Monogamy: Not our Nature, but an Advanced Spiritual Practice

monkey-princess

I’m a princess, but I’m also an ape.

As a little girl, I loved fairy tales. The idea of one day meeting my Price Charming and living happily ever after excited me more than anything. As I embarked on my adult life, I began dating and quickly realized that there is no such thing as magical glass slippers, a grandiose pumpkin-turned-chariot, or perfect Princess hair, and there was definitely no Prince Charming coming to carry me off into the sunset. It started to seem that meeting that special someone who would make my childhood dreams come true was about as likely as talking mice cleaning my apartment while I was out getting groceries.

Yet, I still clung to the idea of true love. The kind of love that stands the test of time. That exhilarating relationship that can be both passionate as well as secure, heart-fluttering as well as comfortable, and virtually effortless while still helping me grow as a person. I just haven’t met the right person yet. He wasn’t the right man. Just keep looking. These were my mantras. But one’s heart can only be smashed into a million pieces and stuck in a Vitamix at full speed so many times before a girl’s gotta blow the whistle and say, “OK. Hold on a minute. Let’s think about this. Maybe this whole system is fucked.” (I know, not very Princess-like of me, but I’ve still to find my fucking glass slippers, so, fuck it.)

Then I found a paperback at a used bookstore (how very Belle of me) called Sex at Dawn: How We Mate, Why We Stray, and What it Means for Modern Relationships.1 Sounds interesting, no? I’ve always wondered why marriages fall apart (my parents included), why it seems like every guy I’ve dated loses interest after a year or so, the sex dies off, and it starts to feel like I’m more like one of the evil stepsisters than the Princess. Esther Perel, relationship counselor and the best-selling author of Mating in Captivity: Unlocking Erotic Intelligence, would call “a passionate marriage” an oxymoron. We expect our partners to give us companionship, security, familiarity, closeness, and safety, and yet we desire mystery, novelty, uncertainty, surprise, and spontaneity. As she doubtfully laments in her recent TED talk, despite all these contradictions, toys and lingerie are going to save our marriages and long-term committed relationships.2

So how do we reconcile our two very different sets of needs? Perel conducted a study of people in over 20 countries, and asked them when they are most attracted to their partners. Across cultures, religions, and other differentiating factors, the common answer was: “When my partner is away. When he/she is on stage. When I see him/her in their element. When he is in his tuxedo/she gets dolled up.” In other words, we are attracted to our partners the most when they are unfamiliar. When they are, essentially, a stranger.

So why are we so turned on by novelty? Christopher Ryan, psychologist and co-author of Sex at Dawn, would argue that studying our ancestors would shine a light on our modern sexual desires and needs. Research suggests that our ancient kin lived in nomadic, egalitarian tribes, and members of the band had sex with as many others as they liked. It’s no coincidence that our closest animal relatives are the chimps and bonobos, both polygamous species . There was no boredom among these sexually promiscuous and mortgage-free beings. The offspring resulting from their untethered romps would be cared for by the whole tribe, which we know to still be a good idea – as the saying goes, “it takes a whole village to raise a child.” Sex wasn’t the only thing they shared; food, shelter, and other necessities of life were gladly and evenly distributed, which reduced or perhaps even completely eliminated the need for warfare or conflict. It’s hard to say, since fossil remains can’t tell us any utopian stories. However, there’s plenty of archeological and biological evidence for the peaceful nature of our ancestors, and if you want to find out more, I’ll lend you my copy of Sex at Dawn.

A few short millennia later, upon the advent of agriculture, we stopped living in small nomadic bands and living the hunter-gatherer life, and adopted private property as the highest good. Suddenly there was a sense of ownership, and having limited resources in a particular place that needed to be rationed and accounted for. We then needed larger families to work the land, and someone to inherit the farm. So monogamy seemed to be the solution: create a secure nuclear family unit that will allow for stability and survival, and assure that the man can continue to pass down his genes through the female, so that all his hard work of running the homestead pays off (in an evolutionary sense, the passing of DNA is the ultimate touchdown). However, this system pits neighbor against neighbor, strips females of their sexual rights, and creates an endless societal battle to be better than the next guy. This ideology is still going strong today, as we fight to live in the largest homes full of the most beautiful things, drive the fastest cars, wear the coolest clothes, and generally try to keep up with the Kardashians.

OK, so things aren’t looking good for monogamy. It seems that we created it as a myth, no more real than a fairy tale, to support our “evolution” as an agricultural/industrial society. I think it’s human nature to stick to your guns once you make a big decision. If you’ve ever done something drastic, it sucks once you’re past the point of no return to realize that, “oops, I made a mistake.” Most of us, I believe, would sooner continue on the path of ruin than admit to being wrong, and say, “let’s turn around.” So we continue to move “forward” with monogamy and industry, even though there are horrific consequences. Infidelity. Broken homes. Broken Hearts. Loneliness. Sexual frustration. Genital mutilation. The devaluing of the nutrition in our food. Global warming. Just like going to the local Shell station to fill up the tank using fossil fuels to run our vehicles, I grew up believing that monogamy is the only way, and something I should subscribe to and fight to attain, otherwise there is something wrong with me. At least if I decide to continue living in North America. There are plenty of societies alive and well today that use a similar polygamous and egalitarian approach as our ape ancestors. And despite the western world insisting that they adopt some form of marriage/pair bonding and start owning livestock and tilling the field, because this is “natural” and “right”, the societies continue to live their way, in peace and happiness. So is our way the only way? And if not, can we turn back, or at least loosen up our neckties and corsets a little?

