It seems to be the million dollar question that I get asked these days. Is Monogamy natural? To which I respond with, yes, and so it polygamy, virginity, promiscuity, homosexuality, bisexuality, and asexuality. My point is that humans have such a wide range of sexual behaviors, and to say we are wired to be anything specific, all the time, is crazy. Even to call a single human one of those things only explains who they are in that particular stage of their life.
Sexual behavior is part physical urge and part psychological processing. Before men and women have sex (or say no to sex) they do a cost/benefit analysis of the possible pleasure verses the possible pain. That pain may involve a possible STD, pregnancy, creating a stocker, hurting someone they love or destroying a primary relationship. The pleasure is a brief dopamine rush not unlike what heroine does to our brains. Sex is the still best drug we have.
It’s important to remember that monogamy evolved for all kinds of practical reasons. Many people choose to practice it because it can lead to better health and certainly better outcomes for children, who seem to show up where ever sex is happening regularly. My colleague Dr. Drew Pinsky tells parents they need to grow the “muscles of monogamy.”
Psychology plays a giant role in the decision to be monogamous or not. Plenty of people who claim to be wired as “polygamous” may in fact be suffering from psychological attachment injuries that leave them unable to bond. Most humans are wired to bond. It made raising offspring more successful. It’s one of the things we do best.
Yet, we can’t deny that when ’til-death-do-us-part was invented, death was pretty imminent. Our ever lengthening lifespans are igniting conversations about whether monogamy is “natural.” But I think that’s asking the wrong question! Who cares if monogamy is natural or an intellectual choice. The real question is, does it have an important purpose in the intricate world of human social structures. Does it have a place in society today? Can it be a good choice? If so, what can it do for us? The research is clear. Long-term monogamous people live longer, have better health and produce more successful offspring. But there are times in everyone’s life when monogamy isn’t necessary for happiness. That’s for you to figure out.
In these throw-in-the-towel relationship days, you might think that Facebook or infidelity are the most common reasons that couples break up. Certainly they are often quoted in divorce papers. But the truth is a much more complicated one. There are essentially three categories of relationship distress that most often have couples calling the UHaul or marching into divorce court. They are:
1. Great Expectations
2. Conflict Avoidance
1. Let’s start with “great expectations.” While it’s wonderful to enter a relationship with great optimism, many people hold the secret belief that their relationship will make them happy in every area of their life. Sometimes, their expectations are so unrealistic they resemble the ending of a Disney princess movie. It’s important that both partners talk out their expectations before they move in together. There are a few things to keep in mind. Your husband will never be your girlfriend. Your wife will never be your guy friend. And happiness is baggage you need to pack and bring with you into a new relationship.
2. On the face, it sounds like “conflict avoidance” isn’t so bad. I mean, who wants to be in a relationship with constant fighting. However, the road to intimacy is paved with ruptures followed by repairs. It is during the repair stage that we grow closer, understand each other’s tender spots, and become more intimate. And intimacy is the glue that keeps people bonded. There are plenty of bad conflict styles, but the worst one is avoidance. If one partner continually dismisses the other, either by changing the subject, staring at the television, or even giving the silent treatment, I promise, the ignored partner will eventually find someone who will listen. And that person will be an attorney or a new lover.
3. There is a lot of talk about “toxic relationships” these days, but the kind that sends one to a family attorney is one that involves one of these things: domestic violence, child abuse, drug or alcohol abuse, or chronic infidelity. These factors make the nest completly unsafe for others who may be residing there. If your relationship has one of these toxic features, you must leave now.
Here’s an appearance on CBS Early Show where I talk about toxic relationships:
There will be tears. That’s for sure. Surviving the first holiday season after a divorce is a prickly walk through the past into an unknowing future. There will be rituals you’ll have to go alone, people missing from your table, and annual parties you will uninvited from. But this is also the beginning of your new life.
Did you know that some people stay in god-awful relationships just because they cherish these communal holidays so much. These dark days with festivals of light and comforting family rituals make even bad marriages seem worth it. “We are together now. We have food and family. We are happy. Everything will be okay now.” The other reason some people stay too long is the fear that things will be even worse when they are single. Really. Psychologists have even tested battered women and find that they over-estimate their unhappiness post divorce.
But not you.
You did it. You made the giant step toward happiness. And this is your chance to define who you are and how you want to live it. Here are a few suggestions to help you make your first single season merry:
1. Cook for stragglers. Sigmund Freud once said the most healthy defense against psychic pain is sublimation. That means, acknowledging your suffering, and finding others in similar pain and working to heal and soothe them. I promise you, you are not alone this holiday season. There are plenty of imperfect humans banned from family tables for a host of human sins. This may be your year to find them and celebrate love and life together.
