Is it natural for human beings to live a monogamous existence? When I ask this question, people look at me with surprise and answer derisively. A colleague from Europe tells me, “Oh, no-one is getting married these days. They are just so discouraged. What is the point? Monogamy is unrealistic, impossible.” My friend mutters, “It’s about time we gave up on that one! It’s a myth.” So when I am asked this very question by a television host, I take a very deep breath before I answer, “YES. I think we are naturally monogamous.” You can hear jaws dropping everywhere. Cynicism wins hands down. And yet we still glory in the ideal of monogamy. We spend fortunes on whiter than white weddings and act much of the time like the 90% of teenagers in a recent study, who affirm that they hope to marry and remain with the same partner till death do them part! Are we deliberately delusional and setting ourselves up for heartbreak and failure?
The easiest rock to sling at the big M word is that the media is awash with news about people having affairs. Brief sexual dalliances do indeed occur in nearly all socially monogamous animals like the grey wolf or great northern loons who nevertheless prefer to mate and bond with one partner at a time. In our species, some surveys have wildly exaggerated the occurrence of affairs. Reliable studies suggest that around 25% of men and 11% of women will end up in bed with someone other than their partner at some point in their lives. The mundane fact that most of us do not have affairs is overshadowed by titillating public stories of intrigue and deception.
A more basic argument against monogamy is the theory that affairs are, in fact, inevitable precisely because sex is the most powerful instinct of all. Men in particular, as this theory goes, are sex addicts at heart. Given any opportunity at all, they are wired by evolution to pass on as many of their genes as possible and so achieve a kind of immortality. Oh please! This is a long way from more mundane motivations whispered in the pick up lines that I can remember. Having worked with and researched distressed couples for 30 years, I am more convinced by the view that most affairs are the result either of unbearable loneliness that happens when we don’t know how to make love work, or of preemptive attempts to grab at a loving monogamous bond when the one we are in seems to be dying and taking us with it.
The second apparent nail in the coffin of monogamy is that we do indeed divorce. About a third or more of us (and yes, the rate is going down in North America) don’t make it to the “death do us part” bit, especially if you marry young. But so called serial monogamy is still monogamy, even if, like everything else, it’s not absolute and for all time. I think the divorce rates simply mean that most of us just don’t know how to get it right – we don’t understand how to create a strong loving bond. We try desperately to dance a love-you-forever tango often without ever having even seen the steps! As a couple therapist, I see how intently invested partners are in this struggle on a daily basis. And when we fail, most often we find another partner and keep right on trying!
There are other arguments against monogamy. One is that polygamy dominates in many cultures. Romantic love, however, seems to exist everywhere and given half the chance, rears up and takes over. When people have a choice and do not have to marry out of fear or just to survive, they marry for love. They choose to bond with a special other. But, some naturalists say, only 7% of mammals are socially monogamous. My response is, “Yes and we are one of those 7%”. It is accepted by scientists that 90% of birds are monogamous, even though birds, like seagulls, have about a 25% divorce rate. The arguments are probably different in seagull couples though. They might go, “That stick you found does not go with the feng shui tone of this nest”. Some animals are actually better at monogamy than us! The pygmy marmoset is faithful, dedicated, and shares symptoms of pregnancy with his lady. The Californian mouse is socially and sexually monogamous and this matters; if the babies aren’t cuddled constantly by Mr. Mouse they don’t make it.
Now we come to the reasons for my belief that monogamy, based on deep bonds of romantic love, is natural for humans. First, monogamy shows up in animals who invest time and work in rearing their kids and dealing with survival challenges. Beavers work as a team to rear young, build dams and gather food. They have to coordinate their movements, synchronize efforts, and read each other’s cues. They depend on each other, and this is an important word, depend.
The second and most potent argument for monogamy is that we are wired for it! A huge part of our brain is designed not just for social group interaction but for the intimate synchrony of emotional connection and bonding. The pacing, the give and take, the tuning in, the adapting to the other’s emotional cues between parents and infants and between adult lovers, are all about bonding. The main message of the new science of adult bonding is that the instinct to reach, connect and rely on loved ones is primary, more fundamental even than sex. Monogamous mammals like us have special cuddle hormones like oxytocin or OT – the so called molecule of monogamy. It turns off stress hormones, turns on reward centers, and fills us with calm contentment and well-being. OT is released at orgasm and even when simply thinking of our partner! When primed with this hormone, our brains find it easier to tune into another person and read intentions. When scientists increase OT in little monogamous prairie voles, they cuddle more and mate less. When they block OT, they mate but don’t cuddle. Our brains are wired for a certain kind of connection with those we depend on. As the Dali Lama suggests, human affection is the one indispensable necessity in life.
