Monogamy VS. Polyamory – Are Humans Built To Love One Or Many?

by Dr. Karen Ruskin on November 28, 2012

Monogamy versus polyamory that is the question that many dialogue about. Often following a publicized story in the news that is the topic of marital infidelity, you will notice the chatter among many debating and discussing the topic of how humans are “built” appears to rise. Are humans built to love one or many? It is this question that is explored by many and the topic of today’s blog article. The common consensus when describing monogamy is that monogamy is understood as; loving one, being with one mate. Whereas  polyamory is understood as; loving more than one, being with more than one mate. Post the David Petraeus scandal of cheating on his wife having had an affair with Paula Broadwell (also married), some have been using this affair as yet another example to say; “Ah ha, you see, we are not meant to be with a single mate, it is our culture, but not because it is natural”. You are not alone if you desire to have one mate throughout your life (monogamy), and believe that comes natural to humans, nor are you alone if you desire to have many loves (polyamory), and believe that is what comes natural to humans. As a marriage therapist and relationship expert, it is my opinion, based on working with couples, individuals, and families since 1993 that this is not an ‘either-or debate’ as many position this topic to be. It is not ‘either-or’ as to whether men and women are, or are not, meant/built for multiple mates or whether they are, or are not, meant/built for one mate.

Are men and women built to be monogamous or polyamorous?

It is this relationship expert’s stance that men and women are built naturally to desire connection, long for connection, need connection, and thrive when connected with another. We as humans are relational beings. We do not exist in a vacuum and are who we are in relationship to others. It is our choice to be with one or with many based on a combination platter of the following key ingredients, but not limited to the following:

  • Our philosophical belief system
  • Which desires we choose to act upon versus we choose not to
  • How we adapt to our relational challenges
  • How we cope with our relational challenges
  • How we  resolve our relational challenges
  • How we view our relational challenges
  • How we adapt to our personal challenges
  • How we cope with our personal challenges
  • How we resolve our personal challenges
  • How we view our personal challenges
  • What connections we form in all areas of our life – and what those connections look like/are experienced as

Our thoughts affect our actions and our actions further affect our thoughts.

The impact of a healthy relationship and a healthy self:

When we are in a healthy marital relationship and have a healthy relationship with our own individual self, it is within that marital union/companionship and it is within our individual self-relationship that we feel nourished. Our connection with others (e.g., friends, family, activities that are physically and mentally stimulating, job) also plays a role in how we feel as a whole. It is how we cope with our life’s challenges, how we communicate with our spouse, how we adjust to the many stages and phases of the marital journey that plays a role in how we feel and the choices that we make. One’s spouse affects one’s self just as one’s self affects one’s self.

Filling a void – Looking internally vs. externally:

As humans, when we feel void of what we need, we long to fill that void. Far too many look outside of the marriage to fill that need. I meet with individuals and couples in my counseling office every day that have looked externally (being with more than one partner) for solution resolution for a lack of feeling completed, or happy, or fully loved, or fulfilled, or whatever their “lack” is, rather than internally (within self and within the couple). It is my opinion that looking externally is not “how we are built”, rather, looking externally is a choice some people do make, rather than doing the work it takes to look internally.

Expectations:

Expectations of what we thought our relationship would look like and how we would feel about ourselves within that relationship plays a significant role in why men and women go outside of their marriage to fulfill their emotional and/or physical and/or sexual needs. Men and women want to feel great, and if they are not feeling fabulous about who they are in their marital/current relationship, and/or in their life, it is natural to wish to find who or what we think will make us feel great. If one restaurant’s food does not taste so yummy we go elsewhere. Relationships are not like a restaurant and that is what some do need help to remember. Rather than seeking out another restaurant, or have the chicken at one restaurant because that is what that chef cooks well and eat the vegetables at a different restaurant, and still yet have the dessert at another, rather, relationships are about enhancement within that one relationship of which requires communication, commitment, patience, investment, and interest in working at it. Not perfection, rather enhancement on a life journey of relational and personal growth.

Expectations (conscious and/or subconscious) when left unfulfilled humans often look for what or rather I shall say who, will fill those expectations. As we have become more of a “me-me” culture through the years it is no wonder that the statistics of cheating has gone up for both men and women through the years. As cheating increases, this leads perhaps more to accept and perhaps expect their partner to desire another in addition to them. This is another piece of the puzzle as to why there are some who suggest the solution of; accepted multiple partners (polyamory) may be ideal, rather than the lack of acceptance of multiple partners if their spouse is with another (infidelity).

