One of the big arguments/excuses/rationalizations commonly given for affairs is that monogamy is not natural.
It’s an argument that’s been around for years, and I recently saw it in the headlines when Scarlett Johansson was discussing her own failed marriage.
I don’t think it’s natural to be a monogamous person. I might be skewered for that, but I think it’s work. It’s a lot of work. And the fact that it is such work for so many people—for everyone — the fact of that proves that it is not a natural thing. It’s something I have a lot of respect for and have participated in, but I think it definitely goes against some instinct to look beyond.
I actually agree with what she’s saying here.
Yes marriages are work. I’m not sure if being monogamous is “work”, but a marriage isn’t always easy or fun. When you’re married you have to balance what is good for the marriage with what is good for you; and sometimes there are differences between these two things.
This is one of the big things challenges all relationships face.
Additionally, people are sexual beings. Talking about sex and sexuality is somewhat taboo and often makes people uncomfortable; but it doesn’t change the fact that we are sexual beings.
Sexual desires are normal, and healthy even.
Monogamy is about committing to one person physically and emotionally, and committing to that person ONLY.
Committing to one person doesn’t mean you stop finding other people attractive though. And yes, you may even have sexual thoughts or desires about another person.
So there is definitely some basis to the argument that monogamy is “unnatural”.
To that I say, so what?
Sexual desire is a basic human instinct. It’s natural, and I can accept that it may be natural to (occasionally) have sexual thoughts about someone other than your partner.
But you know what else is natural?
- Wanting stuff you don’t have
- Getting defensive when people criticize you
- Believing “your way” is the best way
- Fearing what we don’t understand
There are lots of things that are “natural”. But it’s a HUGE mistake to think “natural” is the same as good or desirable. They aren’t the same thing.
When someone pisses me off, it may be natural to want to yell, scream, or punch them. That doesn’t mean I should.
So sure, due to sexual instincts monogamy may not be natural.
Here are some other “unnatural” things:
- Getting a job.
- Being honest (instead of telling people what we think will make us look good or we think people will want to hear).
- Accepting that our way isn’t always best, and different approaches can be just as good (or even better) than our own.
- Working to find solutions to problems that work for both people instead of focusing on what is best for ourselves.
- Not just doing something or taking something (stealing) simply because we “want to”.
- Trying to see things from the perspective of another person.
None of these things are “natural”, and none of these things are “easy” all the time. In fact, some of them are REALLY HARD. But they are still positive and healthy.
Unnatural things can be positive, and Just because something may seem “natural” doesn’t mean we need to act on it.
In fact, I would argue that MANY of our “natural” instincts are actually driven by greed and selfishness; which aren’t exactly positive characteristics.
Yes, we have basic/natural instincts and those instincts drive our behavior at times. But our instincts don’t control us, and they don’t define us. We don’t have to act on these instincts.
In fact, I believe our ability to demonstrate self-control and NOT act on our basic instincts all the time is one of the key characteristics that allow us to function in a social world.
Casual Sex vs. Intimate Sex
Thinking back to the idea of monogamy, I ask you – what is sex? What does it mean to you?
Is sex just a physical act driven by a hormonal response? Or is it something more?
I’m not sure if there is a “right” answer here, but I think “how” someone answers that question will have a direct relation to their views on monogamy.
Sex is a physical act, and feels good. It makes nerve endings in certain places go crazy (in a good way). It also causes the release of dopamine and other “feel good” hormones.
But is that all it is?
I don’t think so. When it comes to sex (and attraction), I think there are a few other things going on.
Even if you are in a monogamous relationship, when our partner compliments us, tells us we “look good”, that they find us attractive or that they desire is, it feels good.
Whether it’s your partner saying it or someone else, it feels good to know others find you attractive (anyone who says otherwise is lying).
Someone noticing you, wanting you, and desiring you makes you feel good about yourself. Well, unless they do it in a creepy leering way – then it probably just makes you feel self-conscious and perhaps a bit concerned for your safety.
Other than that?
Being desired makes you feel better about you (at least for a little while).
This is because sex and attraction are tied to ego; to our feelings about ourself, and our own self worth.
Sometimes (especially in long term relationships), our partners do a pretty shitty job of “wooing” us, and reminding us that they find us attractive and desire us. Or maybe they still do and they still try, but because we already “have them”, it doesn’t impact us much anymore. After all, wanting something we “don’t” have is another of our natural instincts (this is why I think understanding hedonic adaptation is key to happiness in life).