2. Celebrate yourself. There’s a reason singles cruises and vacations exist. So people like you can take a moment to bathe in warm water and nurture your body. I suggest your holiday-boycott take place in warm weather, involve a spa, and some meditation. Avoid an alcohol fueled party designed to avoid your pain. Instead, do something healthful and give the give of nurturing to your body and soul.
3. Plan Your Best Year Ever. Think of the downtime during the holidays as a time to go underground and plan your next act. Do your year end taxes and make a savings and spending strategy for your best life. Create really doable New Years resolutions. Make a list of all the people your haven’t been in touch with for a long while and send them Facebook messages, or better yet, pick up the phone. Clean out your closets and storage units. Holding onto stuff is holding onto memories and attachments that must be set free. Dump all the dead weight so you can soar.
Think of this time as the calm before the perfect storm of the life you’ve always wanted. You are like a famous sculptor, chipping away at what is unnecessary in your life to reveal a master piece called you. You can do this. You can create the life you’ve always wanted. I promise.
If you saw the brave and honest YouTube video of UK diving star, Tom Daley announcing that he is in a relationship with a man, you might have paused when he said it “took him by surprise.” I mean, don’t people know they are gay long before the age of nineteen? Well, yes and no. Let me explain a few things that even Tom Daley might not know about human sexuality.
First, most primates are wired to be bi-sexual. In every primate species (there are five great apes, of which we are one) bi-sexual behavior behavior happens, sometimes just as a favor in exchange for food and at other times because it’s a pleasurable hobby. In our modern human cultures, filled with invented laws, rules, and moral codes, we don’t always behave as we did in the wild. In this century, the work of Dr. Alfred Kinsey, and his Heterosexual–Homosexual Rating Scale, helped us understand that most of us lie in a gray area between gay and straight, some of us being more straight in thought and deed and other being more gay. Yes, you can be straight-ish and gay-ish. Kinsey was the first to look at both fantasy and behavior and he continuum between straight and gay, giving us a score of 1 through 6, one being totally straight in mind and body and six being totally gay in thoughts and behaviors. It’s possible to live a totally heterosexual life in behavior but your fantasy material may be more mixed.
Tom Daley explained in his video that he has had many relationships with women but now is in a safe and wonderful relationship with a guy. Daley might fall on a number three or four on Kinsey’s famous scale. Or, as a few gay friends have pointed out, identifying as bisexual is often a way that gay people feel safer coming out of the closet. There’s a saying in the gay community, “Bi now, gay later.”
But I don’t buy that in every case. The problem in our modern culture is that we think we are so progressive because we have become so accepting of people who are gay, even legalizing gay marriage in some states, but are we really so progressive when we force people into one of only two narrow definitions of human sexuality?
I believe that Tom Daley was taken by surprise about his new love. And I hope he isn’t forced to self-define in a way that neatly fits into society’s view of sexuality. Gay and straight are the very extreme ends of the human spectrum when it comes to sexual orientation. Tom, don’t give it a label. Just love in an honest way.
For those of you who think monogamy isn’t natural either, watch my YouTube video on why some men cheat and other don’t:
This is the week to give thanks. I’m hoping that most Americans will take at least a moment to consider the things in their lives they are grateful for, be it cherished people, good health or relative wealth. Then they will bless their bodies with an absurd amount of calories to reinforce the idea that they live with plenty.
Thanksgiving is one of my favorite American holidays, partly because it is not burdened with the exclusivity of religious trappings and can be celebrated by most everybody, but also because the art of giving thanks is one of the most mood enhancing brain behaviors. In fact, the act of counting one’s blessings is an anti-depression technique used in most every kind of psycho-therapy and spiritual counseling sessions. It is a way to reframe our losses and our sorrows and put things into perspective.
I think the hardest thing about being a human, that is, a compassionate human, is the daily integration of pleasure and pain into our psyche. From tragic news stories to troubles in our own families, sadness and loss will always be there. The things that must balance those painful experiences, if we are not to be swept into the abyss of clinical depression, are the positive feelings of gratefulness, pride, and pleasure. One of the most active ways that humans have learned to trigger these good feelings are through works of altruism. We all carry a kind of cellular empathy that, when sprung into action, creates goodness on both sides of the giving fence. Those of you who will help feed people in our nation’s overpopulated homeless shelters this week know what I’m talking about. Let us wish that all Americans can give themselves the gift of selfless sharing on a regular basis.
There will always be loss. We live in a circle of life where there will always be death, even if it is the death of the sweet turkey whose sacrificed body lies in brine in my kitchen as I right this. Yes, I just noticed that I made a Freudian slip by typing “right this” rather than “write this.” Perhaps that’s what Thanksgiving is after all. A perfect attempt to “right” this mess of life. A time to remember those less fortunate and a time to honor the things we have done right. Go ahead. Gorge yourself at the table. You’ve taken the hand you were dealt and played it deftly. Now it is time to give thanks to the dealer to feel even better.