Sharing your life with another:

Indeed marriage with a single mate is our culture. That is not because someone forced this upon us, rather it became the human choice as it is human instinct and our passionate emotional and physiological desire to share one’s life together with another – to have someone to know you and you to know another. It is within that shared life that we feel like we belong and matter. It is within that shared life we share our joys and pains and have someone to rely on and depend on, someone to trust who has your back and you have theirs. It is natural to want these things and if we don’t have these things we crave them and seek them elsewhere. It takes work to confront the person and the situation we are struggling with, it takes work to self confront, rather than seeking elsewhere for these things, and that is indeed a choice.

Throwaway, disloyal, impulsive, entitled culture – The creation of a multiple-mate mentality/culture:

As our culture has declined in loyalty, dependability, and reliability, as far too many “throwaway” in their lives, we then become a throwaway society (e.g., families not speaking to one another including adult siblings and/or parents and children, divorce to where one parent is alienated, never knowing if you are going to get laid off at work, etc.). We have learned that one person may not be as dependable as we had hoped while our expectations have risen of what another should or should not be doing as far too many live based on their ‘id’. One’s ‘id’ is the side of us that wants what we want when we want it. Combine that with a culture that has become entitled – believing if we want it we deserve to have it and therefore must have it. Combine that with the fast reaction response time we have learned to expect which I suggest plays a role in developing a culture of impulsives and expectational reaction and need – of which technology has played a role indeed. A prime example is texting, as well as emails. The speed of which we expect a response has created a belief that we as humans need and must have what we want when we want it. Combine all of this together and it becomes increasingly difficult for a spouse to even come close to, in a mature love relationship, to meet the standards and expectations of one’s partner.

I do not believe that there is truth to the sentiments: “men and women are built for multiple mates” and “marriage with a single mate is our culture, it’s not natural though.” Rather, I believe that it is: a) our expectations, b) “me-me” culture, c) lack of loyalty, and d) belief that we must always have what we want when we want it fully or we will seek it elsewhere —- which is what creates a multiple mate culture.

Choice – There will be challenges whether you are monogamous or polyamorous:

Choosing to be monogamous vs. choosing to have multiple mates is exactly that . . . a choice. If we choose to spend our effort and energy growing multiple relationships then that will be our life, if we choose to spend our efforts and energy growing a monogamous relationship, then that relationship can be fulfilling and rewarding and our life. Either life you choose there will be challenges and imperfections but it does all come down to choice within a natural instinct towards connection. How many, whom, or how/in what form we choose to connect (emotionally, physically, sexually) is all choice. We are not animals lacking in self-control, we are humans! We teach our young children to think first before they act. The same life lesson is true of adults, is it not? The moment we do not believe this philosophical belief system of choice and self-control and rather choose to compare ourselves to animals by suggesting we lack in impulse control and/or suggesting that we are built to be with many mates, (again- “built to be” “meant to be” suggests a lack of control), we are just offering an excuse for disloyalty and offering an excuse for a lack of control. To suggest it is impulse and we cannot control our impulses is of a deep concern to me as the moment we offer the notion that humans are built lacking in controlling an impulse any impulse (e.g., multiple mates) then we offer permission for a wide range of other behaviors that will take us down; personally, relationally, and as a culture. For an example, imagine this philosophy;  it is human impulse to be angry at someone who has hurt us so we must hurt them back because that is how we are built. Oh dear, that would be a problem would it not?

Choice is what life is all about in terms of how we wish to respond to any life circumstance whether it is when we are confronted with how to handle our anger in response to a given situation, how to handle our interest in another human being in response to a given situation, etc. This is just one expert’s opinion.

 

{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

Anonymous July 2, 2014 at 2:44 pm

Great article. I also commented on your (perhaps older?) swinging article yesterday. I’m just curious because in this article you seem to back away from the idea that all swinging equals doom for any relationship. I’m very torn about whether to get involved in a threesome with another woman and my husband & cancelled one of those difficult to make and find appointments last night based on your seeming certainty that the results would be disastrous for our marriage (in your other post). Now this post seems to say there are pros and cons either way, which hints at saying swinging might not be the disaster you portrayed. I’d really like to know whether this fails to work for most couples without any belief system one way or another interjected. Thanks either way for your great blog! Confused in Florida.