We are bonding animals who live best in the shelter offered by another’s love. An attachment bond is persistent. Once made, it is specific to another “irreplaceable” person. Once we are bonded, we seek out closeness with our loved one and we are deeply distressed at emotional or physical separation. We seek comfort and a sense of security with this person. We can have more than one bond of course. But for most of us, there is a hierarchy of one or two loved ones, and our sexual partner is usually at the top of the list. We are emotionally invested in these relationships and they penetrate key aspects of our lives. These bonds have incredible survival value. We are healthier, happier, psychologically stronger, and we live longer when we are close and connected. This deep desire to matter to another, to be able to turn to another as a safe haven, gets lost in our culture of mine, me and myself. We forget to mention that being the best you can be inevitably involves being connected to somebody else! We are not meant for so called self-sufficiency and the emotional isolation that comes with it.
Behind the sappy romantic novels and sentimentality associated with love is a bred-in-the-bone longing. It is wired into our mammalian brain. This is why, even though we might get distracted into a one night sexual adventure, we still fight to connect and to hold onto our love relationships. Our most natural and longed for state is a strong, nurturing monogamous pair bond and on this bond we base our families.
The real issue here is that when we fail the monogamy test it is most often because we have no blueprint, no map for loving connection. Science now offers us such a map. Until very recently, we have not known what the bond of love, the basis of successful monogamy, is all about and how to shape it. Lets see how good monogamy can be now that we know how to love.
Dr. Sue Johnson – Alliant International University, San Diego, USA & University of Ottawa, Canada
Fights are the times when our relationships with those we love come into sharp focus and hit us right between the eyes, so to speak. They are not fun! And lots of couples seek help simply to stop escalating the arguments. So when couples argue, what works and what doesn’t work?
Many people ask, “Do happy couples fight? Is it okay to fight?” I tell them that all the research says happy couples fight, and having fights is normal and healthy. In fact, if you never fight it usually means that you are being very careful indeed and that isn’t healthy for any relationship. It’s hard to dance together when you are always watching where you put your feet! Professionals have focused on reducing fights between lovers and typically ignored other key relationship issues, like emotional distance, which is at least as toxic as recurring arguments.
So then the next question is – shouldn’t we then try to have rules for fighting? i.e. learn to “fight fair”? For me, this is like saying when the emotional music is fast and hot and
we are in the middle of a terrible tango with our partner, can’t we carry a little set of rules around in our hand that we can consult so it will tell us where to put our feet? Well, I know I can’t and the evidence is that even happy couples who aren’t relationship experts can’t either. In fact, I am allergic to the idea of learning rules like Fighting Fair. It sets us all up for failure.
As one of my clients told me, “All these lists of skills and advice – it’s like being in free fall over a cliff and trying to read a set of instructions about how to pull your parachute cord on the way down. Can’t do it!” Even fellow therapists tell me that they cannot use their honed communication skills at key difficult moments with their partner. Wrong channel, wrong time.
So when I go on the internet and read the first rule under Fighting Fair, “Stay Calm”, I start to laugh. If you’re fighting, this advice is too late already! The next one is, “Be specific and reasonable”. When the fear center of my brain is glowing red, my cortex, the seat of deliberate reasoning, is most often not on line. And often times we fight just to figure out what the heck is upsetting us. I see couples fighting about chores, as in “You said you would fix the plug on Saturday and you didn’t do it till Sunday”, when in fact, the fight is really about key emotional issues, such as “Can I depend on you and do my feelings matter to you?”
The third rule in Fighting Fair is that if all else fails, take a “time out”. Really?! So when I am upset, it’s going to help if you turn away and turn me off ? I think in many of us this is just going to trigger higher levels of alarm and resentment. Aren’t we all just a little threatened by our loved one being able to turn and walk away, as if we didn’t matter at all? In my practice, the only people who can use “time outs” are those who have very mild fights and tons of love between them – that is, those who don’t really need it.
When I think of the hundreds of couples I have seen over the years, it seems to me that all we can reasonably do when the tsunami of upset hits, is to avoid a few moves that can turn a fight into a war. When, in our desire to be heard or to “win”, we reach for labels and threats, we scare the hell out of our partner. This partner then ups the ante or runs and hides, and then we are all by ourselves! So, when Sarah in my office smacks her partner with the labels “loser” or “evil bastard”, I know we are in for a long hard struggle. Usually we say these things because we think we are having NO impact. Trouble is that this kind of label wounds your partner. In fact, our brain registers this kind of hostile criticism in the same area as physical pain. Your partner is also so busy dealing with this pain that his or her ability to listen to you becomes non-existent.
