The Complexity of The Monogamous Norm

Humans are dynamic beings, upon whom static norms have been imposed. One such norm is that of monogamy. There have been several debates between evolutionists about humans innately being polygamous or monogamous. Majority of the world functions on the law of monogamy amongst individuals. They claim it ensures ‘order’ in society. By stating this, do these people look at religions like Islam or other communities which rest on polygamous law in a negative way?

Monogamy in simple words is described by “The practice of marrying or state of being married to one person at a time” (Merriam-Webster). Societies have presupposed that humans are innately monogamous, hence they must be placed in an environment where monogamous laws are practiced. However there is absolutely no reason to believe that individuals are monogamous. Instead, historical evidence has revealed that “Ours is arguably the most sexual species on Earth.” as said by author Christopher Ryan. That being said, the argument towards a monogamous lifestyle takes a different turn all together.

Early societies which were characterised by primitiveness were highly polygamous. It was normal to breastfeed the babies of other members of the society, at that stage of evolution, sharing was the norm. There was no sense of individuality or identity developed, as the notion of property was not so strong. As societies progressed, the understanding of property started becoming essential to humans, it became crucial to figure out where the boundaries of ones property was differentiated from that of their rivals or other members of society. The only was this could be done was, through limiting the relationships of women and men that is.. through the law of monogamy.

Many have questioned the transition from polygamous behaviour to social monogamous behaviour in humans. This could be because; in primitive societies females found the need for security of their babies from other males who would kill if they found out that the offsprings were not theirs, in order to promote the multiplicity of their respective genes. This is a form of social behaviour evolved through evolution.

Claude Levis Staruss, the founder of the school of structuralism, stated that humans think in terms of binaries, that is in terms of two. An example of this would be marking people as inferior and superior, pure and impure or male and female. There was only room for extremes or opposites never for the space for the in between or the ‘grey area’. The idea of polygamy thus became unfamiliar to man and the idea of monogamy prevailed.

If we look at the lifestyle of our closest animal relatives, we can say that among primates around 80% have been listed as polygamous. So when we say this, we clearly imply that monogamy is not natural for humans. In fact, what is natural is polygamy and it is       a task for humans to play a monogamous role. Many evolutionists such as Daniel Kruger, have used the term “mildly polygynous” to describe the innate human nature and have opposed humans as being naturally monogamous. Others such as sociologist, Pepper Schwartz has said, ”I don’t think we are a monogamous animal. A really monogamous animal is a goose – which never mates again even if its mate is killed.”

People who have been in relationships over countless years and endless amounts of time, often feel frustrated in being in another’s company. The couple’s therapy counsellor is constantly giving umpteen ways to ‘fix things’, yet relationships remain stagnant. Why is that so? Conceptualising more than one partner is treated as a sin in many religions and other social institutions. The vision that these institutions have is that, it takes two individuals of the opposite sex to maintain stability of the family and splits equal responsibilities towards the development of offsprings. This binary understanding is known as social monogamy or living in pairs for the well being of children.

So when a pair is living under the same roof, sharing salaries and resources to support a family, the probability of the pair being socially monogamous is high. However it is important to note that while the relationship is shared, there are occasional signs of adultery, nevertheless the pair is still very much together. This type of behaviour must NOT be confused with sexually monogamous behaviour where there is only one sexual partner throughout ones life. Many people think of marriage as sexually monogamous, however it is a socially monogamous relationship. Hence the idea of a nuclear family is propagated through institutions because they aim towards social monogamy.

So what is the final take on monogamy? What can be said is that, monogamy is a constructed term which is looked at as an investment and only practiced to achieve a certain ‘balance’ in society. However, the question of humans being naturally monogamous people remains in the minds of many. For all the people out there with such a thought process, the question to ask is, if we are innately monogamous, shouldn’t following monogamy becoming easier? or for that matter why is adultery  still on the rise in many parts of the world? 


Author: stutikakar

Stuti Kakar holds a Master's degree in sociology, and is currently pursuing her M.Phil in sociology from Mumbai University. Her areas of interest include gender studies, art history, culture and Identity, and critical studies of science and technology. This blog reflects her interest in contemporary debates.

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