- Some who engage in serial monogamy may have underlying mental health symptoms.
- A pathological fear of being alone is often based on core attachment wounds and unmet safety needs.
- Serial monogamy may be used to overcompensate for unresolved core wounds or fears of being alone.
Have you ever known of someone who is always in some phase of a romantic relationship? They may excitedly tell you about their latest conquest, or they may have asked you for advice if their relationship has plateaued and are questioning whether or not to stay. They can appear to easily replace one partner for another with little downtime in between relationships. Or, they may show symptoms of depression or anxiety and struggle emotionally when they find themselves between relationships, or in moments when they are alone.
The term for this pattern is often referred to as “serial monogamy,” which can play out differently for each person. For example, one person may have many short-lived relationships, a string of “virtual” online relationships, or may refuse to settle down long-term with one person. Others may prefer going from one long-term partner to another with very little time between relationships, which may or may not include overlapping relationships and infidelity. However, while they may have different styles of serial monogamy, they typically share one core pattern of behavior: they fear being alone and without a romantic relationship for any length of time.
Some who engage in serial monogamy have underlying mental health symptoms or compulsive behaviors including depression, separation anxiety, relational/emotional dependency, limited ability to understand their emotions or relate to others' emotions, codependency, or compulsive use of the internet or cellphone to fill an emotional void when alone3. Because we are hardwired for connection, we turn to others for validation, belonging, and a sense of connection. Yet, when there is a pathological fear of being alone or without a romantic relationship, this fear is often based on core wounds and can increase the risks for other problematic behaviors.
1. Unmet Need to Feel Safe. If a person grew up in adverse living conditions that may have included abuse or neglect, their basic need for safety may have been compromised. They may be hyper-vigilant to noises, scared of public places, or retreat to the safety of their home. Some may turn to romantic relationships to “fix” or “save” them from their unmet need to feel safe. By constantly having some form of romantic relationship in their lives, they may believe that they now have security and stability. Unfortunately, if a person has not addressed or healed these core attachment wounds, they may confuse a controlling or abusive partner as being "protective" or offering them safety.
2. Unhealed Abandonment Trauma. If a person has experienced abandonment in their life (whether actual or perceived) it can affect their sense of feeling safe, and their ability to connect with others from a secure base. Abandonment wounds can impact a person’s life most severely if the abandonment occurred during key developmental stages such as early childhood or if it occurred from a primary caregiver. The outcome is that they may carry these fears of abandonment with them into their romantic relationships, which operates as a double-edged sword and self-fulfilling prophecy: the closer they get to a romantic partner, the greater their fears of abandonment, which can lead to abandoning the relationship, or being abandoned.
3. Interpersonal Dependency. This wound can resonate with an unmet need for external validation, as well as turning to others to “mirror” or support their sense of identity. Some with borderline personality disorder (BPD) may struggle with being without a romantic relationship as fears and unmet needs tend to escalate, including negative affect when alone, increased feelings of depression and anxiety, and difficulty tolerating autonomy—all of which can trigger deep fears of abandonment1,2. A person who struggles being without a romantic relationship may actually be struggling in understanding who they are as an individual, and they may be using a romantic relationship as their sense of self-identity.
4. Low Self-Worth. If a person struggles with low self-worth, being without a romantic relationship can actually trigger feeling not good enough, which can reinforce a pattern of "chasing" a relationship for validation of their worth, and to lessen feelings of unworthiness. This pattern usually becomes cyclic where they may choose relationships based on their unmet needs to feel wanted, of value, and loved instead of choosing a partner that is their emotional and psychological equal. This places them at an increased risk of engaging in a toxic relationship or traumatic bond for the sake of not being alone.
“Serial monogamy” is not a stand-alone behavior, but usually accompanies deeper unresolved issues, including dependency, codependency, low self-worth, depression, anxiety, or fears of abandonment or rejection. Many of these can originate from attachment trauma, or from basic needs having gone unmet earlier in your life. It is important to speak to a trauma-informed psychologist who can help you unpack core wounding and provide you with actionable tools that promote your growth and healing.
To find a therapist, please visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.
Choi-Kain, L.W., Zanarini, M.C., Frankerburg, M.D., Fitzmaurice, G.T., & Reich, D.B. (2011). A longitudinal study of the 10year course of interpersonal features in borderline personality disorder. Journal of Personality Disorders, 24(3), 365-376.
Lemos, M., et al. (2019). Potential therapeutic targets in people with emotional dependency. International Journal of Psychological Research, 12(1), 18-27.
Reed, P., Romano, M., Re, F., Roaro, A., Osborne, L. A., Viganò, C., et al. (2017). Differential physiological changes following internet exposure in higher and lower problematic internet users. PLoS ONE, 12(5), 1-11.