Threats also backfire. I tell couples, “It’s like you want to rearrange your home, your relationship, so you toss a grenade into the living room. It does change things! But…” As one of my clients told me, “When she uses the D word, divorce I mean, it’s like I have a pen knife and she has a nuclear weapon. I just freeze up. I can’t talk at all.”
So what does work? Well, what we know about “star” couples is that after the fight is over, they go and repair the rift between them. This makes all the difference. The old idea that bad feelings will just fade over time is just that – an old idea! Your brain actually holds onto danger signals and negative emotions just to try to protect you and help you avoid them in the future. So, the best advice of all about fighting is:
- Reach for your courage and your partner, and make up!
- Soothe those hurt feelings.
- Help each other to feel safe again.
It helps to talk about your own emotions here instead of your partner’s behavior. You can both assume, if it was a serious fight, that you scared the hell out of each other. Our research shows that you can heal hurts and create a love that lasts by showing your partner that you care about their feelings and opening the door to what I call a Hold Me Tight conversation.
Can romantic love last or does it have, by its very nature, a best before date? One writer has suggested that love is only “designed” to last for about four years, or until the offspring of a romance can survive without two guardian parents. Other research has suggested that love inevitably fades after about 15 months. But mostly we seem to have collectively decided that natural life of a love relationship is even shorter than this. After all, if love is a fever, then it has to die down. If you ‘fall” in love, then I guess at some point you stand up and dust yourself off. Even our language suggests that romantic love is brief.
This perspective on love becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. As one of my clients recently told me, “I almost didn’t agree to come for couple therapy. After all, all my girl friends say that there is no solution to my unhappiness and I just have to accept the way love is. After you have been married for a few years there just isn’t much of that romance and being in love left. You just have to give that up and accept that this is all there is.” My client then added, “But I came because I was dying inside. I was angry all the time – after a while screaming into the silence is just too hard.” She was telling me about the high price of a distressed relationship and a resigned approach to love.
Another part of this skeptical approach to long term love is the ubiquitous assumption that sexual desire and passion withers once the marriage contract is signed. And it is true that changes, like those involved in becoming parents for example, can dampen eroticism for a while. But is the first flush of infatuation, and the temporary intoxication that comes with a new and highly emotional experience really the best we can expect from a love relationship?
An obvious response to this question is – Maybe. If we don’t understand love, if it really is a mystery, then there is probably nothing for it but to suffer its coming and goings and find a way to shrug our shoulders and not expect too much. But my response is that this cynical attitude to love is simply out of date. For the first time in human history, we understand what love is and how to shape it. This changes all the odds in the search for “real love’ – the love that lasts.
We have always known in our hearts that love can last for the lucky few. And science has begun to confirm this. Recently researcher Arthur Arons at Stony Brook University used brain scans to show that a small number of couples still respond with as much physiological arousal – lets call it passion – after 20 years together as most folks experience only in the heat of first infatuation. Chemistry can last!!
We also know from recent surveys that desire and passion are much more enduring than we have supposed. Rigorous recent surveys tell us that the people who have the most frequent and most satisfying sex are those in long term loving relationships. Logically, this is not surprising; in most things practice makes perfect. Sex is like tango; when you dance with someone over a long time, you can co-ordinate your moves and create more synchrony.
So what do we need to make this lasting love and passion an attainable goal for more and more of us? Once upon a time, you could not expect to live past fifty five. My grandfather died at 40, of pneumonia, a disease that is now easily cured – because of the advancement of science. In the same way, I believe that the new science of love that has evolved in the last decade is making the concept of love as a passing fever obsolete.
We have already learned so much about the bonds of love as a result of this revolutionary new development of seeing love – an emotion – through the microscope of science and systematic reasoned exploration. Hundreds of studies tell us, for example, that love is an exquisitely logical survival code and that the ability to reach out, clearly state your emotional needs and respond to your lover’s emotional need for comfort, reassurance and connection is the key ingredient in love. We make mistakes because we don’t understand our needs. We don’t have a map of the territory. We so often send distorted messages, offer advice or problem solving when our partner needs our emotional presence, or try to hide our emotions when science tells us that our loved one has picked them up from our facial expression almost before our own brain has decided to try and hide them.
But once we know the territory – once we understand the bonds of love, then we can actively shape these bonds in a way that is new for human lovers. We can have love that lasts a lifetime.