IS MONOGAMY NATURAL?

By: MIGHTY PURSUIT TEAM

In case you haven’t noticed, the United States has undergone somewhat of a sexual revolution over the last fifteen years. Perhaps now more than at any other point in American history, monogamy is no longer viewed as the only option. Or even the best option. Things that were once seen as sexually taboo, like polygamy and polyamorous relationships, are starting to become more socially acceptable. Popular media outlets like VICE are now creating content that coaches people how to have threesomes and gangbangs. To some, breaking out of the sexual taboo is seen as a major advancement for our society. We’re liberating those who have been sexually repressed and normalizing the expression of sexual desire, in any way that it comes. It is the unmasking of what was always there. Where there was once shame for these taboos, now there is celebration. While monogamy is still an option, some view it as sexually limiting, as opposed to the more inclusive and expansive option of multiple sexual partners. And even if it’s not multiple people at the same time, body counts are rapidly rising. In the 1970s, just 2% of women had 10+ sexual partners.  Today? 18% of women Chances are you’ve probably come across some TikTok videos where women are boasting about body counts that top 300 on the Whatever podcast. For advocates of this new sexual revolution, this is considered a big victory. Men have traditionally been the ones to boast about body counts and fantasize about threesomes. Now women are being given the agency to do the same.  The only moral standard left (or rather, ground rule) is that consent is king.  In response to a Polyamory article on Buzzfeed, someone explains “Just because something is not right for you, doesn’t mean it’s not right for everyone or it’s bad. There is no right or wrong way to have a relationship as long as all parties consent.” Even when it comes to cheating on your spouse, our culture is creating ways for you to do that discreetly. Ashley Madison, an online dating site for “married dating”, now has 70 million visitors. One of their taglines? When monogamy becomes monotony. Much of this new sexual revolution is built upon a rejection of traditional sexual norms. We associate the generations that conformed to religious dogma, abstained from premarital sex and got married young as examples of epic failure.  We also view their take on relationships as disadvantageous and oppressive towards women, where women were expected to be faithful, while men had all the sexual agency to do whatever they wanted. And the numbers don’t lie. Divorce rates are sky-high amongst Baby Boomers and the Silent Generation, so clearly their strategy didn’t work out too well. So here we are. The tide is changing, at least in the United States. We live in an era where everyone can operate as they please, judgment-free. You do you and I’ll do me.  However, as a wise sage once said, “Everything is permissible for me"--but not everything is beneficial.” We may be able to do whatever we want, but is it beneficial? Is it helping us? Is it leading to the lives we long for? On the surface, many would answer yes. Giving into our immediate carnal desire and fulfilling our sexual fantasies can feel really good. But underneath that immediate (and temporal) satisfaction is a much deeper desire, which we’ll unpack in this blog.  So here’s the main idea we want to explore today:  Are humans actually wired for monogamous relationships? And if so, does this make polygamy, polyamory and rising body counts destructive?  Or is monogamy just a social construct that obscures the fact we can thrive in any environment we choose? This conversation is important, as much is at stake. Namely, the success of our current and future relationships. Not to mention the sexual future of our society.  To begin, let’s start on a chemical level.

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MONOGAMY, POLY & BRAIN CHEMISTRY

First discovered in 1909, Oxytocin is a brain chemical that acts as both a hormone and a neurotransmitter. Central to the conversation on monogamy vs. non monogamy, interest in Oxytocin has skyrocketed in recent decades. As of Spring 2023, there were 183,000 searches every month on Google for the term. Dr. Sue Johnson, one of the top relationship experts in the world, explains in Love Sense, “Scientists have dubbed oxytocin the “cuddle hormone” for its ability to promote strong bonds between mother and infant and between adult lovers.” Some research suggests that the presence of oxytocin receptors in the human brain is evidence that humans are naturally monogamous. Why? “In humans, oxytocin surges through our brains at moments of heightened emotional connection, such as at.. orgasm. Recent evidence shows that our lover doesn’t even have to physically present to trigger a flood of oxytocin in our brains. We only have to think of him or her to be inundated with it,” Dr. Johnson explains.  This chemical automatically triggers during the bonding experience between humans. And when present, the research suggests that humans are wired to stay loyal to one mate, rather than looking towards the field. Experientially, anyone who has ever fallen in love before knows what this hormone feels like when it’s surging in our brains. The constant high from the “honeymoon phase” can feel intoxicating, like a drug. Another one of the world’s top relationship experts, Dr. John Gottman, says that oxytocin has an “enormous” influence on the first phase of this relationship. He has studied the amount of time it takes for oxytocin to surge through the body during physical touch, such as with hugs and kisses. His findings?

20 seconds for hugs and 6 seconds for a kiss.