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Dr. Karen Ruskin July 4, 2014 at 6:52 pm

I am so glad to know that my blog has played a role in your life. To answer your question: In working with couples since 1993 it has been my experience that including another within your marital intimacy ultimately ends up disastrous for the marriage. To clarify, some couples the very first encounter including another triggers a powerful pain for one member within the couple unit, for other couples; both the husband and the wife. For other couples, it is not the first encounter and rather it is the second, for others the third . . . and so forth. Each couple is different. The common theme for the couples who I have worked with is that ultimately by including another, their relationship does not end up to what they hoped nor thought. Rather devoting your passion, creativity, time and focus into your spouse is the difference that makes the positive difference for couples. Having an additional love is not what I have seen offers a successful outcome for couples.

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Amy March 14, 2015 at 3:57 pm

I have no idea what we are, we are married but not living together!
Explaining this is difficult, my husband has lived his entire life working the midnight shift and living alone in his basement apartment. I live on the main level of the house, neither one of us have crossed paths in years. In my husbands eyes monogamy is great, as for myself I’m not sure any more. Weve been married 47 years with no interaction with each other. That means no sex, intimacy nothing between us ever. We don’t even speak to each other, like two non-discript people.

Reply

Dr. Karen Ruskin March 15, 2015 at 11:12 am

Hi Amy. From what you have described, it sounds like you are house-mates. Perhaps a business partnership? If you each share the business of the home (e.g., house payment, chores), and if there are other business partnership examples… Though a monogamous marital relationship includes: verbal interaction, physical interaction, sexual interaction – when it is a healthy functioning marriage between two people who desire to have the benefits of marriage. You write in that you have “been married 47 years with no interaction with each other. That means no sex, intimacy nothing between us ever. We don’t even speak to each other.” You write in that you have no idea what you are. Although legally you are married, you are not experiencing what may have been your hopes or expectations of what marriage brings. Rather, you are housemates, if we must label it. Some housemates though do communicate. It is your choice to have a housemate that is legally your spouse, without the benefits of marriage. If you desire to have more with your mate, and he is not interested, then you have a decision to make. Ask him, have a chat. The alternative: continue the arrangement. Another alternative: take action and initiate more. Another alternative: discuss with him you want more and if he does not what your and his options are. There are alternatives, consider all of your options, what you want, and discuss with him what he wants, and see if the two of your desires for the next phase of your life match up or are not in sync with each other.

Remember, your living arrangement and the lifestyle you live is a choice, the question is; do you both no longer wish to proceed in the current arrangement? Does one of you wish to proceed to live in this arrangement and the other does not? Having a discussion will help gain clarity beyond what the actions have been showing for years, to help you to help yourself determine what steps you decide to take or not take.

Thank you for writing in.
Warmly,
Dr. Ruskin

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William Murphy June 18, 2017 at 7:36 pm

This article, although with a a facade of being balanced, seems quite bias toward monogamy. To indirectly suggest that polyamorory is steeped in the notion that those who pursue such relationships do so to solve problems by finding external solutions is nit polyamory, its cheating, self deception, fear, laziness,…. To be in a healthy relationship you must do personal reflection. It isnt simply a “choice” either. Many people, if they are real with themselves, understand there attraction to others a phisiological and to allow that, face jealousy, be direct and compassionate with your words and responcible with your partners emotions creates healthier relationships. My partner of six years and I are exploring the idea and possibilies of polyamory. We have asked questionsof one another that have inspired more internal self exploration, reflecting on the why’s of our feelings, where they come from if they serve us or are reactionary and have come to conclusions that polyamory makes an incredible amount of sense from purely economic and child rearing reasons. Not to mention that in our culture we rely much to heavily on a single partner and co-dependant relationships are all to common in monogomous relationships…. I truly blieve that the major reason why people are monogomous is becuase we like to own people, belong to people rather than becuase the dynamic between two people is “the way we connected”. For most of human history and theoughout human history polyamory is the most common form or intimate relationships and also with historically the least amount of violence between genders.

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