This is just a reality of long term relationships. So we ALL need to remember that letting our partners know that we still desire them is important. And listening and being willing to believe our partners when they tell us they still find us attractive and desire us is important too.
But is sex just about desire and feeling good about ourselves? Are our egos so fragile that we actually “need” others to wants us?
Sadly, I think the answer is often yes. And if so, what does that say about us?
Let’s say I go for a walk, and while out on the street I run into Scarlett Johansson. And let’s assume she sees me, we get talking, and yeah, she finds me attractive and desirable (because she would of course). She’s already established with her quote at the start of this post that she doesn’t think monogamy is natural, so let’s say she and I decide to have sex (hey, this is my story so I can have it play out however I want!).
I’m sure the sex would be enjoyable. But beyond having a chance to be naked with Scarlett Johansson what have I really accomplished here?
Will I actually feel better about myself? If so, why?
Is my life any better because I’ve now had sex with her? I guess I could put it on my resume or something; but in reality, it wouldn’t change my life much. And actually, even if it’s on my resume it likely wouldn’t help me land many jobs.
If sex is purely a physical act that feels good, then we can do it with anyone we find attractive. When that happens, it’s all about ego. It’s all about external validation. Sex becomes a form of power, where having sexual power over someone or being wanted sexually is required in order to feel good about oneself.
So yes, sexual desire is natural. And there are lots of people out there who I would find sexually attractive and/or appealing for some reason. But does that mean I should want/need to have sex with them?
If so, why?
To feel good about myself? To validate my ego?
Sex as a physical act may feel good, but I think sex can (and should) be more than that.
A few years ago I wrote the following:
Sex is a form of communication. It’s a physical manifestation of the love, caring and compassion that you share for one another. If there are any underlying issues in your relationship, there’s a pretty good chance that there’s a bit of a breakdown in caring and compassion. When this happens the openness required for meaningful sex is likely missing (or at least somewhat hampered). You may or may not still be having sex, but without the emotional connection sex becomes purely the physical act.
Sex is different from intimacy.
Intimacy is about connection. It’s emotional, physical, and even spiritual. Sex is a form of intimacy, but it’s not intimacy. Intimacy is the little things – the touches, the smiles, and the shared looks. Intimacy is feeling loved, feeling valued, and giving that in return. Intimacy is opening up to each other, sharing hopes and dreams, and allowing yourself to be vulnerable with another person. Intimacy is about openness.
Sex in the context of intimacy is the deepest form of sharing a couple can have. You are literally giving yourself to your partner, and symbolically the two of you have joined as one. It needs to be as much about what you give as it is about what you receive.
I think intimate sex can only exist in a committed/monogamous relationship. Casual sex may feel good, and may be passionate at a physical level. And for some, they confuse this with “intimacy”.
Intimate sex is deeper though; and can only happen when you let down your walls and truly let the other person in.
There are many things that aren’t “natural” for people, but these things can still be admirable characteristics and qualities to have. We just need to work on them, and accept that we always have choice. We aren’t slaves to our natural instincts.
Monogamy may not be natural, but that doesn’t make it a bad thing.
Part of what makes us human, and makes us more than just animals is our ability to learn empathy; and to actually care about something larger than just us.
I’m not saying casual sex is necessarily a bad thing. If that’s all you are looking for in a relationship for whatever reason (time, energy, fear of intimacy, enjoyment of being able to live life attachment free), that fine. In that case it’s important you are upfront with the person you are with, and you find someone who has a similar approach to life. As long as that approach works for both people, great.
But when someone wants “the life” – the safety and security that comes with a committed relationship, yet also wants to do what they want sexually; don’t use the excuse that monogamy isn’t natural.
It may not be, but a lot of what makes us human isn’t natural.
It’s a choice.
15 thoughts on “Is Monogamy Natural?”
So good to see you posting again, Drew!!!
Random comments around the fringes of my agreement with what you wrote.
Sex to me at this age (58) is so powerful and I am so aware of how all the chemical and other bonding drivers work that if I were to wind up single again I’d be extraordinarily cautious about getting sexually close to someone until I/we had really taken time to see if the rest of our lives and expectations and values were in sync. Sex is so powerful that I think it could easily just blow through, blow down, any cautious instincts that needed to be examined.