Dr. Johnson goes on to cite multiple studies in her book, including a 2013 study from researchers in Germany and studies from Omri Gillath at the University of Kansas. Coupled with landmark studies from the 1990s on the role of oxytocin within the prairie vole mating process, oxytocin has also been dubbed “the monogamy molecule”. In Love Sense, Dr. Johnson explains how oxytocin shows that one-night stands, swinging and polyamory don’t work well.  “Wandering spouses may tell their mate, “it didn’t mean anything; it was just sex,” and polyamorous couples may set up boundaries and rules for encounters with others (“No kissing or cuddling; no meeting outside of set times), but such assurances and restrictions are like moving chairs around on the deck of the Titanic.” Why? “Chances are there will be a moment in the sexual experience when participants begin to connect emotionally – because we are set up that way. Nature has designed us so that physical closeness easily and inexorably slips into bonding and caring. Sex hooks us into relationships,” she adds. Critics have fired back against these studies, arguing that oxytocin has also been associated with negative behaviors and even aggression as a means of trying to maintain their relationship. Not to mention that humans are not prairie voles.  Poly advocates insist that their arrangements can work. In the same Buzzfeed article we referenced earlier, one woman writes, “I've been happily married and polyamorous for almost a decade now, and a lot of people are surprised/don't believe me when I explain that the choice was mutual and not problem-driven. We weren't desperate for something new or different. It's something we felt good about together and have worked really hard on and through. It's been a huge boon to our relationship.” However, none of this criticism has debunked the body of evidence surrounding oxytocin and monogamy. Yes, we are not prairie voles and studying animals does not give us a true 1-to-1 comparison as opposed to human data. But even if you throw this study out, the range of human data is extensive. The studies that Dr. Johnson referenced, in addition to Gottman’s work, are just a few anecdotes on a chemical that's been under the microscope since the 1950s. Oxytocin doesn’t need to be a purely “positive” chemical to support the research around monogamy. You could actually make a strong case that the negative behaviors and aggression linked to the dark side of oxytocin further prove the monogamy hypothesis. They are pleas from insecurely attached individuals to keep their mate. While some may advocate that poly works, the fact is these arrangements make things incredibly complicated from a brain chemistry standpoint. Nonetheless, we think that Dr. Sue Carter says it best, who helped discover the link between oxytocin and prairie voles in the 1990s. "The process of forming a secure social bond lasting for a very long period of time is too important to restrict to a single molecule.” While the findings around oxytocin and monogamy are remarkable, human relationships are far more complex to reduce down to a single chemical. To really do this topic justice, we need to expand the conversation. This leads us to our next section, as we dive into psychology.

