Is Monogamy Necessary For A Fulfilling Relationship?

This is a guest post written by Sara Sharnoff.  Sara is currently finishing her Masters Degree in Family Therapy at the University of Massachusetts Boston.  After years of feeling let down because her life did not resemble a John Hughes movie, Sara decided to devote her time to studying couples and intimate relationships.  During her free time she loves to drink copious amounts of coffee, cheer on the Boston Celtics, and explore the gorgeous sights in New England.  She's here to share her perspective on relationships.

A few months ago, the beautiful Angelina Jolie told Germany’s Das Neue Magazine, “I doubt that fidelity is absolutely essential for a relationship," and continued, “It's worse to leave your partner and talk badly about him afterwards." It is difficult to imagine wanting to explore outside relationships when your significant other is Brad Pitt, but perhaps Ms. Jolie has a point.  After all, Angelina and Brad have been a couple since 2005 and are currently raising six children together, which by Hollywood standards is a massive success.  

Everyone knows that celebrities can challenge the traditional relationship norms (Hello, Hugh Heffner!), but how does it apply to the rest of us? Where does monogamy fit in when attitudes around commitment change faster than Charlie Sheen’s mood? And why are couples expressing commitment to one another without discussing their expectations around monogamy and sexual exclusivity?

The topic has garnered interest after public health researchers Jocelyn Warren and Marie Harvey of Oregon State University conducted a study that suggests couples are misjudging their partners’ perception of commitment. Warren and Garvey studied 434 heterosexual couples ages 18-25 and reported that in 40 percent of couples, there was only one partner who described the relationship as sexually exclusive. Even the institution of marriage was not enough to secure a monogamy agreement; the study suggests that married couples were no more likely to agree on monogamy than non-married couples.  The couples who did agree on being exclusive were not totally in the clear- almost 30 percent of these couples experienced one of the partners having a sexual affair.

Perhaps the issue isn’t whether or not couples are monogamous, but why.  Many people attribute the women’s liberation movement and the free love of the 1970s to opening minds around commitment, but plenty of people today still aspire to engage in a lifelong partnership with just one person.  Unfortunately, divorce rates indicate that monogamy isn’t meeting everybody’s needs and is leaving many questioning its place in a world with limitless options. There are several alternatives to a traditional monogamous relationship that couples can pursue. Some people opt for serial monogamy, or several committed relationships over a lifetime.  This path questions the idea of finding “the one” and instead suggests that people can have several “ones” over the course of a lifetime. Another option for people to consider is open marriages or relationships, like Angelina and Brad.  These relationships exist between couples who are committed to one another but also agree that they can see other people for emotional and/or physical intimacy. These relationships are sometimes perceived as radical because they challenge the belief that people can only attain certain personality characteristics in a romantic partner while being forced to give up other qualities that they desire. Sometimes people become unsatisfied with the limits of monogamy; after all, it would be unusual to find someone strong, stable, and independent while also being spontaneous, adventurous, and emotional.  Without holding one person responsible for fulfilling every expectation, perhaps the relationships can grow to be more successful in the long run. Maybe there is no need to see if the grass is greener on the other side if you are allowed to play in the communal garden.

Regardless of what type of relationships couples pursue, monogamy does not seem to be leaving the party any time soon. It may not always seem like the easiest choice, but neither are a lot of the decisions in life. Yet everyday people manage to go to work instead of sleeping until noon, resist temptation to buy another pair of sky-high heels that will never see the outside of the closet, and sweat it out at the gym instead of reaching the bottom of the potato chip bag. Maybe monogamy should not be viewed as the ideal standard for all couples, but rather as one of many options in a smorgasbord at the buffet.  It is up to the couple to decide if sharing a piece of cake makes it sweeter or causes it to lose its flavor.