On Monogamy and Marriage

The union of a man and a woman as husband and wife – otherwise known as marriage, matrimony, and getting hitched (amongst other names) – is a very popular type of relationship that many American adults look forward to. When a man loves a woman, and she loves him back, doing “the right thing” often involves getting married. She “makes an honest man” of him, and he “makes an honest woman” of her. They promise each other everlasting love. To many folks, marriage just “feels right”. A lot of people think that matrimony “is natural”. But just how many people really think about marriage, the reasons for its existence, and its profound implications?

As was discussed in a new book examining the prehistoric origins of human sexuality entitled Sex at Dawn[1], author Dr. Ryan posits that monogamy is arguably not a natural part of the human animal. There are those who would tear down the institution of marriage using just that argument. They point at the many failed marriages and the high divorce rate, the animal nature of man, and rampant infidelity in the face of severe consequences, otherwise making a mockery of such an arrangement by exemplifying its futility.The book claims that fewer and fewer people are getting married. If so, it certainly makes sense. In modern day America, men and women are having more and more freedom of choice in the configuration of their relationships. Friends with benefits, swinging spouses, open marriages, cohabitation: these types of unconventional relationships are gaining traction and, although we are far from the day where they are openly accepted or even encouraged, the trajectory of our society certainly seems to be pointing in that direction. As much as said state of affairs is off in the seemingly distant future, the lamentable death of the monogamous marriage as the status quo appears to be inevitable as more and more of the younger generations challenge the traditions of marital union, a slow death that I will grieve over greatly.

After some deep thinking, I came to form some insights on the nature of man as it relates to marriage. Even before reading Sex at Dawn, I had noticed that while conventional evolutionary theory contains notions that humans are wired for pair bonding (i.e. monogamous lifelong marriage), there was evidence that sexual infidelity (used in the modern sense of the word) is evolutionarily productive in the sense that genetic diversity is good for the human race. That is to say that being sexually promiscuous is a good tactic for women trying to pass on to the next generation the best genes available.

Being unable to reconcile the two differences within the same paradigm, I came to believe that monogamy was in fact a social construct, and that pair bonding may not necessarily be embedded into our prehistoric evolutionary programming. That is to say that the institution of marriage is strictly a creation of man and could not inherently be explained as natural in the evolutionary narrative of our ancient ancestors. This establishes that monogamy is a limitation set by society. The institution of marriage is a man-made construct that defines a particular type of relationship, prescribing and proscribing a certain set of behaviors. It is not inherently explainable by the evolutionary narrative of our prehistoric ancestors. Sex at Dawn certainly can attest to this. So if marriage and monogamy is not natural to our biology, then what purpose does such a configuration serve?

It is beyond the scope of this piece to discuss the true purpose and nature of marriage. However, one viewpoint comes to mind. Many feminists argue that marriage was essentially a system of legalized prostitution, one in which the female offers exclusive sexual opportunity to a male for access to his material (and sometimes social) resources. In other words, it’s an arrangement where women have sex for money, albeit with one man.

A very cursory look at history seems to support this view. However, I find such a belief to be not only incredibly pessimistic and naive, but quite unrealistic. Perhaps that was the reality of women before the industrial age, but in the modern day, I imagine that marriages are more or less based on the ideal of monogamous romance. Nowadays, women can choose to marry for love rather than money.

Let us consider the impact of such a choice. Assuming the two partners (no longer is it even constrained to a man and a woman) considering marriage are of sound mind and body, love is presumably at the very least a large part of the motivation for two people to get together and make vows to spend the rest of their lives together. This makes romantic love the basis of such an arrangement. As such, marriage is ideally the most serious declaration of love between two people. It is the promise to spend the rest of their lives together, ever faithful to each other even through the worst of times. In an ideal marriage, a husband and wife become everything to each other. They become best friends, lovers, confidants. They promise to take care of each other and to be faithful, to be there for each other through thick and thin, through both health and sickness.

Such a promise is not made from the loins but from the heart. Therefore it is inherently a romantic’s ideal. It is so serious a union that in Western cultures, matrimony is overseen by God Himself. In fact, marriage holds the promise of such blissful heights of existence that some religions consider it to be a gift from God. This ideal is something that people aspire to for its almost mythical status. Is it not an aspiration to perfection in trying to become the sole man or woman your partner will ever need? It is an immensely idealistic role. It is a remarkable, life changing experience, rife with rewards. But it is also extremely difficult to fill that role.

Marriages are difficult because they are essentially an aspiration to perfection. A man must become the husband who satisfies his wife in every way imaginable: emotionally, spiritually, and sexually. And a woman must do the same for her husband. On top of that, one must remain faithful in both mind and body. It is not realistic, but it is precisely the type of ideal that romantics aspire to. Romantics are the ones full of passion and creativity. Sometimes I wonder if perhaps marriage is for romantics who believe in true and undying love rather than your average person. After all, look at the divorce rate. Look at how many failed marriages there are.

There are many theories on why there are so many divorces and separations, why so many people report low levels of marital satisfaction. In the light of these new books on evolutionary theory, some may begin to point to the fact that humans were not wired for such an institution. If humans are not evolutionarily built for marriage, and if marriage is just something created by humans, then one might ask, why should we bother with marriage at all?