MONOGAMY, POLY & PSYCHOLOGY

In the 1950s, John Bowlby’s breakthrough research on attachment theory completely changed our understanding of human sexuality and romantic relationships. Upon observing the relationship between mothers and their children through a series of experiments, John Bowlby discovered that humans have a hardwired need for love. This truth is so startling that if we don’t receive the proper love and care we need as children, our brain doesn’t form properly. Regina Sullivan, a neuroscientist at NYU, writes in a 2012 report: “Even with proper nutrition and perfunctory care, if an infant does not receive affectionate social interaction, her physical development will be stunted and her brain development compromised.” The attachment process starts with our primary caregiver, but as we grow older, this transfers to our romantic partner. Bowlby ultimately defined attachment as the “lasting psychological connectedness between human beings.”  Attachment theory is one of the most well-attested facts of modern scientific academia, as thousands of studies have been carried out that confirm Bowlby’s findings. In the 1970s, psychologist Mary Ainsworth made further breakthroughs on the subject, finding that how we attach to others comes through three primary styles -- secure attachment, avoidant attachment and anxious attachment. A fourth style, disorganized attachment, contains a mix between avoidant and anxious behaviors.  Data shows that at least 50% of the population are anxious or avoidant attachments. On top of what we just learned about oxytocin, this adds another critical layer to the conversation about monogamy and non monogamy. Particularly, when exploring what science has discovered about the type of relationships humans need.   For any relationship to thrive there must be secure attachment. If there’s not, things will inevitably get dysfunctional and painful. Science says that our ideal sexual environment is one that is a safe space with a committed, loving partner who we can openly communicate and express our feelings with and which we feel secure with. People who are avoidant attachments are more likely to pursue sex outside of committed relationships. They prefer their independence and often portray themselves as strong, self-sufficient and feelingless. Not because they actually are, but it’s how they learned to be through their upbringing and social experiences. Dr. Emily Nagoski, who has taught at Harvard on human sexuality, writes in Come As You Are: “People with insecure attachment styles (i.e. avoidant)... have more positive attitudes toward sex outside committed relationships, have more one-night stands, and are more likely to have sex just to fit into a social expectation than because they really want to.” Keep in mind, this is not what avoidant attachers actually need, but rather how they are expressing themselves. Dr. Amir Levine and Rachel Heller, authors of the New York Times bestseller Attached, write: “Studies.. tell us that avoidants.. aren’t such free spirits after all; it is the defensive stance that they adopt that makes them seem that way.” Poly advocates acknowledge that this influences how avoidants perceive ethical non monogamy (ENM). One organization writes, “What we can frequently find in research, is that avoidant attachers have a more positive opinion of ENM..this is most likely because avoidant attachers prefer to keep their emotions private and may prefer to invest less in a relationship – but, this time, in multiple partners.” Side-note: ethical non monogamy (ENM) and consensual non monogamy (CNM) are used interchangeably by the poly community. So does this mean that secure attachment isn’t possible within non monogamous relationships? In 2020, psychotherapist Jessica Fern set out to dispel this notion and show that secure attachment is possible in any type of relationship environment. In Polysecure, she writes “authors on attachment theory will assert that being pair-bonded is the prototype for attachment in adulthood, that couples need to create a couple bubble around them in order to ensure security, and that your partner needs to be the one, single or main person you emotionally depend on.” She acknowledges that “some behaviors such as casual sex, one-night stands, sex outside of marriage, multiple sexual partners, partaking in bondage, voyeurism, exhibitionism and even sexting are all associated with insecure attachment,” but criticizes the notion that “nonmonogamy must in and of itself be an expression of insecure attachment.” The research around attachment theory and non monogamy is extremely limited. Fern says there are “less than a handful of studies”, but to make her case she cites three of those studies, claiming that they show people in non monogamous relationships show characteristics of secure attachment. The sample size? Just 1,837 people. It appears that only 726 of those people were actively practicing non monogamous relationships. As you investigate the studies further, you find that they exhibit significant flaws. Both Fern and the researchers are either poly or pro-poly themselves. Their starting goal was “to provide a differentiated perspective on attachment and consensual non-monogamy (CNM)”.  Before conducting the study they also acknowledged, “we expected that individuals lower in avoidance and anxiety would be more likely to currently be in a CNM relationship compared to a monogamous relationship.” Ultimately, if we want to learn more the truth about secure attachment and polyamory, we need to look beyond the limits of these studies. First, we need to examine the structure of polyamorous relationships themselves and see how they might influence secure or insecure attachment. Fern lists 10 different combinations of polyamorous relationships in her book.  Some of the most common are as follows: 
    1. Monogamish: Couples who are mostly sexually and emotionally exclusive, but periodically engage in extramarital or extrarelational sex or sexual play.
    2. Swinging: The practice of couples engaging in sexual activity with other couples, individuals or groups
    3. Hierarchical polyamory: A subset of polyamory where there is a ranking system among romantic/sexual relationships and some relationships are considered more important than others.
    4. Non-hierarchical polyamory: The practice of having multiple simultaneous relationships without imposing hierarchies. Each relationship is allowed to grow into what it naturally wants to be.
    5. Open relationships / marriages: A relationship where one or both partners in a relationship have sexual or romantic relationships outside of their primary partnership.
    6. Polyfidelity / throuples / quads: A romantic or sexual relationship that involves more than two people, but these people are exclusive with each other.
 The combinations of polyamory are dizzying and could ultimately have an infinite amount of combinations. Fern explains, “there is no one right way to practice CNM and it is more of a “create your own relationship” than a one-size-fits all approach”. One of the reasons Fern proposes that secure attachment is possible within non monogamy is that by necessity, there must be more communication, openness, honesty and processing of feelings, especially to set the foundation of your relationship structure. Not to mention, navigating jealousy.  There is truth in this, in the sense that monogamous couples often get away without having openness and honesty (to their own detriment). But just because there is open communication, doesn’t mean the structure(s) themselves work.

Fern herself writes, “unlike the built-in security that can ostensibly come from being monogamous, [non-monogamy] is a relational structure that is inherently insecure. In [non-monogamy], we don’t have the security of knowing that a partner is with us because they see us as the best, one or only partner out there for them.”

