By Isaac Hallé

With over a third of marriages ending in divorce, polygamous ‘open’ relationships on the rise and expectations of modern commitments constantly evolving. Is it time we ditched long-term relationships like marriage altogether?

While rooted in economic and religious practices, could the institution of marriage  also be  part of our survival instinct? After the agricultural revolution around 8500 BC, humans started to leave their hunter-gatherer lifestyles behind and became increasingly vulnerable to diseases, malnutrition and famine. Child-rearing in times like these would place a huge strain on families.

If single parent families were a feature of this society, they would stand little chance of survival. Childbirth itself was a life-threatening endeavour for many women and it was not unusual for children to die before reaching adulthood. Sexually transmitted diseases were also common and hugely damaging to communities’ health and fertility.

Through the legally recognised institution of marriage and the cultural practice of abstinence that was expected as part of this, theoretically communities could grow healthy and stable, becoming full-fledged large-scale civilisations. However, the necessity for long-term commitments like marriage is becoming ever more questionable. The introduction of modern contraceptives in the 1960s, the subsequent development of women’s rights, economic autonomy and the technological and medical developments of the past century having contributed, significantly.

People, today, work and raise children independent of committed relationships without fear of the crops failing or dying of the plague. We can have sex without expecting pregnancy and can access a near unlimited number of local singles through dating apps. We have longer, healthier, richer lives that we can comfortably share with multiple partners.

So, why bother committing to one person when you could have several relationships in the same timeframe? Why not ditch monogamy all together and enjoy a freedom of choice?

  Biologically, we are part of the 27% of primate species described as being ‘socially monogamous’. Primates, like us, commit to an exclusive relationship with a sexual partner for a period long enough to ensure that offspring can achieve independence. Research suggest, among primates unlike us, this is due to high rates of infanticide (up to 63%) within their communities. Often a male will kill offspring in order to bring the female into oestrus, making her sexually available once again and unoccupied by child rearing.

Through social monogamy, parents form an exclusive bond so that their children can be raised safe and away from murderous primates, who would, quite literally, ‘kill to get laid’. Following the development of the offspring, they will then move onto new partners and repeat the cycle again. This behaviour is termed ‘serial monogamy’. We see this in human romances, infidelities and break-ups over the courses of our lives, or, the short space of one Love Island episode.

Despite biology suggesting we are not cut out for lifelong commitments like marriage and that ‘serial monogamy’ may be more appropriate, many have and achieve lifelong commitments. We enjoy the friendship and intimacy such relationships provide right through to old age, raising families together, children and grandchildren.

Research suggests that there are benefits to marriage too! A 2019 study found that married couples had greater life satisfaction than the unmarried. Married people have also been shown to live longer lives. In a time where loneliness cripples the elderly, the social circle and companionship marriage provides likely proves invaluable to many. Children also benefit; kids living with both parents had better mental health and educational outcomes than those who didn’t.   

It’s clear that long-term commitments like marriage are brilliant when they work, however, we know that often they don’t. Alternative polygamous relationship styles featuring multiple partners and sexual non-monogamy are growing increasingly popular today. Said to meet physical and emotional needs better than the rigid constraints of monogamous commitments, are arguably more appropriately suited to our biology?

They may be, but human nature is undeniably insecure and envious, even in relationships with 2 partners these emotions cause problems. If polygamous couples can overcome this and live happily, then credit to them. However, these systems may be more prone to instability as physical intimacy is undoubtedly connected to emotions. When working properly, traditional monogamous relationships provide emotional and financial stability, particularly essential when children enter the picture.

With such freedom and connectivity to an almost endless pool of sexual options, deciding who to commit to, and stick with, is harder today than ever. It requires work, dedication and self-control to stay loyal to someone, for richer and for poorer, through sickness and health.

The fact that people can overcome such difficulties and defy their biology, of serial monogamy, in this way, is something innately and uniquely human. So maybe polygamy is not the answer, maybe those third of marriages which fail need a relinquishment of social barriers to truly work.

Image credit: Jesper Sehested

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