At the same time, sex is so critical to my ability to bond with someone that I would never just assume that it would work. At a minimum, I’d want to make really sure that someone at least understood that to me it’s the equivalent of oxygen in a marriage and, ideally, shared an equal commitment to keeping it vital.
Wanting/needing. Someone (one of the therapists I’m working with) said a while back: “What we *want* is to be wanted, to be desired; what we often *settle for* is being needed.” There’s a whole blog post or two in that, but the short version is that I think that’s a great insight.
As far as the idea that something that requires some effort is therefore “unnatural” and can be dispensed with – bah. I am squinting my eyes and shaking my head trying to figure out whether any adult could actually hold that thought seriously. *sigh*
I hope you are strong and keeping your perspective, as you always seem to be. Thanks again and even if it’s only via cyber, keep our warm support in mind.
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Hey Jack, good to hear from you. I guess I haven’t posted as frequently lately, but I don’t think I’ve ever gone more than a month without a post. Maybe you’ve missed some?
In any case, as I said at the top of the post – I believe humans are sexual beings. A desire for sex IS natural, and nothing to be ashamed of. And I think a healthy sex life is an important thing, that should only enhance a relationship. Like you, I feel sex is crucial to an ability to bond with someone. I beleive when the physical connection fades, the emotional one will soon follow. But when it comes to love languages I’m a touch and quality time person, so this may not be the same for everyone.
At the very least, if you have a couple who have dramatic gaps in sex drive, unless they have great communication and an ability to work through that issue, you’ve got a recipe for disaster.
I’ve written on sex and it’s importance to a relationship in the past, but todays focus for me was more on this notion that people “need” to have sex with more than one person.
I think that’s a broken notion.
It blows me away – I’ve talked to a number of men and women who have said that as they got older they NEEDED to feel desired sexually by someone other than thier partner. To let them know they still “had it”, or to feel good about themselves.
And I really don’t get it.
To me, that points to some misguided notions of what sex is, and probably also to some insecurities.
I do think that couples over the long term often do a bad job of making each other feel attractive/desirable. And that’s a very destructive thing for relationships. But communication is the key – not looking elsewhere or thinking you can “make your life better” by finding your sexual side again with someone else.
Agree so much. Sex should be – this is my opinion – part of a connected “conversation” that grows out of a connected way of life. Lots of partners (especially if you think you’re “entitled” to that) is really – my opinion – a cop-out. It’s thinking that a lot of shallow experiences can equal one deep experience, and I don’t think that that’s true at all in this case. Is viewing 100 random Instagram posts equivalent to viewing one great Ansel Adams photo? Do 100 Happy Meals satisfy the way that one really well-prepared dinner does? Maybe evolutionary biology explains why we want to mate with many partners, but really, haven’t we evolved a bit from that? 🙂
For what it’s worth I think maybe that sexual desire differences might have a lot less to do with libido differences than relationship health and dynamics. I read an interesting (and horrifying) book last week: “He’s Just Not Up For It Anymore: Why Men Stop Having Sex and What You Can Do About It.” At least according to their data, the leading cause is probably bilateral anger in the marriage, which seems intuitively very believable. The book is worth at least a skim. The book is mostly descriptive, not really a self-help book. But the authors do have a general suggestion for a fix that is consistent with their data, and it’s not rocket science:
People should *talk* honestly with their partners, and even more important, they should *listen* openly when their partners talk to them.
Sounds so easy! – but in real life it doesn’t work out that way oftentimes.
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Yeah, I agree with everything you said there.
Sexual problems *can* be biological. Stress, and things like anxiety and depression kill sex drive – that’s a proven fact (interestingly they also make people more prone to things like affairs because they are used as “escapes” from dealing with anhedonia and the stresses of day to day life, but that’s a different issue).
As for sex drive with your current/monogamous partner dying, it makes all the sense in the world that it’s related to latent anger and underlying relationship issues.
Communication is really f*cking hard, and many of us grow up conflict avoidant (a major theme in my writing). When you’re holding in repressed anger towards your partner, are you REALLY going to want to have sex with them? Ummm, no. Sex is a form of sharing and communication, so why would you want to do that with someone who you may be married to, but at some level you don’t even like?
