We all know at least one person who always has a significant other, even immediately after a breakup. Lately I’ve noticed that serial monogamy—leaping from one exclusive relationship to the next—has become a more popular and accepted dating trend among my friends and acquaintances. Why?
According to Psychology Today, serial monogamists usually believe in some kind of ideal love and in the importance of commitment to one partner, but keep a safe distance from the idea that true love should happen only once in a lifetime. Why chain ourselves to one Prince Charming when we can find a new one as soon as the original’s charming quotient runs out?
For many people, the relationship pattern seems automatic, like brewing a morning cup of coffee or sitting down to dinner every night. I was curious how some of us manage to have so many meaningful long-term relationships, while others run away screaming after one strike out. Is it fear of being alone? Simple luck? Genetics? And what’s so bad about doing a little casual dating and enjoying some alone time before starting up the next relationship?
To find the answers, I began studying and interviewing the serial monogamists I know. They, along with some psychological research, broke down a few different reasons why the serial monogamy trend seems to be taking off.
Monogamy Isn’t Instinct …
… but traditional monogamy isn’t the most common arrangement. Empirical evidence shows that lifelong romantic partnerships have only existed in a handful of civilizations, coming in at around 20 percent of human relationships. (The percentage shrinks when we take all mammals into account, which takes us down to about 3 percent.) In The Myth of Monogamy: Fidelity and Infidelity in Animals and People, David Barash and Judith Lipton explain that expecting to stay with one mate for life goes against some of the deepest evolutionary inclinations that biology has given us.
There’s still hope for monogamists, though. In the book, Barash and Lipton also point out that we humans are incredibly flexible in terms of relationship lifestyles, which makes us pretty unusual in comparison to our other mammalian friends. In other words, our desire to live this way can allow us to overcome biology. But that’s not to say it’s an easy undertaking.
Despite the fact that we’re not naturally monogamous, there’s something within us that seeks the companionship and stability one-on-one commitments offer. Enter serial monogamy.
It’s a Compromise
If Barash and Lipton are right, then is serial monogamy some kind of a compromise between our happily-ever-after expectations and our evolutionary tendencies?
Serial monogamy is characterized by living in some degree of a fantastical environment, says another book on the topic, The Monogamy Myth, by Peggy Vaughan. People behave as if the relationship is everlasting, and they really hope that it will be, even though it’s almost always for a limited time. It feels safer to be in a relationship, even if it doesn’t actually last ’til death.
“I was brought up to admire couples who stayed together for a long time,” says Erin Hastings, a graduate student of psychology. “Now I realize that it was because couples like that are fulfilling a cultural ideal. But I still feel the need to go after that ideal with all my attempts at long-term relationships. It’s what we’re taught is expected of us.”
In a way, serial monogamy is a happy medium. We’re not being so subversive as to reject the idea of monogamous relationships altogether (gasp!), but we’re also not entering into a tricky-to-maintain lifelong commitment.
Yes, these reasons make a scary amount of sense. But not every serial monogamist I know has been thinking about cultural expectations and evolutionary tendencies. Maybe it’s not always a product of these factors, but sometimes prompted by fear of being alone. We all have that co-dependent friend (or “friend”) who just can’t stand being single. She dumps Jim to date Pedro, and then ends things with him a few months later because she realizes she actually wants to be dating Gabby. After Gabby breaks her heart she starts things up with Jim again, and the circle continues with new characters and the same dialogue.
Sometimes jumping right into a new relationship is just an easy way to be distracted from loneliness, or questioning our desires and ourselves. The urban dictionary defines serial monogamy as spending as little time as possible being single, moving on to a new relationship as quickly as possible after the demise of an old one. Abbreviating the single period helps us avoid asking any questions of an existential nature. Many of the relationship addicts that I read this definition to said there was truth in it.
“It sounds horrible, but I think it’s because I value myself on how much other people love and are attracted to me,” says Nicole Davis. “If I’m not in a relationship, there must be something wrong with me that makes people not be attracted to me.”
That said, we don’t have to be insecure to become relationship-dependent. We all know how scary being alone can be after a long-term relationship fizzles. (Hey, no one wants to be the smelly cat lady who hoards miniature silverware and talks to herself while spying on neighbors through the window.)
“Being single can be tough,” says Davis. “Sometimes it just seems easier to dive right into the next relationship than to spend some time figuring out what I did wrong.”
It Helps Us Figure Out Who We Are
We all change through different relationships. Some partners bring out our romantic side, others, an adventurous streak. Others, some not-so-pretty characteristics. Serial lovers get to express and explore these different components of their personalities with each relationship.
“Even though I’ve left the guys behind, I’ve learned something important about myself in each relationship,” says self-proclaimed serial monogamist Jessica Chan. “That’s what motivates me to go out and try it again.”
The country rallied behind Obama’s campaign for change. It appealed to our understanding of the power that change can have on our lives—and this goes for relationships, too.
I started my research on serial monogamy hoping to find out the secrets of those who practice it (can I fast-forward from breakup to honeymoon stage next time?), but I realize now that it’s more about finding that style that feels natural for each of us. Genetics, compromise, whatever—knowing ourselves is the real thing to strive for.
“I don’t think there’s anything wrong with being in multiple long-term relationships,” says Chan. “We’re not all insecure or all delusional. It’s just what works for us.”