Value of monogamy

Value of monogamy

The value of monogamy refers to people's views about the contributions monogamy makes, good or bad, to individual and social well-being.

Some cultures value monogamy as an ideal form of family organization. However, many cultures prefer other forms of family organization. Anthropological data suggests a majority of societies prefer polygamous marriage as a cultural ideal.Murdock, G.P. (1967). Ethnographic Atlas. Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press.] White, D.R. & Veit, C. (1999). White-Veit EthnoAtlas. Retrieved April 28, 2006 from] Murdock, G. P. (1981). Atlas of World Cultures. Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press.] There are multiple forms of nonmonogamy that are used to organize families, as well multiple forms of monogamy such as marriage, cohabitation and extended families.

People disagree strongly about the value of monogamy and monogamy has been criticized and supported. Two common criticisms of monogamy are that socially monogamous marriage oppresses women and that lifelong sexual monogamy is unrealistic. Supporters of monogamy have argued that a society that supports monogamous marriage can promote women's equality and that sexual monogamy facilitates intimate and lasting relationships.


Criticisms of monogamy vary in scope. Some criticisms reject all types of monogamy as inherently negative. Other criticisms accept social monogamy as a positive form of relationship, but reject sexual monogamy as an unnatural constraint on sexual behavior. Still other criticisms accept all types of monogamy as positive forms of relationship, but reject that idea that monogamy should be imposed on all people as the only legal option.

It is not possible to review all criticisms of monogamy in a single section. This section simply introduces two relatively common criticisms of monogamy.


Friedrich Engels, a colleague of Karl Marx and pioneer in communist philosophy, wrote about monogamous marriage in his book, The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State. Engels describes monogamous marriage as a social institution designed for two main functions. First, monogamous marriage ensured wealth was passed down to biologically related offspring. Second, monogamous marriage trapped women in a life of unpaid domestic and childrearing labor. Engels believed the communist revolution would undermine both of these functions. A communist society would no longer allow wealth to be passed down to biological offspring, and a communist society would socialize the work of raising children. Monogamous marriage would no longer serve any purpose in communist society. Eventually monogamous marriage would fade away.

According to Engels, the rise of monogamous marriage coincided with oppression of women by men.

"Thus when monogamous marriage first makes its appearance in history, it is not as the reconciliation of man and woman, still less as the highest form of such a reconciliation. Quite the contrary. Monogamous marriage comes on the scene as the subjugation of the one sex by the other; it announces a struggle between the sexes unknown throughout the whole previous prehistoric period. In an old unpublished manuscript, written by Marx and myself in 1846, I find the words: 'The first division of labor is that between man and woman for the propagation of children.' And today I can add: The first class opposition that appears in history coincides with the development of the antagonism between man and woman is monogamous marriage, and the first class oppression coincides with that of the female sex by the male."Engels, F. (1884). The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State. Retrieved May 29, 2006, from .]
The way to undo this oppression, according to Engels, was to grant women and men equal rights in marriage and to socialize the care of children so women could work and earn their own livings. These changes would free women from financial dependency on men and allow women to dissolve marriages with tyrannical husbands. Monogamous marriage would become an agreement people entered purely for love and desire. Later generations, growing up without the oppressive history of monogamous marriage, might find alternative ways of arranging their private relationships.

Some feminists have criticized monogamous marriage for many of the same reasons Engels had criticized it. For example, Julia Penelope has claimed "Both monogamy and nonmonogamy name heteropatriarchal institutions within which the only important information is: how many women can a man legitimately own?" Penelope, J. (1985). The mystery of lesbians: II. Lesbian Ethics, 1, 29-67.] However, feminism encompasses a broad range of writers and ideas, and it would be unfair to characterize all feminists as opposed to monogamous marriage. Feminism contains a diverse range of views about monogamous marriage.