As my views on relationships have evolved, I think more than anything ALL issues and frustrations need to be out in the open. I want complete transparency in any relationship I have. If someone wants to hold in anger, that’s not a relationship I want.
I want a relationship with joy, caring, and connection. And that can’t happen if people can’t be fully open and vulnerable with each other.
As you say though, *knowing* that we should talk and listen openly is one thing. Actually doing it is another. Especially when it’s completely natural to withdraw and become defensive when we feel criticised. That “natural” behaviour is SOOO destructive to healthy relationships.
Hey Jack, I just re-read an old post from 2015. I can’t remember if you were reading then (I know you’ve been commenting for quite a while), but if you haven’t then give it a read. I think it touches on some points relevant to what we talked about here:
Drew, thanks – I think I read that, but a while back. I have been wrestling with the noun “expectations” and its meanings recently.
I don’t know how clear or concise I can be but here’s a try at my recent journey there.
I have been trying to get a grip on the idea that I am really responsible for my own happiness, and that a lot of my unhappiness comes from the gap between what I expect to be and what is.
I have found that hard to really grasp in any meaningful way, but I read an article last week that I think shed a different light on the concept. The person who was being interviewed talked about how our unhappiness comes from the meanings we assign to things. Example: I propose Chinese food to my wife and she says no. Probably no big deal, even if I’m a little disappointed because I don’t invest the situation with any personal meaning. Another example: I propose sex to my wife and she ways no. That can be very problematic because I probably associate that response with all kinds of personal meaning (“she doesn’t love me” or “she thinks I’ve gotten flabby” or “see, I was right about her and that new co-worker at her office” or whatever).
I’m still working on this, but I think maybe expectations might be hard to change – maybe they’re more like feelings? In contrast, maybe the meanings we give or associate with things may be easier to change, being perhaps more like how you act on your feelings? As an and/or on that thought, I think I can more easily say and believe “my wife did X and X means Y to me, but now that I think about it I realize that X -didn’t- mean Y to her so I can ignore my own internal instinct” – which sounds a little like just growing up a bit?
Entitled, omigosh there’s a problem concept. I think it’s closely aligned with “fair.” It took me quite a long time to really believe that I am not so much interested in “fair” or getting “what I deserve.” I am much more interested in mercy and compassion. Getting what I deserve is potentially pretty frightening, when I look at things honestly!!! =8^0
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The gap between what you expect and what is.
Pretty sure I wrote on that a while back, referring to it as an identity gap. The idea that we look at our life and realize we aren’t who we thought we were or where we wanted to be.
For me, happiness really does come back to my beliefs about “enough” (btw, I’m curious – if you haven’t seen a post from me in a while did you see the “What is Enough?” post? Or “Your Life is not Your Own”? Both were posted this month).
Personally, I’m at peace. I’m content with most things in my life. And to me, content and happy are largely the same thing. “Happy” may denote a stronger emotion than content, and that’s actually why I think there’s actually a good chance that people who are chronically unhappy are dealing with underlying depression issues, and specificially with anhedonia. When people have anhedonia they often have a dead emotional state, and they can only really feel the more extreme emotions. Anger. Lust. The mistake happiness for more extreme states of joy – and believe if you aren’t always laughing and having a great time then you aren’t happy. But I don’t think that’s what happy is. To me, it’s contentment.
I guess I’m totally off topic here.
Back to expectations, the meanings we associate with things may be easier to change. But I think that patterns of behavior influence those meanings. If I propose Chinese to someone and they say no, the “why” matters. Do they not like it? Did they just have for lunch, so they don’t want it today? Do they suggest something else?
Back to the wife saying no to sex, the same thing applies. I know this is/was a touchy topic for you as youre marriage was touchless for a long time (but has I believe improved?). Sex is a tough one, because in a monogamous relationship you’ve only got one person as your outlet. and if they aren’t game, there’s not a lot you can do. I firmly believe that someone saying “no” all the time and thinking that’s alright is JUST AS WRONG as someone thinking they should be able to have it whenever they want.
In relationships there are two people. Both people need to feel valued, and both people need to feel heard. One person may influence things more than the other at time, but one person should never dictate how things that affect both people work. If so, that’s not a relationship to me.
Communication matters, a lot. It’s damned hard, but it’s probably the most important skill a couple can learn together.
Good post. I agree very much with your stance on natural and unnatural.
