  

The possibility of ever new romantic and erotic punch promised by movies and magazines creates an inflated sense of the level of fulfillment we can expect from one relationship.

Further, there are exponentially expanding opportunities to step outside one’s partnership. Now men and women co-inhabit a workforce once primarily occupied by men. Online dating and hookup apps make it far less difficult to find someone new.

Some well-respected relationship researchers agree that monogamy is still the human relationship pattern of choice. But given the increased challenges inherent in modern marriage, more couples are choosing expanded versions of monogamy in which they see their partner as their primary relationship, but permit one or both members of the couple to have additional relationships. Those additional relationships may be only sexual, as in “swinging” or may include love and sex, as in “polyamory.” According to Newsweek, researchers studying polyamory estimate there are now more than half a million polyamorous families in the United States.

Partnered arrangements of consensual adultery such as open relationships and polyamory are sometimes referred to as ethical non-monogamy or responsible non-monogamy because the primary relationship is held as inviolable and honest and openness about outside partners is a requirement. Often, the rules surrounding conduct in these alternative relationships are as ironclad as those of traditional monogamy.

Just to be clear on the definitions, one description of the subtypes of ethical or responsible non-monogamy was given in a discussion forum this way:

Outside Love is… Outside Sex is…
Monogamy Prohibited Prohibited
Open Relationship Sometimes Allowed
Swinging Prohibited Allowed
Polyamory Allowed Allowed

So what’s wrong with good, old-fashioned monogamy?  For one thing, it has always been vulnerable to user failure. Just like dad’s stash of Playboy magazines in the garage, affairs are an uncomfortable fact of life. They happen, and they always have.

But affairs happen far less frequently than we’re sometimes led to believe. To paraphrase from John M. Grohol, writing in a blog in, over the course of your entire monogamous relationship, the chances of infidelity may be as much as 25 percent—not the 50 or 70 percent we hear from so many sources.

And generally, affairs aren’t simply a matter of opportunity. They happen, but they don’t just happen. Grohol notes that there has typically been

  • Significant, ongoing, unresolved problems in the primary, long-term relationship or marriage
  • A significant difference in sex drive between the two partners
  • (A longer duration of) the primary relationship


  • A greater difference in personality than perhaps the partners realize.

Thomas Bradbury, PhD writing in PBS’s This Emotional Life, writes that foremost among the risk factors in extramarital affairs are

…unhappiness in the marriage – no surprise here – as well as a number of factors likely to reflect or contribute to this unhappiness:  sexual dissatisfaction, suspicion that the partner has been unfaithful, a high level of negative emotionality, and low self-esteem. 

In short, even though affairs sometimes occur in otherwise happy and satisfied relationships, this is not the norm.

Devotees of monogamy were dismayed when, upon the hack of the Ashley Madison website, a site devoted to providing an organized avenue for adultery, it initially appeared that 17.5 percent of US married men and women were seeking affairs through Ashley Madison. However, one the hacked Ashley Madison data was further analyzed, the “5.5 million” female accounts boasted by Ashley Madison turned out to be a scant 12,000. The 31 million US male subscribers appeared to be real.

Do people actually still want monogamy?

According to a piece in CNN, Nadine Kaslow, a professor at Emory University School of Medicine who specializes in couples and families and who also is chief psychologist at Grady Health System in Atlanta, Georgia, asserts that “most people still prefer to be in a monogamous relationship,” adding, “People feel safer and they feel more trusting. They feel like they can depend on their partner. I think that we can make choices in a different way than [other] mammals and think through the consequences of things.”

The CNN article adds, “Those consequences can be huge, in many ways. Nature has provided powerful incentives to stay faithful that are still valid.”  “There are a lot of reasons why sexual monogamy is in people’s interests,” says psychiatrist Judith Eve Lipton in the CNN piece. “Because whether it’s raising children or avoiding emotional chaos…or whether it’s building an estate and avoiding conflict about estate planning, there are lots of reasons that two people who cooperate are better off than one person alone or one person who is a cheat.”

Some evolutionary psychologists maintain that natural selection favors monogamy because in a monogamous relationship, someone you love and trust has your back, emotionally and literally. Numerous modern studies indicate that human beings with close, dependable partners are more disease resistant and live longer, healthier lives.

If indeed people wish for monogamy, is it possible? Thomas Bradbury writes,

The short answer is:  yes, it is absolutely possible, and indeed it is the norm.  In a 2005 review article, clinical psychologist Elizabeth Allen and colleagues estimate that some 22 to 25% of all men and 11 to 15% of all women report engaging in extramarital sex.  They acknowledge that these are likely underestimates, given the stigma associated with infidelity and adultery.  These are high numbers, to be sure, but we are probably safe in assuming that a healthy majority of married men and women do not cheat on their partner.  

If monogamy is still the generally preferred arrangement, but the realities of modern life make it unrealistic, either modern life has to change or monogamy has to deliver the goods.

Author and therapist Esther Perel, in her books and videos, asserts that to thrive, we must give monogamy more vitality. Perel points out that the painful truth about long-lasting committed relationships is that the security and familiarity they offer, play by entirely different rules that those that drive passion, which are novelty, risk and the lure of the unknown. “And yet,” as she observes, “we continue to expect both from one mere mortal, our spouse.” Dan Savage, the internationally syndicated relationship and sex advice columnist, notes that “Monogamous commitments are really at war with something else we want from our relationships which is a passionate sex life.”

So how does a monogamous couple strengthen their bond in such a way that monogamy endures? We’ve all heard a million times that “marriage is hard work.” This is not just something therapists say to line their pockets, it’s true. Now, more than ever, a committed couple must tend their connection, emotional and sexual.

Take some time to review our other articles, many of which address specific actions couples can take to improve the quality of their connection.