Many authors criticize lifelong sexual monogamy as unnatural and unrealistic. They contend that humans have never been a sexually monogamous species, and that cultural expectations of sexual monogamy place enormous burdens on individuals to fulfill all the sexual needs of their partners. These expectations are quite unrealistic given how much variety exists in people's sexual desires and sex drives. In addition, sexual desires and sex drives can change over time due to circumstances (e.g., periods of high stress or poor health) and due to normal aging (e.g., changes in hormonal levels). Loving partners can find themselves mismatched in terms of their current sexual desires or sex drives. The failure to live up to unrealistic expectations of lifelong sexual monogamy causes people needless suffering.

*"But heterosexual genital love, which has remained exempt from outlawry, is itself restricted by further limitations, in the shape of insistence upon legitimacy and monogamy. Present-day civilization makes it plain that it will only permit sexual relationships on the basis of a solitary, indissoluble bond between one man and one woman, and that it does not like sexuality as a source of pleasure in its own right and is only prepared to tolerate it because there is so far no substitute for it as a means of propagating the human race. This, of course, is an extreme picture. Everybody knows that it has proved impossible to put it into execution, even for quite short periods."Freud, S. (1930/1961). Civilization and Its Discontents. New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company.]

*"None of the many restrictions that Christianity has placed upon sexual expression has been more highly valued--and more burdensome--than the doctrine that husband and wife must limit themselves sexually to each other from marriage until death. While our pious great-grandfathers may have regarded this as the natural and only moral way of life, it is so rare a pattern in anthropological and historical perspective that one is forced to consider it, if not unnatural, at least idiosyncratic and no more moral than any one of a hundred other alternatives.Hunt, M. (1974). Sexual behavior in the 1970s. Chicago: Playboy Press. ]

*"Currently, monogamy is the only lovestyle style considered legitimate by our culture, even though the evidence clearly indicates that humans are not monogamous by nature. The reality is that the majority of husbands and wives have extramarital affairs and often get divorced as a result. In fact, one form of polygamy, often called serial monogamy, is now the most common form of relationship found in our culture. But divorce and remarriage are extremely stressful for children as well as their parents. Might there not be a better way? "Anapol, D.T. (2005). Love without limits: The future of the family and the fate of our children. Retrieved May 29, 2006, from .]

*"Monogamous couples are completely dependent on each other for affection and sex; and many become dissatisfied due to sexual incompatibilities, differences in level or frequency of sex, boredom with their sexual patterns. When they feel strong sexual attractions towards others they must repress these feelings or end their current relationship in order to have sex with someone else. Many complain bitterly that although they love their spouse and feel strongly attracted to him or her, the spouse doesn't want sex frequently enough or does not enjoy the same sexual activities. This leaves one partner always wanting more sex or more variety in sexual practices, and the other always feeling pressured for sex, often resulting in one partner having secret affairs with other lovers to fulfill their sexual needs."Labriola, K. (2006) Are you open to an alternative lifestyle? Retrieved June 2, 2006, from .]

*"Having looked, although briefly, at the diversity of human mateships, what can we conclude? For one thing, it seems undeniable that human beings have evolved as mildly polygynous creatures whose 'natural' mating system probably involved one man mated, when possible, to more than one woman. It is also clear that even in societies that institutionalized some form of polygyny, monogamy was nonetheless frequent, although, for men at least, this typically meant making the best of a bad situation. ...Certainly there is no evidence, either from biology, primatology, or anthropology, that monogamy is somehow 'natural' or 'normal' for human beings."Barash, D.P. & Lipton, J.E. (2001). The Myth of Monogamy. New York, NY: W.H. Freeman and Company.]