She goes on to write, “the inherent insecurity in [non-monogamous] relationships can be grinding. This form of relationship can bring up levels of uncertainty that many people are not yet equipped for, especially when they don’t have enough internal secure attachment.” It’s not difficult to see how this becomes possible. Not only is time a finite resource and we all have responsibilities to tend to in life, but the more time we spend with one person, the less we are spending with another. As Fern writes, “more people means more complexity and scheduling is always going to be an issue.. I’m actually surprised anyone has time for even one securely attached relationship.” Hierarchical polyamory is flawed and many polyamory experts caution against them as they “create asymmetrical balances of power in which people in secondary or tertiary positions have little or no say about how their relationship unfolds,” Fern writes. But non-hierarchical polyamory is also flawed, because there is no structure. If you let every relationship “grow into what it naturally wants to be”, someone is eventually going to get burned, especially anxiously attached people. Stronger feelings will inevitably solidify and develop towards one partner, rather than another.  Open marriages usually end in divorce, Fern concedes, writing “even though many couples stay together after opening up, it is true that many will eventually split up.” Fern herself was once married and monogamous, but is now divorced. None of these conditions exist under monogamy, infinitely increasing the chances that something will happen that will trigger a wave of anxious and avoidant behaviors. This happens repeatedly, and often, in non monogamous relationships. In chapter 6 of her book, Fern herself talks about the many ways that poly can grow wrong, based on her experience with her clients. Here’s some of those observations: “There may be some people who enter non monogamy and are able to be polysecure right off the bat, but for many people this is not the case. All of my clients want to be secure within their selves and with their partners, but often the reality of non monogamy is too complicated, painful, dramatic, confusing and even traumatizing.” “For many, the transition to poly brings up forms of insecurity, anxiety and even panic attacks that they may not have experienced before. It is not uncommon for me to hear people say that they theoretically want to be poly, but emotionally they don’t know if they can't do it because they feel like they are losing their mind. “Attempting to do CNM with an insecure attachment style or having attachment insecurity arise as a result of becoming nonmonogamous can seriously disrupt a person’s sense of self, as well as their inner and outer safety in ways that can feel unbearable and be unsustainable.” Keep in mind, as we mentioned before, at least 50% of the population is insecurely attached, meaning you have a 50% chance of this happening to you. “Due to the limits of how many hours there are in a day, how many date nights there are in a week or how many people you can text with at once, splitting time among more and more people can create insecure conditions for other partners.. The partners who are receiving less time and attention will usually begin to feel uneasy, anxious or angry.” “In situations where non monogamy is not done ethically, where people are subject.. to decisions and boundaries that they did not co-create and when relationship agreements or safe sex patterns are being repeatedly broken, a person’s safety and security alarms bells can go off in ways that become highly dysregulating and damaging.” In cases of open relationships, she says “as the relationship opens, a partner's actions with other people (even ethical ones that were agreed upon) can become a source of distress and pose an emotional threat. Everything that this person is doing with other people can become a source of intense fear and insecurity for their pre existing partner.” “Many of my clients report being highly anxious and off their emotional axis for hours, sometimes even days, before their partner goes on a date with someone else. Others seriously spiral out while the date is happening.. This can also escalate into panic attacks, meltdowns or an emotional crisis that can pit partners against each other or become extremely difficult for everyone involved to manage.” Even after everything she sees in her practice, Fern insists that polyamorous relationships can still work, stating that “just as children do not only bond with one attachment figure, adults do and can have multiple securely attached relationships.” The key flaw here is that our relationships with our caregivers are not romantic or sexual. And neither are relationships with friends. The level of intimacy experienced with a romantic and sexual partner is unlike any other human relationship.  As one of the global authorities on attachment theory, Dr. Johnson brings some of the most credibility to this conversation. In Love Sense, she writes: “Love is vital to our existence.... Our need to depend on one precious other -- to know that when we “call,” he or she will be there for us --- never dissolves.. All of us may not be destined for a single, lifelong relationship, but we are naturally monogamous.” The data doesn’t lie. One survey of 340 polyamorous couples showed that the average relationship lasted just 5 to 8 years. Not exactly the greatest indicator of staying power. If these types of arrangements work in the long-term, why did the arrangements end? Some might counter these points with the statistics on divorce. Reports vary on how long the average first marriage lasts, with research suggesting 8 to 20 years. This is still a much longer range than poly couples, not to mention that the APA (American Psychological Association) adds 20 to 40% of marriages end because of infidelity. Or in other words, because monogamy was broken. Nonetheless, long-term monogamous relationships are not perfect.  Far from it. People constantly need therapy and are in disaster scenarios from monogamous relationships as well. We discussed this heavily in our blog on cohabitation. If you are not ready to enter a relationship, or do so and have an insecure foundation, it doesn’t matter if it’s poly or monogamy, it’s going to fail. There is no perfect relationship. But ultimately, when we’re discussing if monogamy is natural, we’re having a conversation on what we as humans actually need. And despite how we might behave, attachment theory has left nothing up for debate as to our actual needs. Perhaps the reason attachment researchers always assume a pair-bond is because human beings are actually wired to pair-bond, not because there is implicit bias against poly arrangements.  Long-term monogamous relationships, built on a safe structure, secure attachment and self-sacrificial love, fulfill our deepest attachment needs. In THESE instances, divorce rates are minimal. And If you’ve ever met an older couple with this type of relationship, it’s really a remarkable sight to see. Is secure attachment possible in other scenarios? Sure, for a moment or a time. But not in any way that is sustainable over the long-term. The data indicates it’s not natural. Will there be outliers that beat the odds and make it work? Perhaps. But the structures and dynamics are too complex, too much for the human brain to juggle. This inevitably leads to, or exposes anxious or avoidant behaviors. Even for those who were previously secure attached, it may lead to significant disruptions in their life. Perhaps most remarkably, much of this was in Fern’s words, a Poly advocate. Scientifically speaking, it’s clear that oxytocin and attachment theory form a strong case for monogamy. But perhaps you’re still not convinced. You’re left wanting more data that confirms monogamy is natural, opposed to polyamory.   Lean in, we have a few more areas to explore. Next up is anthropology.

