Monogamy and the human species

Originally published in Live4, 14 July 2014

Why do we humans flock towards the concept of a stable, devoted, monogamous relationship when divorce rates are so high?

Is monogamy a social construct? Is it biological? Is it psychological? Are we just following a sociocultural model that actually deviates from natural inclination? Is it a product of evolution?

When I was a teenager, I had two live-in mums – one was biological and the other was my stepdad’s (other) wife. My mom was in a polygamous marriage with an old university friend and we had a harmonious home. They all raised my two siblings and I like a normal family would, and I personally liked having more variety in conversations with the adults in the house, especially at my age back then. I learnt that every human being is multifaceted, and I could get different types of feedback depending on which parent I spoke to. It was refreshing to be able to do that as a teenager. Having a third person of authority diffused the tension of heavy conversations and made it more approachable to unpack complex subjects such as, “Is he really into me?” and “Are these shorts really too short?” A period of teenage angst never fell upon me.

In my much later years, I would become happily involved in a polyamorous relationship. We were your typical boring couple drenched in the mundanely trivial: too much popcorn-and-movie night, every night; devotion to a TV show that we would only watch together as a rule; in bed by 10 with a cup of tea and a book. The only difference was that we were both free to engage in intimate relationships with other people.

That relationship ended because we went to live in different countries and eventually grew apart, but the poly stuff really worked. Scientifically, we humans haven’t been able to conclude whether the human species is naturally monoamorous or polyamorous. However, the study of biological and behavioural traits in primates has led us to believe that humans are right in the middle of the spectrum – not too mono, not too poly, just right. Which doesn’t make things easier for us confused humans.

As with many arguments about matters of the heart, this one’s a tough nut to crack. Without any absolute conclusions, we turn to the annoyingly vague adage if “do what feels right for you”. Even with my positive experience of polyamory, I’m now happily married. To one man. So, as you can see, it’s a highly subjective affair and polygamy works in some relationship dynamics and it won’t work in others. That said, the key things to making a polyamorous relationship work are the logistics.

Communication, communication, communication

Polyamorists can teach monogamists a thing or two in this department. It may sound cliché, but communication is a core tenet of polyamory. How do you define boundaries of the relationship? How do you shop for new shoes for one partner and make sure the other one doesn’t feel left out? How do you cook a family dinner for all and make sure you have everyone’s dietary requirements down pat? You talk about it.

The pecking order

A hierarchical tendency is human. We need to know where we stand. It’s best to discuss the format of your poly relationship – is it a practical hierarchy where there’s partner number one, number two, number three and so on? Or is everyone on equal measures?

Bedroom politics

If you and your partners all live together, how many bedrooms would you have? Does everyone have their own? And is there a bedroom schedule to stick to? Another important thing to discuss before things get messy.

Time shares

Scheduling is a big one. Set up a shared Google calendar so everyone can share their schedules and time is divided evenly amongst everyone. The last thing you want is for someone to feel left out.


Image: Live4