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Natural Monogamy: Does It Exist?

Why is it so hard for so many to stay monogamous?

Key points

  • Typically, naturally monogamous people partner with those who struggle more with monogamy.
  • Both partners who are monogamous and those who are "seekers" need to learn to appreciate what their opposite brings to a marriage.
  • The final form of a marriage is less important than the integrity of the process that creates it.

One of the more common injuries that brings partners to couples therapy is an affair. Statistics typically show that up to 50 percent of marriages experience an extramarital affair, although there is some variability in that number depending on what study is used. And while it used to be men who strayed more frequently, the gap has closed in recent years as more women entered the workforce (and thus had more opportunities to meet other people) and as attitudes toward women’s sexuality have changed.

Except, in the case of couples who choose open marriages by mutual consent, my observation is that there is typically one partner who is more naturally monogamous and another who is more naturally a seeker of new experiences. It seems to correlate along a profile of other similar expressions of the same impulses of preserving and solidifying what exists—a more conservative tendency vs. a desire to explore new experiences, whether it be via travel, job changes, or other kinds of risk-taking.

Depending on where you stand on this safety/risk continuum, you may be tempted to judge the side which is not like you. For example, if you value establishing, preserving, and solidifying a stable home, you may resent your partner for constantly pushing the boundaries of what you’re comfortable with. If you’re more on the risky side of the continuum, you may resent your partner for limiting your freedom and never wanting to try anything new.

Monogamy and the safety continuum

What does this have to do with monogamy? I think it’s easier for people on the safety side of the continuum to stay monogamous. Broadly speaking, it seems to come more naturally and with less of a feeling of sacrifice. They’re simply less interested in looking elsewhere. They value stability and safety more than adventure, so they’re less naturally inclined to seek the excitement of a new sexual partner. For the more adventurous, boundary-pushing type, monogamy can feel more like a societal yoke than an aspect of marital bliss. They know they’re supposed to be monogamous, but it doesn’t come naturally, and at best it’s something they learn to comply with rather than it be a natural expression of who they are.

I don’t think it’s an accident that in most marriages, these two types will be together. We are attracted to someone who externally demonstrates something that is dormant within us. So the more conservative, stable, naturally monogamous partner will be attracted to someone who is more adventure-seeking. The partner who loves fun and a constant diet of new experiences will be attracted to someone who is more conservative, stable, and home-focused.

We typically are attracted to our opposites, and then when the romantic blush is over, we complain about the qualities we initially were attracted to. This is because we cannot outsource our own development—we must claim these dormant qualities within us, or we eventually will resent our partners for embodying them. So the conservative partner must learn to be more experimental and adventure-seeking, including with his or her partner in the bedroom. The stimulus junky must learn to appreciate the value of stillness, regularity, and consistency, including having sex with the same partner for decades.

Learning to live consciously

In my experience, most couples who experiment with open marriages by practicing ethical non-monogamy end up closing their marriage back up again. It’s extraordinarily challenging for most people to handle the added dynamics outside relationships bring to a marriage. Affairs have all these challenges with the added challenge of betrayal, where the marriage was opened up without one partner’s consent.

So for you readers who struggle with monogamy, am I counseling you to shut up and get used to it? Absolutely not. I am advocating for both partners to take up the challenge of who they truly are and bring that challenge to the reality of their marriage and their lifestyles, and to see where it will lead. Everyone benefits from an honest life that is consciously lived. The form it takes is less important than the integrity of the process that goes into creating that form.

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