Research supports the claim that lifelong sexual monogamy is unnatural and unrealistic. Biologists have strong evidence that social monogamy is rare among animals, and that sexual monogamy is even more rare, as most socially monogamous species are not sexually monogamous.Birkhead, T.R. & Møller, A.P. (1995). Extra-pair copulations and extra-pair paternity in birds. Animal Behaviour, 49, 843-848.] Birkhead, T.R. & Møller, A.P. (1996). Monogamy and sperm competition in birds. In J. M. Black (Ed.), Partnerships in Birds: The Study of Monogamy (pp. 323-343). Oxford: Oxford University Press.] Reichard, U.H. (2002). Monogamy—A variable relationship. Max Planck Research, 3, 62-67.] [Reichard, U.H. (2003). Monogamy: Past and present. In U.H. Reichard and C. Boesch (Eds.), Monogamy: Mating strategies and parnternships in birds, humans, and other mammals (pp.3-25).Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.] It would be somewhat odd if people were sexually monogamous for life; Then again, people do many odd things in comparison to other animals. The fact that 80-85% of societies allow polygynous marriage further argues against the idea that sexual monogamy is built in to human nature.Murdock, G.P. (1967). Ethnographic Atlas. Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press.] White, D.R. & Veit, C. (1999). White-Veit EthnoAtlas. Retrieved April 28, 2006 from] Murdock, G. P. (1981). Atlas of World Cultures. Pittsburgh, PA: University of Pittsburgh Press.] Studies of extramarital affairs and divorce provide evidence that lifelong sexual monogamy is unrealistic. Substantial numbers of people engage in extramarital sex. Clements, M. (1994, August 7). Sex in America today: A new national survey reveals how our attitudes are changing. Parade Magazine, 4-6.] Laumann, E. O., Gagnon, J. H., Michael, R. T, & Michaels, S. (1994). The social organization of sexuality: Sexual practices in the United States. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.] Journal of Sex Research", 34, 167-174.] About half of married people in the United States divorce, and the majority of divorced people find new partners and marry again. Kreider, R.M. & Fields, J.M. (2001). Number, timing, and duration of marriages and divorces: Fall 1996. Current Population Reports, P70-80. U.S. Census Bureau, Washington, DC.] Many people, perhaps the majority, simply do not live up to the expectation of lifelong sexual monogamy.


The defense of monogamy is as varied and rich as the criticism of monogamy. This section presents examples to counterbalance the criticisms in the previous section.

Women's equality

Although the founders of communism believed monogamy oppressed women and had no place in communist society, the communist revolution in China brought new ideas about monogamy. The newly formed communist government established monogamy as the only legal form of marriage.

"The 1950 Marriage Law called for sweeping changes in many areas of family life. It forbade any 'arbitrary and compulsory' form of marriage that would be based on the superiority of men and would ignore women’s interests. The new democratic marriage system was based on the free choice of couples, monogamy, equal rights for both sexes, and the protection of the lawful interests of women. It abolished the begetting of male offspring as the principal purpose of marriage and weakened kinship ties which reduced the pressure on women to bear many children, especially sons. With arranged marriages prohibited, young women could choose their own marriage partners, share the financial cost of setting up a new household, and have equal status in household and family decision-making. The Government then initiated an extensive campaign of marriage-law education, working jointly with the Communist Party, women’s federations, trade unions, the armed forces, schools and other organizations."Cheng, C. (1991). A speculative analysis of socio-economic influences on the fertility transition in China. Asia-Pacific Population Journal, 6, 3-24.]
The communist revolutionaries in China viewed monogamy as a means of giving women and men equal rights in marriage. This view has since been echoed by women's rights movements in nations that allow polygamy.

In nations that allow polygamy, women often feel the practice of polygamy makes them second-class citizens and lowers their quality of life. The women's rights movements in these nations want to make monogamy the only legal form of marriage. The United Nations joined these efforts in 1979 when the General Assembly adopted the [ Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women] , an international bill of rights for women that over 180 nations have agreed to implement. Article 16 of the Convention requires nations to give women and men equal rights in marriage. Polygamy is interpreted as inconsistent with Article 16 because it extends the right of multiple spouses to men but not to women. The United Nations has established the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) [ cite web | url = | title = Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women] to monitor the progress of nations implementing the Convention. The United Nations is thus working through the Convention and CEDAW to promote women's equality by making monogamy the only legal form of marriage worldwide.