MONOGAMY, POLY & ANTHROPOLOGY

If you are unfamiliar with the field of anthropology, Google defines it as “the study of human societies and cultures and their development.” When it comes to love and attraction, Helen Fisher is perhaps the leading expert in this field. She has written multiple bestsellers on the subject over the last thirty years, including Why Him? Why Her?, Why We Love and The Anatomy of Love. In the latter, she outlines the history of mating within human societies. While the poly arrangements we discussed in our last section are taboo in Western society, they are not new. In fact, Fisher writes that “only 16% of the 853 cultures on record actually prescribe monogyny,” or the custom of having one wife at a time. The other 84% of all human societies have permitted more than one wife at a time.  So does this mean anthropology reveals that poly is natural? Not exactly. In building harems, a group of females sharing the same mate, previous societies have dealt with the same attachment issues detailed in the previous section. “Women in most societies try to prevent their husbands from taking a junior wife.. apart from the chronic jealousy and battles for attention, women married to the same man tend to war with one another over food and the other resources their mutual husband provides.. co-wives fight.. co-husbands argue too,” Fisher writes. The reasons why men and women have historically sought out polygyny are simple. Men have done it to spread their genes and offspring. Women have done it for security and survival. But this doesn’t mean it’s what they deeply desire. A closer look at the data will reveal that “in the vast majority of societies where polygyny is permitted, only about 5-10% of men actually have several wives simultaneously. Although polygyny is widely discussed, it is much less practiced,” Fisher adds.  Only 0.5% of societies have historically permitted women to take on several husbands simultaneously, meaning that for 99.5% women around the world, they have predominantly been “monogamous” in the sense of having one husband.

The famed Yale anthropologist George Peter Murdock surveyed 250 cultures and summarized the data stating, “an impartial observer.. would be compelled to characterize nearly every known human society as monogamous, despite the.. frequency of polygyny in the overwhelming majority.”

We are different from other mammals. Fisher lists gorillas, horses and many other species as those who naturally form harems. But “[humans] have to be cajoled by riches to share a spouse,” she explains.  “The human animal seems to be psychologically built to form a pair bond with a single mate.. Monogamy is the rule. Human beings almost never have to be cajoled into pairing. Instead, we do this naturally. We flirt. We court. We fall in love. We marry. And the vast majority of us marry only one person at a time. Pair-bonding is a trademark of the human animal,” Fisher emphatically states. So, end of story, right? While anthropology adds to the substantial amount of evidence that proves humans are wired to be monogamous, there remains a disconnect. Fisher makes an observation about human behavior in Anatomy of Love that couldn’t be more spot on. “The human animal seems to be cursed with a contradiction of the spirit. We search for true love, find him or her, and settle in. Then, if the spell begins to fade, the mind begins to wander. Monogamy and adultery are our fare,” she writes. On one hand, we want to be monogamous. But on the other hand, we tend to wander. For anyone who has experienced this, who are many (maybe even most), you know first-hand how distressing it can be. In fact, this frustrating cycle is one of the reasons that leads people to think polyamory is the way to go, Fern reports in Polysecure. Poetically, Fisher writes: “our human craving for sex; our appetite for romance; our sense of merging attachment with a mate; our possessive jealousy; our restlessness during long relationships; our perennial optimism about our next sweetheart: these passions drag us like a kite upon the wind as we soar and plunge unpredictably from one feeling to another.” Fisher goes on to list depression, despair, frustration and aggression among the wide range of feelings this cycle creates. Fisher, who did not get married until she was 75, has primarily studied love and attraction from an evolutionary and systematic perspective, removing emotion out of the equation. But when she was once broken up with her now-husband, she too experienced first-hand the painful emotions that come with the ending of a relationship. “I could barely breathe. I just sat at the edge of my bed and cried and played Roy Orbison heartbreak music,” Fisher told Slate Magazine in 2021. Due to this cycle, Fisher developed a theory that the human disposition is for serial monogamy or “to fall in love, form a pair-bond, leave this relationship after three to four years (often after bearing a single child), and then fall in love anew and bond again.” However true this hypothesis is, it can feel demoralizing to think the demise of a relationship is inevitable. It doesn’t make sense, not at face value. Why can’t love last? Why are our desires so disordered? Why do we get a “three to four year itch”? It’s only when we look at our last area, spirituality, that all this data starts to tie together.

