We think of monogamy as natural, but it’s actually quite advanced—the trouble is we default to it out of fear instead of choosing it consciously.
As a polyamorous person, I have great respect for the monogamous, for their depth of commitment, for the work and growth and courage necessary to pull off a conscious decision to remain monogamous.
As a formerly monogamous person, I have great respect for the polyamorous, for their excellent communication skills and ability to transcend cultural norms. Navigating multiple romantic and sexual relationships tends to bring up more of their “stuff,” faster, necessitating the need to address feelings like jealousy. The polyamorous work hard to foster the opposite of jealousy: compersion (the warm enjoyment of your lover’s happiness with another lover).
Arguably, polyamory requires a lot more “work” than monogamy. It’s logistically more challenging managing multiple relationships—there are only so many hours in a week. With more people, there are more emotions, more stories and needs and personalities to address, so there is more learning and personal development required.
But if monogamy is so much simpler than polyamory, why does it feel like so much work? Shouldn’t one relationship be easier than two or more? In my experience, monogamy is hard in a way that polyamory is easy.
Contemplating this several years ago, everything clicked into place for me. I had an aha moment, and the evolutionary ladder of polyamory and monogamy suddenly made sense to me:
Monogamy is more advanced than polyamory.
Now, before the polyamory camp gets offended and the monogamy camp gets righteous, I’m about to reverse the offense:
Monogamy is more advanced than polyamory, because monogamy is less natural than polyamory.
Nature, as I’m using the word here, is what happens of its own accord. Our human nature is what happens when we are connected with our inherent well-being, free of habitual patterns, emotional wounds, limiting beliefs, societal conditioning, and oppression. Obviously none of us are living 100 percent within our nature, but the more we see it, the easier it is to gravitate back toward it.
Secure attachment is natural. Anxious and avoidant attachment is unnatural.
Having a growth mindset, acknowledging that we are ever-evolving and that our personality and capacities are not fixed, is natural. Having a fixed mindset of “That’s just the way I am” is unnatural.
And while secure attachment between two people is very natural, the assumed exclusivity and the duration of monogamy are unnatural, a purely human creation that requires the restraint of our nature. If monogamy were natural, an expression of our inherent well-being, it wouldn’t require so much willpower. It wouldn’t require a commitment. Cheating and divorce wouldn’t be as common, and staying committed would be just as easy as when you first fell in love.
Monogamy is normal, but not natural. It is the cultural norm, with centuries of assumptions and confirmation bias backing it up, and it may seem like sacrilege to say that it is unnatural, but then again it was once sacrilege to say that the earth revolved around the sun instead of the other way around.
This doesn’t mean that humans cannot be or should not be monogamous, because:
Humans are not limited by their nature.
We, with our potential access to greater consciousness, self-reflection and will, are able to adapt, abstract, resist, and reprogram our nature. As humans, it is our nature to embrace our nature, and also to rise above it. Not to leave it behind, but to both transcend and include it.
Monogamy is an advanced form of relating that requires us to transcend what comes naturally to us in relationship. Monogamy is like putting a man on the moon: It is something rare and magical. It’s not something that happens of its own accord. It requires a great deal of courage and support to pull it off—and it can be worth it if you treat it with the proper respect.
So then, if monogamy is so advanced, why is everyone doing it? Why does it seem easier than polyamory? Because there are two kinds of monogamy. What I’ve been pointing to is conscious monogamy, but most monogamous relationships are stuck in unconscious monogamy.
How most people practice monogamy is a form of anxious attachment, using monogamy to “fix” their fears, to “get” love and support from the outside because they don’t think they are whole on the inside. Unconscious monogamy is based on expectations instead of agreements. It lacks the distinctions and positivity and naturalness of polyamory. It is focused on security instead of possibility.
Conscious monogamy is where both the natural and the unnatural aspects of monogamy are embraced. Conscious monogamy is a consciously chosen and co-created relationship structure, a container, to encourage more personal and relational growth. It’s turning up the heat on evolution. Conscious monogamy is a long-term transformational workshop.
If I had the power to reach into culture and rearrange what and how people learn about relationships, I would be encouraging polyamory as the norm, and monogamy as the advanced, only meant for the most experienced. There should be books and workshops and university classes about how monogamy works, building upon the principles learned in polyamory. Each monogamous relationship would be a uniquely designed and ever-evolving relationship, made up of consciously chosen agreements, and an acknowledgment of its challenges. Monogamy should be reserved for the experts.
Michael McDonald is an integrity coach, writer, speaker, workshop leader, the creator of Relational Alchemy, and the leader of the Quiet Giants movement.