The African Union has recently adopted the "Protocol on the Rights of Women in Africa". While the protocol does not suggest making polygamous marriage illegal, article 6 of the protocol states that "monogamy is encouraged as the preferred form of marriage and that the rights of women in marriage and family, including in polygamous marital relationships are promoted and protected." Amnesty International, 2006. The Protocol on the Rights of Women in Africa: Strengthening the promotion and protection of women’s human rights in Africa. Retrieved May 29, 2006 from .] University of Minnesota Human Rights Library, 2006. Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples' Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa. Retrieved May 29, 2006 from .] The protocol entered into force November 25, 2005.

ecure relationships

Many authors claim sexual monogamy promotes security, intimacy, and stability in relationships. Their claim stems from observations of couples exploring open marriage. Although some people have happy and stable open marriages,Buunk B. (1980). Extramarital sex in the Netherlands: Motivations in social and marital context. Alternative Lifestyles, 3, 11-39.] Rubin A. M. (1982). Sexually open versus sexually exclusive marriage: A comparison of dyadic adjustment. Alternative Lifestyles, 5, 101-108.] Rubin A. M., & Adams J. R. (1986). Outcomes of sexually open marriages. Journal of Sex Research, 22, 311-319.] sexual non-monogamy proves too difficult for most couples to manage and their relationships suffer as a consequence.

* "Any number of sexual innovators, over the past 60 or 70 years, have argued for a third alternative--a combination of permanence with permissiveness:that is, permanent adherence to the marriage, for the sake of child-rearing and social stability, combined with freedom for each partner to have additional emotional and physical relationships outside the marriage, But thus far, all variations upon this theme have proven disruptive to the marriages of most of those who have practiced them, and too threatening to the majority of those who have not to be seriously tried out. Relatively few people, even today, manage to make permissive marriage work at all, let alone work better than exclusive marriage. For although marriage no longer has the structural support of religion, community, law, or practical necessity, today there is something else that makes exclusivity, or the appearance of it, immensely important--namely, the loneliness and disconnectedness of modern life, which creates a deep need in modern man and woman to belong, and to have a binding emotional connection to someone else. And since for most people sex is so closely bound up with deep emotions, extramarital sexual acts are severely threatening to the emotional identity and security that marriage seems to offer."Hunt, M. (1974). Sexual behavior in the 1970s. Chicago: Playboy Press.]

* "Images of 'open marriage' to the contrary, an extreme commitment to such a relationship can do more to weaken rather than to strengthen marital attractions. If one partner becomes immersed in relations that consciously exclude the other, the fullness of marital interaction may be threatened—depending, of course, on how the other spouse interprets the action. A jealous partner can perceive even a mild detachment as threatening. Some spouses may not be at all disturbed by their partner's withdrawal or alternate affairs, but such extreme tolerance is rare. A key question is whether the externally involved spouse will eventually prefer the alternative enough to desire a rupture of the present relationship."Levinger, G. (1979). A social psychological perspective on marital dissolution. In G. Levinger and O.C. Moles (Eds.), Divorce and Separation: Context, Causes, and Consequences. New York, NY: Basic Books.]

* "It is not that I feel any deep-rooted moral objection to a lack of sexual exclusiveness in long-term relationships. It is rather that I am increasingly aware of the difficulties that the vast majority of humans have in coping with it. The ideal of the open marriage seems to me to be a fine one. In addition to the central primary relationship, it recognises other less permanent, sexual or non-sexual relationships, which may in themselves be mutually rewarding and self-fulfilling. But few primary relationships can survive such apparent if unintended challenges. The essential security of the dyad is weakened, and further undermined by the ravages of jealousy."Bancroft, J. (1989). Human Sexuality and its Problems. Edinburgh: Churchill Livingstone.]

* "Proponents feel that an open marriage does not substitute new regulations for old ones; rather, it suggests ways in which couples can learn to communicate openly with one another in order to arrive at a fully understood and mutual consensus for living. An open marriage encourages trust, freedom, and open communication, both within and outside the boundaries of marriage. If so desired, partners are free to engage in other sex friendships and even in extramarital sex —although the latter is a controversial area. All points considered, this nontraditional lifestyle is not practical for most couples since it is likely to promote feelings of insecurity, resentment toward outside parties, and sexual jealousy."Turner, J.S. (1996). Encyclopedia of Relationships across the Lifespan. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.]

