Is monogamy for everyone? Is it especially difficult and maybe impossible for men to be monogamous?
The pervasive notion that monogamy is the ultimate proof of true love doesn’t really square with the reality that cheating is rampant. And yet, whether gay or straight, the vast majority of relationships start with the belief that monogamy is the desired ideal.
In his new book, “The Monogamy Gap,” sociologist Eric Anderson combined 120 interviews with social science and biology experts and came up with a theory about why men cheat despite their best efforts to be faithful.
Monogamy, Anderson contends, is irrational because it denies the reality of a lifetime of sexual urges, and cheating is the only way to satisfy sexual desire while staying in a loving relationship with one’s partner. The distance between the monogamous ideal and the biological compulsion for sex is “the monogamy gap,” a term Anderson created to explain why cheating is the rational response to an irrational circumstance.
"If you ask couples what's more important in their lives – the emotional relationship or the sexual relationship – they're of course more likely to say the emotional relationship," he said. "We put all of our policing efforts into the sexual aspect of it, and that is not what is most important in a relationship."
Anderson explained that the desire to stay faithful to one partner is culturally conditioned, part of it coming with the Industrial Revolution.
"It used to be on a farm, the more kids you had, the more hands you had to do the farm. But in industry, one wage can only feed so many people, so the more kids you have under one salary labor – well, it's not beneficial to have multiple kids out of that," he said.
The book's central question is whether monogamy is serving society well. Anderson contends that the number of emotionally healthy families breaking up due to sexual violations gives evidence to monogamy's drawbacks.
"I'm suggesting that we need to do is decrease the stigma about open sexual relationships so that couples can make better choices. Because right now, men are saying to me, it's better to cheat and hope that it go unnoticed, than ask for an open sexual relationship because there's such a stigma," he said.
So, should we all throw in the towel on monogamy? Or is there something about that kind of commitment that we should preserve and honor? Is it even possible?
Eric Anderson, author of “The Monogamy Gap: Men, Love and the Reality of Cheating” (Oxford University Press). Professor Eric Anderson is an American sociologist at the University of Winchester.