Personally, I posit that humans are creatures that are capable of wonderful things. I do not believe that our biology would dictate that we have the propensity for landing a man on the moon or inventing the microprocessor. I do not believe that the human animal would be capable of writing romantic sonnets or painting beautiful sunsets. I do believe that evolutionary theory and a study of the biology of humans can tell us very important things, things vital to understanding ourselves. But is it not a fine cause to transcend the bondage of prehistoric chains?

The development of the homo sapien into the modern man—the modern man who is capable of education, imagination, science, technology, romance and beauty—was only made possible through discipline. The ability to delay gratification, to suppress our urges, is why we are able to travel across the country in just six hours, why we are able to send messages to each other instantly even if we are on the other side of the world. Discipline is what allows us to make choices. Without discipline, we are slaves to our impulses.

How many of us have had the urge to launch our fist into someone’s nose for one reason or another? How about to kill someone? If we had no discipline, the world would be a very different place. It would be a savage place. Self-control and discipline is what accounts for being civilized. Violent urges are not so different from sexual urges. Suppression of one’s urges is what allows civilization to advance. Without such suppression, I doubt there would be very much time for anything but eating, sleeping, and fucking.

Marriage is a lifelong exercise in discipline. While it may come easy to those whose will is strong, the reality is that most people are not in possession of such impressive faculties. It is easy to do what comes naturally and impulsively, and very difficult to do what one imagines he should instead of what he wants. A man whose basic instinct causes him to seek out an extramarital affair is not a man, but an animal, the human animal. Perhaps marriage is based on the ascetic ideal of self-denial (while promising the rewards of marital bliss). It takes a man of strength and integrity to deny his immediate gratification out of respect and reverence for the vows he made to his wife.

Mind you, these vows may not be for everybody. While I am a staunch proponent of the romantic ideal of monogamous marriage, I am well aware that most people are ill equipped for such a life. In fact, I myself point to the divorce rate as evidence. Perhaps the majority of people does not have the strength, discipline, and willpower to overcome the difficulties of sustaining a lifelong monogamous marriage.

Some feel that marriage is a libido killer, the beginning of the end of passionate love and sex. To these people, I say that they must be doing something wrong. Sure, our biology dictates that we will find ourselves seeking out sexual novelty. But I again point back at the marvel of the human spirit, at the resilience and resourcefulness of human kind. There are things that can be achieved beyond what our biology and prehistory would dictate.

I am extremely confident that there is at least one couple in the history of mankind who, at the end of their lives, could honestly say that despite some inevitable rough patches, they have lived an immensely satisfying life full of love and passion. And if one couple can do it, then it certainly is within the realm of possibility. And if it is within the realm of possibility, then why should we not strive for those ideals? We try to get more money, get bigger houses, get more education; we try to get better cars, become more physically fit, mentally fit; and generation after generation tries to give their children a better future. Why should we not continue to reach for this ideal of marital bliss?

Some anthropological literature may imply that marriages are failing because of the inherent human impulse towards promiscuous sex and sexual novelty. But what if were just the fact that people are getting married for the wrong reasons? Are Americans marrying for the right reasons? Alas, such a question is also beyond the scope of this piece.

But if not the “right” reasons, then what of the other reasons for marriage? They are quite irrelevant as far as I am concerned. If someone is marrying for money, status, religion, sex, or any other reason than love, it stands to reason that they will inevitably find themselves in a state of despair and desperate unhappiness. While marriage started out as a business arrangement, modern day marriages are not predicated on such grounds considering that the freedoms of women have since greatly increased. Or more accurately, modern day marriages should not be based on anything but romantic love. At least not if you want to stay happily married (and happily faithful) to one person to the rest of your life.

It is useful to question the value of monogamy in a marriage. The usual suspects are ever present: paternal certainty and other evolutionary theories try to explain our current faith in monogamous marriage. But perhaps infidelity, in spite of all the biological and anthropological evidence that monogamy is unnatural, is unacceptable because of our psychology. Infidelity may in fact have nothing to do with the threat to paternal certainty or access to resources, but rather is an emotional and social concern. After all, marriage is not an evolutionary imperative but a social construct.

When infidelity occurs in a marriage (i.e. one partner has sexual relations with someone other his or her “second half”), it is considered “cheating”. While Dr. Ryan says that the word itself implies that someone is winning or losing, the word cheating could also be interpreted to mean that the person is cheating the institution of marriage. Perhaps the phrase “cheating on Mary” is merely a shortcut to saying that “John is cheating the institution of marriage, which by extension means that he is being unfair to Mary by breaking the rules.”

However you interpret the semantics of infidelity, infidelity is ultimately considered a betrayal of trust. While some may say that it was “just a fling,” or that it was “purely a physical thing, just a physical release,” and that “it didn’t mean anything,” this view fails to account for the promise that was made, the premises on which the union was agreed upon. On a purely emotional level, infidelity is indeed a betrayal. Promises were made, and promises are to be kept, biology be damned. Because promises are the mark of a developed man, breaking a promise is beneath him. Presumably, people get married in hopes that they will be able to keep their promises to each other. They trust each other to keep their word to remain faithful to each other. Infidelity is arguably more about the breaking of that trust, the deception that goes along with an affair, than it is about the actual physical acts performed in the commission of that infidelity.

