If the editors of Time had asked for our response to the question, “Is monogamy over?” we would have answered, “It’s absolutely not over; however, it means different things to different people, attitudes toward it are changing, and the changes benefit everybody.”
There was a time, just a few generations ago, when there was a broad societal consensus on the definition of monogamy. It meant lifelong sexual exclusivity — virginity until marriage and absolutely no sexual interaction with anyone else “till death do us part.” (And none after the death of the spouse, for that matter, except upon remarriage.) This was deemed to be the only acceptable and healthy choice.
This started to change in the 1960s, as divorce became more common and access to birth control was determined to be a constitutional right. By the 1970s, serial monogamy started to become the norm. At that time, there was a fairly common understanding that serial monogamy included premarital and post-divorce sex.
The 1960s and 1970s were also a period of upheaval and experimentation. The “monogamy mandate” itself began to loosen up. During that era, swinging went public and grew popular, and people started talking about open marriage. Some went even further, exploring communal living and group “marriages.”
Cultural attitudes have continued to evolve over the last four decades, and the meaning of monogamy has become considerably more ambiguous, something we explore in depth in “Designer Relationships.” Some who identify as monogamous still adhere to the old-fashioned definition, but this is becoming increasingly rare. Many people will simultaneously date multiple partners and be sexual with them before “settling down” with one. And of course, the rate of cheating among those who profess to be monogamous is high, though estimates vary.
Social conservatives decry all of these changes, but with the exception of cheating, we see them as a step forward. They create an opportunity for people to explore their relationship choices with more freedom and awareness than was available in earlier generations. No wonder a recent YouGov poll found that 25 percent of Americans think that polyamory is morally acceptable, and that percentage rose to 58 among the non-religious.
When monogamy is mandatory and unexamined, marriage can be reduced to being a means to an end (financial security and social acceptance, for example). And when people don’t consciously explore what they want from their relationships, superficiality, dishonesty and dissatisfaction are common and inevitable results.
Of course, it’s “easier” to play a predetermined role than to do the work of figuring out who we are and what we want. The latter takes courage, open-mindedness and the willingness to examine and possibly reject a lifetime of cultural conditioning. Yet the rewards are well worth the effort. When we make active choices instead of just accepting the established norm, we’re far more likely to end up with stronger, more authentic connections.
The fact that monogamy is no longer obligatory and one-size-fits-all is something to celebrate. It gives us the freedom to do the hard work and reap the very real benefits in the quality of our relationships and rate of our personal growth. Rather than thinking of our relationships as something that comes off the rack, we can craft them to suit ourselves, as individuals and in partnership with others.