Does the entire wedding industry these days seem like one big racket to you? In your lifetime, how many thousands of dollars have you spent flying all over the country (or out of it) to watch people say “I do,” buying place settings and champagne flutes from couples’ Williams-Sonoma registries, and oohing and ahhing over boulder-size diamonds on your girlfriends’ ring fingers? Adding up the numbers can be a dizzying experience, but what’s truly disarming is the fact that your total payout most likely pales in comparison with the price tag for just one of these celebrations. In 2009, industry-trend resource TheWeddingReport.com reported that the average cost of a wedding in the United States was $19,580—that’s more than $12,500 greater than the median annual tuition at a four-year public college.
What’s worse, many of these marriages don’t even last; in fact, some social scientists have estimated U.S. divorce rates to be as high as 41 percent. Yet people just can’t seem to stop equating “happily ever after” with settling down with one person for the rest of their lives—even though numerous studies suggest that humans actually aren’t hardwired that way.
Monogamy Is Multifaceted
Ironically, the word monogamy doesn’t have only one meaning; rather, scientists have long subdivided it into three distinct categories: social, sexual, and genetic. In his book, Monogamy: Mating Strategies and Partnerships in Birds, Humans and Other Mammals, anthropologist Ulrich H. Reichard defines social monogamy as “a male and female’s social living arrangement (e.g., shared use of a territory, behaviour indicative of a social pair, and/or proximity between a male and female) without inferring any sexual interactions or reproductive patterns,” and further establishes that for humans specifically, “social monogamy equals monogamous marriage.” He characterizes sexual monogamy as “an exclusive sexual relationship between a female and a male based on observations of sexual interactions.” Finally, he describes genetic monogamy as a situation in which “DNA analyses can confirm that a female-male pair reproduce exclusively with each other.”
In the animal kingdom, sexual and genetic monogamy both occur in certain species, but both types are rare: according to LiveScience.com, only 3 to 5 percent of some five thousand mammal species have been observed to form exclusive, lifelong, and sometimes fierce bonds. A male prairie vole, for example, will not only remain loyal to the female he lost his virginity to, but also fight off other females who try to vie for his affections. Male anglerfish are also very attached to their partners—literally. When this fish mates, he affixes himself to a female’s body with his teeth; his mouth then fuses permanently to her skin and their bloodstreams merge, until the male becomes solely a source of sperm for the female. Birds are also well known for being monogamous: bald eagles mate for life, as do some types of geese, and the latter refuse to take on new partners even when their original mates die.
In humans, individual circumstances make monogamy less straightforward. For instance, a married man who is sexually unfaithful to his wife still classifies as socially monogamous, despite his infidelity. If that man procreates only with his wife, he’s both socially and genetically monogamous; however, if he remains married, has a child with his spouse, and fathers a child outside his marriage as well, he’s socially monogamous, but not genetically or sexually so. Because society is quick to excoriate people who have extramarital affairs, we applaud individuals who practice all three types of monogamy. Yet some evidence points to the idea that these “role models” are actually contradicting their biological and emotional nature by remaining legally and physically committed to a single partner.
The Gene Pool
Statistically, men are more likely to be unfaithful to their spouses than women are, though married women’s track record is far from squeaky-clean overall. Some evolutionary psychologists claim people simply can’t help cheating, citing the notion that both males and females are biologically programmed to want to spread their genes to as many partners as possible. A 2008 study authored by University of Arizona geneticist Michael Hammer concluded that not monogamy but polygyny—a practice in which certain males take control of reproduction by impregnating numerous women—was the dominant form of mating for much of human civilization’s history. This method served both men’s and women’s deep-seated biological needs: it allowed men to fulfill their innate desire to spread their genes through sperm dissemination, and, because polygyny meant fewer men were fathering children with more women, it enabled the mothers to propagate more of their genes to their offspring.
Though monogamy may be the norm nowadays, Hammer’s study cast it as anathema to humans’ biological history—and inspired psychologist David Barash, of the University of Washington, to describe it as “a recently inspired cultural add-on.”
For Better or for Worse?
Meanwhile, back in the land of marriage, the case for social monogamy isn’t looking too strong there, either—at least, not as far as men are concerned. In 2003, researchers from the University of London examined a British Household Panel Survey of more than four thousand people to compare men’s and women’s mental health in different types of romantic relationships. The bad news for all you ladies hoping to get hitched? Men are happiest when they never get married; instead, they prefer to be shorter-term serial monogamists, involved in a succession of relationships but always stopping short of popping the question. In stark contrast, women who had had several partners and split from them were the least happy of all the female subjects in the study, while the ones who married their first love were the most emotionally fulfilled.
Nonetheless, the vast majority of men do get married at some point in their lives, but even the most initially contented ones sometimes go on to deviate from long-term social monogamy in response to traumatic incidents that lead them to seek out casual sexual dalliances as an escape from their everyday cares. As Frank Pittman pointed out in a Psychology Today article entitled “Beyond Betrayal,” people are “most likely to get into these romantic affairs at the turning points of life: when their parents die or their children grow up; when they suffer health crises or are under pressure to give up an addiction; when they achieve an unexpected level of job success or job failure; or when their first child is born—any situation in which they must face a lot of reality and grow up.”
So Why Commit?
Some scientists believe that children’s well-being is primarily what spurs men’s and women’s continued efforts to sustain their partnerships, despite the signs that they’re not meant to pursue long-term monogamous relationships. Jane Lancaster, a University of New Mexico anthropologist, explained to LiveScience.com that “the human species has evolved to make commitments between males and females in regards to raising their offspring,” though she qualified that remark by saying, “However, that bond can fit into all kinds of marriage patterns—polygyny, single parenthood, monogamy.” The dominant paradigm of modern society remains “married with children” for the moment, but at some point in the future, humans just might allow what appear to be their deep-rooted biological and psychological tendencies toward multiple partners to dictate new social conventions. As the mighty Tina Turner once sang, “What’s love got to do with it?”