Monogamy’s the Norm in the US, But Why?


The sexual revolution of the 1960s, while great for unraveling oppressive attitudes towards sex and relationships, did little to budge monogamy from its cozy position as the virtuous norm in the U.S. Over 50 years later, social and sexual monogamy is still favored by the majority of Americans. While society has grown increasingly comfortable discussing the merits and drawbacks of monogamy in a conceptual space — we pick it apart, wonder if it could possibly be natural, lament its rigid structure — at the end of the day, most of us are still pursuing it. Relationships outside the bounds of monogamy remain taboo in this country.

This mismatch has become of interest to Terri Conley, the head of the University of Michigan’s Stigmatized Sexualities Lab. “It’s not even that we think about [monogamy] being right,” she told Quartz. “We just see it as the only way.” She believes monogamy is so ingrained in Western culture that even the psychologists and scientists who study it are unaware of their bias. She explained that she’s been wondering this for some time, but when she’s so much as raised the topic of better exploring non-monogamy, she’s been met with emotional blowback from other researchers.

“The fact that we can allow our discussion to be so emotionally led probably doesn’t allow us to really think in a logical manner,” Conley says.

Along with a team of researchers, Conley has been looking into whether studies have failed as a result of this favoritism. The research is due to be published soon in academic journal Perspectives on Psychological Science, but the results point towards a definite bias. The study cites the use of language like “infidelity” and “cheating” — which in and of themselves betray a bias towards a monogamous paradigm — as just one example of science unknowingly promoting one-on-one commitments.

Conley and her team also sought to perform a study free of such bias and found that “consensually non-monogamous relationships are just as ‘functional,’ based on a number of indicators, as monogamous ones.”

Despite a more open social dialogue, Conley believes we have a long way to go before the alternative lifestyles we intellectually explore actually affect our behavior. “The premise that monogamy is superior to other types of non-monogamous relational arrangements continues to permeate the ways in which researchers construct and test theories of love and intimacy,” wraps up Conley.

Is this contrast between attitude and behavior true for you? How do you feel about monogamy?

Photos by © Anrew Kolesnikow; Elizabeth Whiting & Associates/CORBIS/Corbis and John Kobal Foundation via Getty Images; collage by Maria Jia Ling Pitt. 

Haley Nahman

Haley Nahman

Haley Nahman is the Features Director at Man Repeller.

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