“Do you think it’s possible to stay monogamous?” a friend asked over lunch. His question stunned me on two fronts – one, he knew the painful reason my marriage ended; and two, he was in a long and presumably happy relationship. I’d never questioned his fidelity.
“Of course I do,” I gasped, nearly dropping my fork. “I mean, if monogamy is not possible, what’s the point of being in a committed relationship?”
“Children. Security. Companionship, maybe,” he replied. “But monogamy doesn’t come naturally to us as a species. Biologically, aren’t we hard-wired to seek out a variety of sexual partners?”
Frankly, I find biology to be a lazy defence for not staying true to one partner. I only need to look out my window to see that monogamy is not against all nature. Take geese, for example. They mate for life. Every spring, geese couples return to our neighborhood ponds to lay, hatch and raise their young’uns. It is charming, romantic even, to see them waddling side by side, the chivalrous males defending their womenfolk and vigilantly protecting the precious family nests.
Geese not only raise and protect their brood together, they look out for one another faithfully throughout their lives and beyond. My partner told me about passing the heartbreaking sight of a goose on the side of the road sitting beside her mate, who had been struck dead by a car. It makes me tear up thinking about it even now. Upon doing some research, I learned that if one of the pair dies, the surviving goose will eventually move on and find another mate but she will likely not breed again for at least a year.
(I also discovered that it’s rare, but waterfowl can divorce, if you can believe it. Pairs will separate if they have not been successful in laying or hatching eggs, although this tends to happen mostly among mates who form bonds too early in the life cycle. Once geese are mature enough to commit to coupling, the divorce rate drops off significantly. Go figure.)
But let’s get back to human nature. I just don’t buy that the way we’re hard-wired is an excuse to abandon monogamy. Yes, our species may have started out as polygamous as we set out to populate an empty planet, but we had to evolve from that lifestyle for health’s sake. Because of that, love became something of an ancient survival code.
That might explain why we have a compelling drive to seek out and settle down with one irreplaceable mate (just look at the $2.4-billion online dating industry that has grown ridiculously wealthy off the promise of finding true love). Physiologically speaking, we are actually built for coupledom. Sex is a bonding behavior in mammals – we mate face to face, kissing and touching, as our brains flood with oxytocin, aka “the cuddle hormone” that ensures we form emotional attachments to partners.
According to Ottawa-based author, clinical psychologist and researcher Dr. Sue Johnson, scientific evidence suggests that when couples are emotionally connected, their sex life improves. On the other hand, one night stands and short-term casual encounters are way overrated. “It’s like a dance without music. Flat. One dimensional,” she says.
Dr. Johnson points out that people who want recreational sex are “usually into avoidant bonding strategies. They tend to be phobic about depending on or being vulnerable to others.” (Which leads to the question, do they shy away from monogamy because they want greater sexual options – or because it preempts the pain of experiencing sexual betrayal?)
On top of this, bed-hoppers actually enjoy sex less frequently than more involved, emotionally-invested partners. “The evidence is, securely attached, fully-engaged lovers are happier and more caring,” Dr. Johnson says. “They also have better sex lives. They dance in a more attuned and responsive way, in bed and out of it.”
I really wish I’d been better prepared to respond to my friend’s lunchtime query. Had I not been caught off guard, my response to whether or not I believed in monogamy could’ve been so much better than just a squeak of hopeful optimism. I would have told him that we are all capable of monogamy because it’s a choice just as much as cheating is a choice. But because remaining faithful is not always the easier pick of the two options, making the deliberate decision to be true to only one person at a time makes the connection you share deeper, more meaningful and yes, sexier too.
“Monogamy is not about deprivation or delusion – it’s delicious. You just have to know how to do it right,” Dr. Johnson says. And when it’s good for the goose, you know it’s gonna be good for the gander.