Wednesday, July 11, 2007

The Origins of Monogamy and Jealousy

Someone wrote the following to me yesterday.

You obviously have approached this subject with a scholarly bent and seem to know quite a bit. I have thought a lot about it too and I have, from time to time, dabbled in Sociology and Social Psychology. I have a sort of negative, flip-side question for you: what do you think the origins and purposes of monogamy are? For the life of me, I cannot see how monogamy serves any real purpose except to guarantee mates for the less-advantaged males. What do you think?


Well, certainly your observation about monogamy serving to guarantee mates for less-advantaged males is accurate according to Psychology Today.

Most women benefit from polygyny, while most men benefit from monogamy.

When there is resource inequality among men—the case in every human society—most women benefit from polygyny: women can share a wealthy man. Under monogamy, they are stuck with marrying a poorer man.

The only exceptions are extremely desirable women. Under monogamy, they can monopolize the wealthiest men; under polygyny, they must share the men with other, less desirable women. However, the situation is exactly opposite for men. Monogamy guarantees that every man can find a wife. True, less desirable men can marry only less desirable women, but that's much better than not marrying anyone at all.

Men in monogamous societies imagine they would be better off under polygyny. What they don't realize is that, for most men who are not extremely desirable, polygyny means no wife at all, or, if they are lucky, a wife who is much less desirable than one they could get under monogamy.


Once upon a time when there were certainly no DNA tests to confirm paternity, monogamy was intended to guarantee blood lines so that wealth and property was kept in the family. How well that worked in reality is likely another story, but it did give (or was at least was intended to give) men control over who inherited property, since the right of women to own property is a much more recent development.

Monogamy's origins are also firmly rooted in Europe and the Catholic church. The church enforced monogamy as an aspect of virtue according to the gospel of St. Paul and other biblical sources who believed that Eve seduced Adam into sin and so women needed to be dominated and controlled to save them from sin. This also served to help men avoid feelings of jealousy by keeping their women to themselves, and women bought into it as well, perceiving that they preferred to keep their men to themselves, even as they were attracted to other men and tempted to stray - just as, in reality, were their men. The church declared that temptation to stray was a sin, and that monogamy was divinely mandated. Again, this was the church's way of controlling its parishoners and maintaining it's own power and authority.

From an evolutionary biological standpoint, humans are programmed to pair bond for the raising of children, though anthropologists believe we have never done so entirely monogamously. There is a reproductive advantage to spreading one's reproductive resources around to others, generally others perceived to be healthy - which explains why men in particular are so attracted to women younger than they. We women have a finite number of eggs and a finite number of years in which to put them to use - not so for men.

Next we throw into the mix the matter of sexual jealousy. This is not even remotely new in evolutionary terms and is believed to have developed as a further means of keeping parents together for the raising of children, especially in order to see that children are protected and provided for at least until they are out of the cradle. Some anthropologists assert that this explains why biologically limerence, that "in love" rush of emotions, eventually wears off, preparing us to then be attracted to others so as to continue to spread reproductive resources around to other attractive, i.e. reproductively viable, partners.

For more on all this, see the book references on the website for the Institute for 21st Century Relationships, specifically here and here.

I recommend the works of anthropologist Helen Fisher, especially her book "Anatomy of Love: A Natural History of Mating, Marriage, and Why We Stray", as well as the book "Christianity and Sexuality in the Early Modern World: Regulating Desire, Reforming Practice" by Wiesner-Hanks.

Sexual jealousy makes monogamy seem like a good idea, yet we are just as biologically programmed to stray outside the pair bond to further guarantee perpetuation of our species. In other words, it is normal to want to keep our partner to ourselves while we decline to remain monogamous ourselves. It seems that human evolution is entirely focused on outcomes and is not concerned with the internal conflict it may create in attaining them.

In my work with polyamorous people on resolving jealousy, I have encountered a few who are honest enough to fully admit that they want to be with others but are not willing to share their partner with others while admitting that it is unfair. A very few bisexual folks with straight partners take this approach as well, pointing out a need for one of each as justification for being with more than one while their straight partner has no such right or imperative. In both cases the motivation is to avoid feelings of jealousy while getting their need for variety met. These folks are definitely in the minority, at least as to their willingness to admit to these rationalizations. The vast majority of non-monogamous people share these feelings but are much more philosophically egalitarian. They choose to deal with concerns about jealousy more directly, by doing internal emotional work, communicating with their partner(s) about their feelings, and in so doing finding ways to minimize or resolve their feelings in a way that is fair to everyone.

5 comments:

cantholdmytongue.com said...

Is jealousy natural? For me, this question is posed within the context of an examination of modern capitalist consumer society that tends to emphasize extreme insecurity amongst populations in order to more effectively sell products, all designed to remedy some portion of this matrix of insecurity and inadequacy.

Your breath stinks.
You're losing your hair.
You're overweight.
You're too dark (for non-whites)
You're not dark enough (for whites)
You have dandruff.
You're not buff enough.
Your clothes don't match.

You can go on all day with the themes promoting inadequacy. Billboards, posters, teevee, radio, magazines. It's everywhere. Living amongst all of these hundreds of messages daily must have some effect on our self-image. And in turn, I think it must have some effect on how our insecure selves then cling to lovers/friends etc.

I can't find much about how modern society affects this dynamic but it seems difficult for me to imagine that it does not. Have any recommendations as to where/how I might look further into this line of inquiry?

Gaynell said...

This is great info to know.

Agile Cyborg said...

I don't buy, for one second, this idea promulgated by feminists and others that monogamy exists to benefit males.

I have never met a woman in my entire life who would consider anything other than monogamy for her ideal relationship structure. Monogamy grants females a tremendous amount of control over the male. Divorce threat is a useful tool of punishment for immoral behavior as many women seem incapable of engaging in risky sexual ventures- At least in my experience.

Man, do I have some stories to tell.

Anonymous said...

From what I know, the bible's great men of God were polygamous yet God loved them and mightily used them, I will definately search to understand the origis of polygamy. Nature itself must teach people that it is impossible for every male creature to live with one female partner......

Gweru, Zimbabwe

Anonymous said...

I have been curious for a long time why I had so much problems believing monogamy is natural. I have always thought that it seemed a man made idea. As for monogamy being the only thing women will accept I refused to marry my husband unless we had an "open" marriage. It's had it's ups and downs but I have always known that monogamy wasn't for me and I'm a woman. I do believe that marriage is a construct for control and unfortunately most people see it as the only legitimate form of showing your commitment to someone.