Ultimately, marriage is a societally imposed structure. It is a social union based on the culture in which it resides. Matrimony is not based on what makes biological or evolutionary sense but on the lofty ideals of human kind. I believe that romantic love and a sense of personal betterment is what drives us to get married. The monogamous lifelong marriage is an aspiration, something that we reach for. It is a calling to transcend the physical. It is a lifelong journey of growth and self-improvement. Marriage is not a mandate that springs from between the thighs. No, it is the mandate of the heart, borne from romantic love and sustained by passion, creativity, respect, good conversation, amongst countless other things.

I believe that one should understand the implications of marriage, to understand the seriousness of such a union, before committing him or herself to another person for the rest of their lives. Perhaps it is an inherently American lack of reverence for most things that causes us to look at marriages as something to be entered relatively casually, something to be broken off when it becomes inconvenient.

In which case, it may not be so outlandish for churches and other institutions to test a couple’s martial readiness as seen in the comedy movie License to Wed [2]. In a society where single parent households, divorced families, and broken homes are becoming more and more prevalent, it seems to me that the sanctity of the role of husband or wife is not being taken seriously by enough people. There are deep and underlying implications of becoming a spouse and an even more immensely important impact on their children if they choose to become parents. I believe that most people have particular deficiencies—some superficial and others more serious—that make them a poor fit as a spouse or parent. If we would educate people to help them to understand that a marriage lasts forever, that our actions live on through our children who may suffer most from our mistakes and indiscretions, that matrimony is not meant to be thought of lightly; if we would entertain the idea of putting people through mandatory child care classes and a couple of marriage seminars to help people gain valuable perspective and knowledge on the journey they are about to take; then perhaps we would be able to realize higher rates of marital satisfaction and more longevity. And although tangential to the topic at hand, perhaps with the improvement of the marital state of affairs in this country, we would see less broken families and therefore decrease the burden these people place on the government, what with all the social services that are created to help these families.

The tradition of marriage, an ideal that entails lifelong monogamy and mutual spousal support along with emotional, spiritual, and sexual satisfaction, is largely a modern one in the history of such domestic arrangements. I believe that with the right information and a more well developed mindset, this ideal can live on in great prosperity. But until we decide to look at the truth behind marriage, the reasons they fail or succeed will remain a mystery to us.¶

Point of Interest: Infidelity and Its Implications by Christopher O. Tollefsen, on The Public Discourse.

  • Larry

    “If we would educate people to help them to under stand that a marriage lasts forever, that our actions live on through our children who may suffer for our sins and indis­cre tions, that matrimony is not meant to be thought of lightly, if we would entertain the idea of putting people through mandatory child care classes and a couple of marriage seminars to help people gain valuable perspective and knowledge on the journey they are about to take, then perhaps we would be able to realize higher rates of marital satis faction and more longevity.”

    That type of education (I’m not sure if you envision it to be formal seminars/counseling or just in general, i.e., through indirect changes in personal values on a macro scale) seems like a pipe dream, and in fact, one that I wouldn’t consider ideal. Similar to the idea of “if a relationship was meant to be, it shouldn’t be so difficult to make it work,” if an individual by the time they’re 25-26 (average in the U.S.) can’t figure out all the consequences and responsibilities you outlined above, then it doesn’t seem credible that they would be subject to change by any seminar, coaching, or cultural forces. Even if people learn after a previous failed marriage (or several), the “problem” you seem to describe is a function of young people not being cut out for a lifelong commitment–that is, a bunch of successful marriages that result from failed ones in which the individuals “learned the hard way” would be missing the point completely.

    IMO it is difficult to place the blame on an oversexed American popular culture, or the Internet age or whatever. People have been cheating forever (flashbacks of me reading Othello when I was a young 12 year old attempting to learn about love–what an odd choice), and I think failed marriages have a lot more to do with commitment issues or problems getting along with a partner than it does with plain ol’ infidelity.

  • You're forgetting about the fact that there are lots of folks who get married before the age of 25. Besides, some screening is better than none. If people are not cut out for lifelong commitment, they may not realize it until they are exposed to the realities of marriage. Similar to a waiting period on purchasing a gun, legislation that delays any impulsive actions serve as a barrier against hasty decisions.

    Infidelity is a part of "commitment issues", so that goes hand in hand with failed marriages. As for people simply not getting along, if people are primed to understand the dynamics of marriage, they stand a much better chance of making a more realistic decision on whether or not to get married.

    This isn't a magic pill that's going to make people suddenly perfect husbands and wives. But there's no doubt that it couldn't hurt to have such a system in place. Like how most states require you to pass a firearms safety test before you're allowed to own a gun, we should consider making people sit through some lectures of some sort. Sure, people could just sit there and not listen to a damn word. But I'm sure there are people who actually would listen. And that's better than nothing.