MONOGAMY, POLY & SPIRITUALITY

It’s clear that in Western culture, the Bible has never been considered less of an authority on matters of sex and relationships than it is today. Why would I listen to what some ancient book has to say about my sex life?  The conversation usually ends at this point. But it shouldn’t.  Why? Because if the Bible actually does have divine origins, then it carries a blueprint from our Creator as to why we’re here and how we were designed to live. It would speak volumes into the other three data points on monogamy. This isn’t something to simply write off. In our view, there is significant reason to believe that the Bible actually does have divine origins. There is evidence that must be dealt with, that ultimately points to a reasonable and logical conclusion. It follows that if the Bible actually comes from our Creator, then he is also the author of science, attachment theory, human biology and brain chemistry. What we read in the Bible about sex, should form a cohesive narrative with the findings we discovered above. Scripture and science represent different sides of the same coin. But before we continue, it’s important to highlight the obvious.  We’ve lived through an entire generation that has badly distorted what the Bible has to say about sex, marriage and dating. If you live in the West, whatever preconceived notions you have about the Bible and sex, they likely aren’t good. But they also probably aren’t accurate to the true narrative the Bible lays out about sex. In the following paragraphs, we’ll unpack a condensed version of this narrative and examine the areas of alignment this has with what we’ve learned from science. The overarching narrative of the Bible is quite simple: love.  Central to our existence is love.  Jesus said that all the commandments of the Bible can be summed up into two things: love God and love others (Matthew 22:36-40). In fact, the Bible mentions the word love 745 times in the ESV translation. Love is the point of it all. It’s why we’re on the Earth.

This is the first area of alignment with science, as attachment theory has revealed that humans are hardwired for love.

Within the first few pages of the Bible, we see a blueprint starting to be developed in terms of the sexual and relational order of the world. With one human couple placed in the Garden of Eden, monogamy is one of the first designs of God. In Genesis 2:24 we read, “Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh.” Author Tim Keller explains the passage, “when it says the two will become one flesh, it says you’ll be one person. You’re really no longer the same two people, but you’re a third entity. This oneness is tremendously deep. It’s organic. It’s vital. It’s not mechanical.” Striking parallels again to science. Levine and Heller write in Attached: “Numerous studies show that once we become attached to someone, the two of us form one physiological unit. Our partner regulates our blood pressure, our heart rate, our breathing, and the levels of hormones in our blood. We are no longer separate entities.” Most importantly, it’s the type of love the Bible calls us to embody that is critical to secure attachment – self-sacrificial love. Jesus was the ultimate embodiment of this himself, saying in John 15:13, “There is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” As we talked about here, the way the Bible calls us to pursue one another, especially in romantic relationships, bears all the hallmarks of secure attachment. Openness, honesty, vulnerability, communication, trust, empathy, compassion and self-sacrifice.  From Genesis to Revelation, the Bible lays out a robust and erotic picture of what sexual love can look like in a monogamous marriage. For those that might have any sort of familiarity with the Bible, you might be thinking: but isn't there polygamy in the Old Testament? Yes, but this comes down to a matter of understanding how to properly read the Bible. When trying to understand what the Bible is communicating, we must consider who the passage was written to, what the cultural context was, what the original language was (for accurate translation) and lastly, what literary genre each passage fits into. There are passages in the Old Testament, particularly the historical books, that describe what was happening in that culture at that time. Some of the biggest figures of the Old Testament, including Abraham, David and Solomon, were polygamists. But nowhere in the scriptures will you find a passage of God condoning or prescribing polygamy as his intention. In fact, most passages paint polygamy in a negative light. Conversely, all throughout the New Testament we find affirmation of God’s original design for romantic and sexual love as seen in Genesis 2:24. Monogamy.  Jesus explicitly says that cheating on your spouse is wrong (Matthew 5:27-28). When the original church was being built, you could only qualify as a leader if you were in a monogamous marriage to one person (1 Timothy 3:2).  Circling back to Helen Fisher’s theory of serial monogamy, we also find that the Bible fills in the gaps that aren't possible with science. Fisher explains what the frustrating cycle is and how it has unfolded through history, but we’re still left with the why. Why can’t love last? Why are our desires so disordered?  Why do we get a “three to four year itch”? If we are naturally monogamous, why can’t we operate that way sustainably? The Bible would whittle it down to one word: sin. This word is triggersome in our culture, because of the long list of baggage attached to it. But ultimately we find the Bible doesn’t attach the same meaning to the word as our stereotypes do. A few years ago, the Bible Project created a brilliant video about this topic. In the original Hebrew, the word that translates as sin, Khata, literally means to “miss the mark.” Think in terms of archery, like Katniss Everdeen in Hunger Games.  So when we sin, we miss the bullseye on what God intended – which as Jesus said, was ultimately love. While sin wasn’t part of God’s original design, it is now part of human nature. In Mark 7:21-23 (MSG), Jesus comments on this by saying:  “It’s what comes out of a person that pollutes: obscenities, lusts, thefts, murders, adulteries, greed, depravity, deceptive dealings, carousing, mean looks, slander, arrogance, foolishness—all these are vomit from the heart. There is the source of your pollution.” So does this mean we should just give up and resign ourselves to the fact that serial monogamy is inevitable? No! Jesus claimed that with him and through him (John 14:6), it is possible to take on a new nature. As we turn from our old way of doing things, and turn towards him, we can begin to walk the steps of redemption. He teaches us how to harness our sexual desires. How do we learn to become a secure attachment and people of self-sacrificial love?  By apprenticing under the person that did it best, Jesus.  We learn his rhythms, observe how he responded in particular situations and then start practicing them in our own lives. Of course, there are many people who have claimed to be Christians, who appear to be faithful church-goers, yet their behavior and marriages resemble nothing of Jesus.  Maybe this is most, if not all, of the Christians you have interacted with. A strong argument could be made that in this sense, the majority of the “Christian” population is not actually Christian. They have not devoted their lives to Jesus, in the way he invites us to.  Ultimately though, the data doesn’t lie. For monogamous married couples that have Jesus at the center of their marriage, who are actively apprenticing under him and regularly practice the rhythms of self-sacrificial love, divorce rates are non-existent.  Marital satisfaction is consistently rated as very high. In looking at the spiritual narrative, we find that it confirms what anthropology, attachment theory and brain chemistry are saying. The human blueprint is that we are naturally monogamous. But it also supplies us with the why behind serial monogamy, and lays out a path for us to step into the relationships our hearts long for. Despite the data, we still have to live in the tension of the disconnect. People choose to express themselves in a variety of romantic and sexual ways, in-part because of the failures they’ve seen within monogamy.  Which is why it’s important to go a bit deeper into the reasons why we stray and how to avoid this, as we start to bring this blog to a close.

