Article by Dr. Sue Johnson
Monogamy is getting a bad rap these days. We’re told that we should all grow up and accept that it’s impossible and that we’re just naturally promiscuous. Monogamy is more and more portrayed as a state of deprivation, where deadening familiarity robs us of magic and thrills in the bedroom and beyond, and cheating is viewed as inevitable.
But most of us (about 75% of us, according to several different studies) do not cheat on our partners. And, even though, until recently, we had no map or any kind of scientific understanding of love to guide us, more than half of us manage to stay together for a lifetime.
Rigorous survey data from the University of Chicago also shows that long-term committed couples are the happiest, most satisfied, have more sex and report that their sex lives are more thrilling. Here are five reasons, why monogamy — especially now that bonding science shows us how to shape and hold onto love — is no dysfunctional delusion. It is simply the best way to be.
1. It’s in our nature to hold onto and protect the bond with a chosen mate.
We are mammals who must collaborate closely over time to rear extremely vulnerable young. A clear preference to mate, stay close to, groom, care for and protect one partner is the norm in such mammals. This does not mean that recreational sex never occurs; it means that it’s an occasional side show, a deviation from an adaptive norm, not a better option.
2. Love is an ancient survival code designed to keep a trusted loved one close.
We now know that this need for safe haven connection with an irreplaceable other is our most compelling drive, one that has shaped our chemistry and our nervous system. Sex in mammals is a bonding behavior. We mate face to face, touch and caress, and we are flooded with the bonding hormone, oxytocin, when we “make love.”
Oxytocin turns off fear, turns on reward hormones and moves us into calm contentment. No wonder we long for love. When usually monogamous mammals like praire voles are given drugs to block oxytocin, they are more likely to stray, when given extra oxytocin they practically groom their mate into the ground.
3. The cost of infidelity is high.
Partners are generally unable and unwilling to share the one they love. Sam, like most partners tells me, “I don’t even know why I did it. It wasn’t like I was consumed with lust for my secretary or was hankering after a different partner. I had lost my connection with my wife, Kim. Nothing seemed to work between us. I was depressed and lonely. Taking my secretary out for coffee was comforting and it felt good that she liked me. I told myself that Kim wouldn’t find out and that it wouldn’t really change anything. The whole thing just seemed very separate from my family.”
Sam denied and compartmentalized, but he was wrong about Kim’s response. She felt traumatized and betrayed. Since we have such a deep need for a secure bond with a lover we can count on, it is natural and inevitable that Kim experiences Sam’s affair as a significant threat. She asked Sam to move out. With help, this couple were able to move into forgiveness. So yes, you can reconcile after an affair, but often the damage is irrevocable.
4. A secure bond with all its mental and physical health benefits, requires focused attention and timely emotional responsiveness.
This is hard to pull off if you are investing in more than relationship at a time. Amy tells her husband Jacques, “I want to come first. You don’t even have time and energy for me, let alone a mistress. You ask me to accept this and adapt, but we spend all our time setting rules and fighting over who gets your attention and when. I can’t count on you to be there for me. You have to leave.”
5. Most arguments against monogamy stress the “sex with the same person becomes a bore” mantra.
One study out of my research center shows that when couples become more open and emotionally connected, their sex life improves. Recreational sex — sex without emotional engagement — is way overrated. It’s like a dance without music. Flat. One dimensional.
The partners who report being the most open to one night stands and short term sexual relationships are usually into avoidant bonding strategies. They tend to be phobic about depending on or being vulnerable to others. In bed they focus on performance and “hot” sensation.
Ironically, studies report that these same people enjoy sex less and have less frequent sex than more involved bonded partners. The evidence is, securely attached, fully engaged lovers, are happier and more caring.
They also have better sex lives; they are more open to exploring their sexual needs, they communicate better in bed, and can co-operate and solve sexual problems together. They dance in a more attuned and responsive way, in bed and out of it.
The idea that passion has a “Best-before” date and is incompatible with long term love was trendy before the new science of love came on line. Now it’s out of date. The take home message is: be monogamous and shape a joyful, secure bond with your partner. Don’t worry, you’re not missing a thing. If you learn to make sense of love, you can fall in love again and again with the same precious lover. You can have lasting, caring, intimate connection AND the time of your life in bed. This is delight, not deprivation.
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