* "Even if the problem of fairness can be solved, at least theoretically, by both spouses agreeing that each will have an affair, simple equality of extramarital sex is not a reliable solution: it only works if both spouses want the same mix of novelty and predictability in their sex lives. Often they don't. The traditional claim that men crave variety in sexual matters more than women is looking increasingly shaky. Between the era of Madame Bovary and today's covers of Cosmopolitan, many woman have become much more comfortable noticing and acknowledging an interest in sexual novelty. Still, the problem of a mismatch between two individuals married to each other is not resolved by invoking the average desires of men and women. The strategy of equal numbers of lovers for both spouses also assumes that jealousy disappears just because an arrangement is fair. Despite the sunny optimism of a phrase like 'open marriage,' real-life experiences are usually a lot messier."Olds, J. & Schwartz, R.S. (2000). Marriage in Motion: The Natural Ebb and Flow of Lasting Relationships. Cambridge, MA: Perseus Books.]

Sexual non-monogamy provokes jealousy and insecurity in most couples. Conversely, sexual monogamy reduces jealousy and builds the kind of trust and intimacy that makes relationships stable. This appears to be born out by research. People in sexually non-monogamous relationships experience jealousy more frequently than people in sexually monogamous relationships.Trost, M. R., Brown, S., & Morrison, M. (1994). Jealousy as an adaptive communication strategy. Paper presented at the annual meeting of the Speech Communication Association, New Orleans, LA.] Pines, A., & Aronson, E. (1983). Antecedents, correlates, and consequences, of sexual jealousy. Journal of Personality, 51, 108–136.] Some studies report at least 80% of people in open marriages experience jealousy over their extramarital relationships.Buunk B. (1981). Jealousy in sexually open marriages. Alternative Lifestyles, 4, 357-372.] Ramey J. W. (1975). Intimate groups and networks: Frequent consequences of sexually open marriage. Family Coordinator, 24, 515-530.] A five year study of bisexuals observed a shift from sexual non-monogamy to sexual monogamy in many participants because they "...felt that nonmonogamy was too time consuming, took too much energy, or was too complicated. They also thought that it got in the way of developing love, trust, and more intimate relationships with a partner."Weinberg, M.S., Williams, C.J., & Pryor, D.W. (1995). Dual Attraction: Understanding Bisexuality. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.]

Mating equality

Having people pair off in monogamous relationships ensures that everyone can mate. In contrast, polygamy means some men will fail to find wives, and promiscuity results in mating inequality based on attractiveness.

"Marriage is an institution; it places artificial limits on women’s choices. To repeat: Nature dictates that males display and females choose. Monogamy artificially strengthens the male’s position by insisting that 1) each female must choose a different male; and 2) each female must stick to her choice. Monogamy entails that highly attractive men are removed from the mating pool early, usually by the most attractive women. The next women are compelled to choose a less attractive mate if they wish to mate at all. Even the last and least of the females can, however, find a mate: For every girl there is a boy. Abolishing marriage only strengthens the naturally stronger: It strengthens the female at the expense of the male and the attractive at the expense of the unattractive."

"Marriage, like most useful things, was probably invented by men: Partly to keep the social peace, partly so they could be certain their wives’ children were also their own. The consequences of marriage must have appeared soon after its institution: the efforts previously spent fighting over mates were replaced by strenuous exertions to provide for, rear, and defend offspring. No doubt surrounding tribes wondered why one of their neighbors had recently grown so much stronger. When they learned the reason, imitation must have seemed a matter of survival."Devlin, F. Roger (2006). Sexual Utopia in Power. The Occidental Quarterly, Vol. 6, No. 2. Retrieved November 18, 2007 from]

ee also

* Varieties of monogamy
* Incidence of monogamy
* Evolution of monogamy
* Pair bond




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