WHY DO WE STRAY?

If sin is the big picture issue, then it’s critical to examine how that plays out in our lives, practically speaking. There is both a reactive element that leads to straying, meaning things and circumstances in life that happen to us. But then there is a proactive part to straying, where we are actively choosing to engage in behaviors that cause us to stray, to our own detriment.  Here are five of the most prevalent reasons we stray, spread across both camps.

Disordered Desires

Sexual desire is a good thing, a natural part of what it means to be human.  And in the right context, we are meant to express those sexual desires freely. But not all sexual fantasies and/or desires are good. For example, VICE featured an article in early 2023 on women who fantasize about having sex against their will. Dr. Gottman details in his book The Science of Trust how women have told him some of the best sex they experienced was directly after physical abuse. If you’ve ever seen the Emmy-Award winning show Big Little Lies, we see this exact scenario play out with Nicole Kidman’s character. Most people would agree that these sexual desires and fantasies are not good. One of the major problems in our culture is that it teaches us that all sexual desire and expression is either neutral or good. But clearly, that isn’t true. Acting out your desires in a way that violates the created order will never end up in a good place.  As Fern lists in her book Polysecure, one of the reasons people choose non monogamy is because “it’s about the sex.. there are people who genuinely.. want.. sexual diversity.”  But as we learn from science, we discover that our sexual fantasies develop much like learning a language. As Dr. Nagoski writes in Come As You Are, “The process of learning what is sexually relevant and what is a threat works sort of like learning a language. We’re all born with the innate capacity to learn any human language, but we don’t learn a random language, right?” In other words, we don’t come out of the womb with predetermined sexual responses. Our cultural environment taught us to fantasize about the “MILF”, threesomes, gangbangs or to sensationalize sex with the bad boy. Nagoski explicitly says, “what turns us on (or off) is learned from culture”.  She equates this to learning English, “If you grow up surrounded by people who speak only English, there is no way you’ll get to kindergarten speaking French. You learn the language you are surrounded by.” All it takes is to do a quick search of the most heavily-trafficked categories on porn websites to see how this rings true across the world. In 2019, “lesbian” ranked as the top category in the US, “hentai” was no. 1 in Russia and “anal” was at the top of the list in Morocco. How could these be so different? So we might have “learned the language” of fantasizing about poly, but this fantasy and/or sexual desire does not have to be permanent. We can equally learn another sexual language by practicing a different way of life. The scriptures teach us the power of harnessing our sexual desire for the right context.

Insecure Attachment

One of the most obvious reasons we stray is that we are insecurely attached to our partner. As Dr. Johnson writes in Love Sense, “one consistent research finding is that the more insecurely attached people are, the shorter their significant relationships tend to be and the more likely they are to divorce”. As mentioned previously, at least 50% of the population has an insecure attachment style. And too often, maybe even most often, we start relationships from a place of insecure attachment. Perhaps the biggest doomsday combination is a relationship between one person who is avoidant and another who is anxious. But even if one person is securely attached in the relationship, but the other isn’t, it can cause major issues. Dr. Johnson adds, “the truth is that we stray and have affairs not because we are all naturally inclined to have multiple mates but because our bond with our partner is inherently weak or has deteriorated so far that we are unbearably lonely. We haven’t understood love or how to repair it. So, confused and lost in a world that sells sex aggressively as the be-all and end-all of a relationship, the obvious “solution” has been to seek out new lovers to try to create the longed-for connection.”