Btw, I haven’t seen a post from you in a while either.
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Hmmm, you haven’t seen a post from me lately either? I had one two weeks ago called What is Enough?, and another one a week or so prior to that. Did you see that?
Anyhow, thanks for commenting!
I don’t remember seeing a post from you recently.
You’re welcome. 🙂
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Hey Drew! I’m really liking this post!
Apart from assessing what is natural vs. unnatural from the tiny blip of our own experience and our own culture, I have often heard comparisons between human behavior and behavior in the rest of the animal kingdom. I’ve heard comments about humans being one of the rare species that mate for life, etc..
Apart from having the ability to think ahead, judge situations and make choices (using our pre-established cortex), recent (like the last 20 years) findings have found strong, strong support for an even more powerful and legitimate reason monogamy exists, and isn’t unnatural at all…
Our brains actually developed within he context of those close social ties..
The right part of the PFC area is an extremely active part of our brain from early on-site much earlier than our left side that helps us have working memory
The right side of the PFC area (that is where it is located, but I may not be naming that correctly) is what allows us to have emotional attachments- it’s the implicit memory that helps us develop our intuition, etc.
The fact that our brains developed this way BECAUSE of social attachments (consistent relationships, including mate/partner relationships) tells me that yes- being able to develop secure emotional attachments- and relationships is a part of developing a secure and functional human being.
Dan Seigel has done alot of research on what is being called interpersonal neurobiology- and it’s frickin fabulous!
I totally recommend it! 🙂
Great post! Thanks for stirring my thoughts!
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I speak to so many men that have a life outside of their marriage’s. They love their wives, but need something they can’t give. I dont think its natural at all to be monogamous. Its society pressure that forces it. Marriage is a legal arrangement really. I feel that people only meet each others needs for an amount of time. People change and need new challenges,
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I realize that many men (and women) have affair, and the reasons are complex and nuanced.
I also agree that people change and need new challenges.
But I will never agree that the “only” way to do that is to do it with someone else.
I have no issues with someone waking up one day and saying “hmm, this marriage isn’t working for me anymore – I want something/someone else”. It happens, a lot. I do however have a significant issue with people wanting to be able to pick and choose the parts of the marriage that “work for them” (usually the safety and security of home and family, and the financial benefits that often come with that), while also figuring they can just do what they want for the parts of a marriage that aren’t working for them.
My take, work to make things better or get out.
I think a monogamous relationship CAN be beautiful, and passionate, and both emotionally and sexually fulfilling. It just takes effort and prioritizing the couple on the part of both people.
Often people don’t want that though. They just want what’s easy. And when the passion in a marriage dries up, it’s a lot easier to find it somewhere else/with someone else then it is to figure out what’s gone wrong and work on improving things.
I guess I’m old school in my beliefs here, and the rates of affairs may mean I’m wrong.
I think a larger problem is that so many people are driven by ego, and what feels good for them in the moment. And to me that’s not what a relationship is supposed to be about.
Still, I think I get why it happens. I just don’t ever think it’s a good choice.
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Monogamy can work you’re right. It’s just there are so many options out of it now. It’s easier for it not to.
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Funny you mention the idea of “so many options”. You’re right – there are a ton of options out there. And when things aren’t going well in a relationship, it’s definitely IS a lot easier to look around and think “hmmm, I can probably be happier elsewhere”.
But that in and of itself is a huge problem. Because it doesn’t matter what you have, there will ALWAYS be more elsewhere. There will ALWAYS be someone who is younger, hotter, likes sex more, makes more money, whatever. And the early days of a relationship are always “easier” and “more fun” then an established relationship.
The question I have is, accepting there is always more out there, what is “enough” for a person. And to me, knowing that and answering that for myself allows me to be very content/happy in whatever situation I’m in.
Sure, there may be “better” somewhere. But who cares? I would rather find something worth holding onto and work to make it the best I can.
I recently read a book called “The Paradox of Choice”, and it talks about this idea that having many options is actually a bad thing, because it makes people less satisfied with the options the DO have, or the choices they have already made. When there are so many options it’s easy to focus on the negative parts of the choices you’ve already made instead of seeing them for the good.
I believe love is a choice. I believe passion is something both parties need to nurture. And I’m also stubborn as hell at times in my belief that anything can be better, if people would just put in effort.
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