Without perspective and education, it’s easy to think human society has always been and will continue to be in an exclusive relationship with monogamy. However, research shows that there’s more than one way to thrive as a species; monogamy isn’t good or bad, it’s a choice – one that may or may not go against our nature – but a choice nonetheless. In his TED talk, Ryan reasons, “to argue that our ancestors were sexual omnivores, is no more a criticism of monogamy than to argue that our ancestors were dietary omnivores is a criticism of vegetarianism. You can choose to be a vegetarian, but don’t think that just because you’ve made that decision, bacon stops smelling good.”3 In a similar argument, author, speaker, and self-acknowledged polygamist Michael McDonald states, “monogamy is normal, but not natural. It is the cultural norm, with centuries of assumptions and confirmation bias backing it up, and it may seem like sacrilege to say that it is unnatural, but then again it was once sacrilege to say that the earth revolved around the sun instead of the other way around.”4

So, it’s no wonder we are having such a hard time committing to our partners, since the economic necessity of the nuclear family has waned, religion has less of a hold on our private lives, and women no longer need to rely on a man to support her basic survival needs. So where does that leave monogamy? Was it just a brief aside in the history of the human animal, and should we begin to turn the car around and head back towards our nomadic, egalitarian, orgasmic, polyamorous roots? Or is there a third fork in the road, one that will lead us to become a deeper, more developed race?

In his article, McDonald also champions those who are brave enough to navigate the tricky and human-nature-challenging waters of monogamy. “If I had the power… I would be encouraging polyamory as the norm, and monogamy as the advanced, only meant for the most experienced. There should be books and workshops and university classes about how monogamy works, building upon the principles learned in polyamory… Monogamy should be reserved for the experts.”4 Indeed. I’ve heard from many of my advanced yoga gurus that the most intense form of yoga is relationship. People could spend their whole lives trying to master all the poses in the ashtanga series, and at the end of the day, they still have to work hard to get along with their spouse. We need to demystify the idea that monogamy is going to work effortlessly, and that we will be naturally as attracted to our partners 30 years into marriage as we were on our first date. Perel points out the myth of sexual spontaneity in long term relationships, or the unlikely notion that sexual desire will magically manifest while we are doing the dishes. “Committed sex,” Perel insists, “is premeditated sex. It’s willful, it’s intentional, it’s focus and presence.”2 I find this concept comforting. It helps normalize all those years after experiencing a break up or a partner’s plummeting libido, thinking I was somehow inept, broken, or “bad” at dating. In reality, both my partner and I were just devastatingly human. Thinking I could make my first puppy-love relationships work was like trying to do a perfect handstand in my very first yoga class. So now that I’ve got a little more experience under my belt, I know more of what I want, and I know that vegetarianism isn’t for everyone (I was a veggie for 8 years before the smell of bacon got me, too), I can move forward into the kind of relationship that is going to fulfill me completely.

In the end, it all comes down to self love (and I’m not talking about the kind performed using a vibrator). If we are using monogamy to “get” love, or rely on relationship to fill a void, it is destined to fail just as much as sleeping around is. If we want to get to the nitty gritty of what our nature is, I would argue that anything that causes anxious attachment, jealousy, self-depreciation, or limits our growth is unnatural. The endgame is to be happy, no matter our relationship status. We can learn to live with each other only after we’ve learned to live with ourselves. At the end of his talk, Ryan leaves us with this: “Our fight is not with each other, our fight is with an outdated Victorian sense of human sexuality that conflates desire with property rights, generates shame and confusion in place of understanding and empathy.”3 I would add that our prerogative is to stop chasing contentment (santosha), cease looking for it in monogamous (or other) relationships, and realize that it’s been there all along, inside each of us, for millions of years.

References:

1.) Sex at Dawn: How We Mate, Why We Stray, and What it Means for Modern Relationships by Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jethá

 2.) TED Talk: The Secret to Desire in Long Term Relationships by Esther Perel https://www.ted.com/talk /esther_perel_the_secret_to_desire_in_a_long_term_relationship

3.) TED Talk: Are We Designed to be Sexual Omnivores? by Christopher Ryan https://www.ted.com/talks/christopher_ryan_are_we_designed_to_be_sexual_omnivores#t-324705

4.) Article: A Polyamorist View of Monogamy http://together.guide/a-polyamorist-view-of-monogamy/