Failing to turn towards your partner

Gottman has consistently found one of the biggest predictors of relationship success is the constant turning towards our partner.  In Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, he writes, “couples are always making what I call “bids” for each other’s attention, affection, humor, or support. Bids can be as minor as asking for a backrub or as significant as seeking help in carrying the burden when an aging parent is ill. The partner responds to each bid either by turning toward the spouse or turning away. A tendency to turn toward your partner is the basis of trust, emotional connection, passion, and a satisfying sex life.” These “bids” for little moments of connection are happening constantly throughout your days and weeks. Quite literally, these little moments can pile up, which either drive you closer to each other or farther away. Especially in times of crisis, if you’ve gone through an incredibly hard time together, the importance of doing this is amplified even more. But in hard times, partners often turn away from each other, and then look outside the relationship to fill the void.

Failed examples of marriages

Part of the appeal to alternative relationship structures is a rebellion against the dysfunctional examples of marriages we’ve seen in past generations. One report puts the divorce rate amongst the Silent Generation (born 1928-1945) at 65% and it’s been widely publicized that divorce is skyrocketing with Baby Boomers (born 1946-1964).  We associate the generations that conformed to religious dogma and patriarchy as examples of epic failure. For them, the best case seems to be living out your latter years in perpetual unhappiness, devoid of love. And the worst case scenario, getting divorced, perhaps after initially staying together for the kids.  Who would ever want that for their future? If this is our past, then it’s easy to see how the idea of polyamory becomes appealing. In Polysecure, Fern says as much: “there are people who critically question traditional marriage.. people are questioning whether the institution of marriage is realistic and sustainable for them, with nonmonogamy stepping in as a preferable alternative.” But just because there has been failure in the past, doesn’t mean the institution itself cannot work. Monogamy is natural and secure attachment is our deepest desire. What if it is the lack of self-sacrificial love and the attachment problems that have been the issue in the past, not monogamy and marriage themselves? Monogamy and marriage can thrive, but it needs a foundation of self-sacrificial love and secure attachment. Some would propose that there are “impossible expectations that are placed on a life partner and that set many couples up for failure,” as Fern writes. And from a spiritual perspective, Jesus would agree. There is no perfect marriage or perfect partnership. As author Paul Tripp puts it, you are a sinner married to a sinner. You aren’t supposed to make your spouse the center of your universe. They might be able to hold it together for a while, but not in the long-term, not sustainably. Even with secure attachment, they will hurt you. As Dr. Johnson writes in Love Sense, “there is no such thing as a perfect soul mate. Any partner we choose will hurt us at one time or another. No relationship, even the most ideal, has unwaveringly smooth sailing; there will always be squalls and storms that roll the waters. There will always be differences between lovers. How lovers allow their differences to affect the bond between them is the issue.” This is precisely where Jesus comes in. If he is at the center of your relationship and you are both intent on becoming more like him, you will find that with him and through him, he can help you navigate the stormy waters and find safety on the shore. With him steering the ship that is your relationship, both you and your partner are empowered to meet each other’s needs. 

The relationship high is over

Falling in love is often deceiving, because in the early stages of a relationship it feels like you have superhuman strength. In the infatuation stage (or honeymoon phase), things tend to come easy.  You’re on your best behavior. You will, in a lot of instances, do anything for that person. So in this sense, you become convinced that self-sacrifice comes naturally when “love” is present. But when the infatuation stage starts to end, which science says is usually around 18 months, things start to become infinitely harder. Our true colors start to emerge. Since the high that we got from the other person is no longer there, sacrificing for them and serving them comes at a cost to ourselves. Anyone who has ever fallen in love knows exactly what this downfall feels like. Ultimately, we lack the personal and relational maturity to progress through what John Gottman calls the three stages of love We don’t know how to embody self-sacrificial love over the long term, so it only becomes a matter of time before the relationship implodes.  Our entire relationship was built upon the intoxicating high that the other person once gave us. And now that this high has dimmed, we take it as a sign that we don’t “feel” the same way about them that we used to. And so we stray. We often don’t take the time to step back and consider who we want to become. Not what we want to accomplish, or what accolades we want to rack up, but who we want to become in five, ten, fifteen years.  This is often what is so deceiving about the “getting married later in life” narrative. Building your character is not a natural byproduct of getting older. You could be just as selfish at 32 as you were at 24. You could be just as prideful or emotionally closed off. If you don’t spend the time becoming a person who is capable of self-sacrificial love, then you will live without the necessary ingredients that make relationships work.

CLOSING WORDS

In Proverbs 16:4, we read “the Lord has made everything for its purpose.”  It’s clear that the purpose of romantic and sexual love is designed to be expressed through the foundation of monogamy. We saw that with oxytocin, with attachment theory and with anthropology, for it all to come together with the spiritual perspective. But it’s one thing to know this information, and quite another to live it out. The problem is that our culture tends to treat relationships casually, but if we actually want to succeed, nothing about this process is casual. To actually achieve success in the long-term, it might require taking a step back to focus on who we are becoming first. We need to first become people who are capable of self-sacrificial love before we can give self-sacrificial love. We need to first operate from a secure base, before we can become a secure attachment for someone else. To take some next steps in this process, check out our section on sex, our blog on the sexual love languages in addition to a library of teachings on relationships.

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