couples therapy
imago therapy

Does monogamy equal monotony?

from publication series OUR RELATIONSHIPS    July 2011

A few things have gotten me thinking about how the idea of monogamy affects couples. For the past few weeks, I've been leafing through a book about the evolution of human sexuality, showing the expectation of monogamy is not natural for our species; while yet another public figure has risked all for sexual acting out; and a steady number of couples have been coming for counseling as a result of the husband's infidelities during the early years of marriage. It all proves that vulnerability to sexual variety is not exclusively associated with men of power, but instead is a life challenge that affects us all.

So, I delved more seriously into this book, "Sex At Dawn," which was recommended to me by a coworker, to try and better understand our ongoing battle to keep sex alive and well, and contained within our relationships. According to some heavily researched data, in early cultures, the norm for both men and women was a polygamous sexuality, and it's only in the last 10,000 years (the blink of an eye in the roughly 2,000,000 years since the emergence of our evolutionary lineage), that cultural pressures have forced us into an "unnatural" monogamous lifestyle.

Apparently, this adjustment takes its toll. In one study cited, 15 to 20 percent of American couples have sex fewer than 10 times per year, and the absence of desire is the most common sexual problem in the country.

The book, written by Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jethá, says that dipping back into the old polygamous lifestyle still has the power to revive this lagging desire. For example, studies show that married men have lower testosterone levels than single men of the same age, and fathers of young children have even less. Men who are particularly responsive to their infants — irony of ironies for the moms — show even heavier testosterone declines.

For a man not feeling as strong a sex drive as in his past, even a brief chat with an attractive woman has been known to raise testosterone levels by an average of 14 percent — in spite of his love for, commitment to, and appeal of his wife. The book goes on to say that, while some cultures, like France's, recognize how unrealistic it is to think of a lifetime of sexual fidelity, and more comfortably accept affairs as just that (a strict novelty sexual experience, designed to provide excitement and passion, with no threat to the marriage) — our American culture will not take this view. Yet, affairs happen here just the same.

The theory presented in "Sex At Dawn" makes it much easier to understand — though not condone — the affairs that we read about in the news and see in many regular, loving couples. Even though the sexual escapades of public officials who have so much more to lose — most recently Rep. Anthony Weiner — seems really crazy, this same kind of sexual acting out, often via the Internet or a cellphone, is certainly not unknown in the general, "normal" population. Reconciling these behaviors with our evolutionary history, looking outside of a marriage for novelty, makes them apparently biologically predictable.

The reckless disregard for what will happen upon discovery can be explained by understanding that our bodies' hormones respond to these temptations without our brains being fully aware of what's happening. And, in our culture, in spite of the "naturalness" of this acting out, pain and destructiveness always follow affairs and threaten the family that we are devoted to and want to preserve. A contented family with two parents is still the ideal place to raise children, and a close relationship with a trusted, loving partner is still the ideal solution to our existential and emotional needs. So, what are we supposed to do?

This is a real conundrum: If our biology really needs novelty to keep our sexual desire alive, and the realities of the child-rearing period of marriage are joyful in some spheres, but particularly challenging in the sexual arena, what is to be done when the mom is totally involved in birthing, nursing and caring for the offspring, and not even ready to resume sex, while the totally committed husband finds himself biologically responding to another? Although this is apparently normal, and even expected, it's also as painful as hell.

There's no easy answer to this problem, but the first step is probably an acknowledgment between the couple of the realities of living a monogamous life, the struggles it entails, a commitment to working it out, and an honest attempt for each to share what they need — sexually and emotionally — to get through these years. Talking brings us closer. Silence increases the chances of the unexpected taking us by surprise.

>> read the previous article in the publication series OUR RELATIONSHIPS
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