In this episode Dr. Wendy Walsh discusses perhaps the greatest debate of all time: Is monogamy natural? Some people believe we’re torturing ourselves needlessly and pairing up with just one person is a social construct that’s been forced upon us. But science says something different. Listen to this episode and find out more.
Watch a short introductory video:
Or, read the full transcript below:
Dr. Wendy Walsh: Welcome to Mating Matters, I’m Dr. Wendy Walsh with producer, Brooke Peterson. This is a special – I call it facts flash episode. A quickie, just go over some facts, to remind people how we evolved to be who we are. There’s a common question, it comes up all the time, usually from men. The question is – is monogamy normal? Is monogamy natural? Can’t possibly be. Or they’ll say, “Men are wired to spread their seed. It’s not natural and normal for them to be in one domestic domicile.”
Well, the truth is, we have the widest range of sexual behaviors of any primate species. Remember, there are 7 billion of us on the planet. So to say that humans are all one thing would be kind of nutty anyway.
However, most human cultures around the world endorse and enforce monogamy. They use laws, they use moral codes. They use religion to make people stay together and mate as a couple. So, why did monogamy not evolve out of us if we became this free super species?
Well, let’s go to the very beginning and talk about the theories of monogamy. First of all, many evolutionary psychologists believe that it was men – you dudes, aha, who invented monogamy in the first place. It was a response to the fact that we evolved to have concealed fertility, which means that there are only about three days in a given month where a woman is fertile enough to become pregnant. The rest of the time, you can copulate with her all day long and she’s not going to have reproductive success for you and your genes.
So, remember, if the name of the game is to reproduce, that’s why we’re on the planet. Then what men had to figure out is when those three days are. Men do have some techniques and strategies that they’ve evolved to have to help them figure out when women are fertile.
One of them is monogamy. Because, if they could stay close to that hot gatherers butt as she moved around, roaming in the field with her sisters, aunties, cousins, brothers, kids, etc, and not allowed any other man to gain access to her eggs, then tada, tada, those magical three days would come up and he’d happen to be there. So that would mean reproductive success for him.
Now, another very obvious fact and has been supported by lots of research, is that monogamy actually reduces crime and infanticide, and makes communities much more peaceful. Remember, we are cooperative breeders. We are a highly social species. And I want you to imagine that all the men only behave as seed spreaders. They’re out there, being commitment-phobic, not wanting to move in and focus on one woman.
So who’s going to get most of the women? Ah, the alpha dudes. Yeah, and so the alpha males would get most of the women because they would want many, many mates because they could, right? And women want less sex than men. I know it’s politically incorrect. And you can give me an anecdotal example of some relationship you were in where she wanted it all day long and he didn’t. That’s an anecdote.
The truth is, in general, women want sex less because the results of picking the wrong partner in our anthropological past, being a single mother, just like today was risky – is a more risky life. So she doesn’t have a super high sex drive to copulate. She’s more about assessing guys to see if they’re going to be good for her.
Now, how does monogamy reduce crime and infanticide? Remember all those guys who aren’t the alpha guys? Imagine if you had a society where the alphas were getting most of the women and a bunch of guys lower on the mating status ladder, shorter, less funny, less smart, I don’t know – whatever you think is less attractive in a guy, I don’t know. Those guys would be pretty darn frustrated, and they’d be pretty darn angry.
So when you have a system where a small group of alphas get most of the women and you get a lot of leftover men who can’t get access to women, this is when you see violence in a culture. Now, this is my favorite little bit of research on whether it’s better to be a seed spreader or a monogamous male.
So looking at the stats, remember, women can only get pregnant three days out of the month. So here’s our player and he’s out there trying to nail everything he possibly can, right? But it’s just like spraying seeds randomly. He’s not calculating which day of the month it might be for her.
Well, if you crunch the numbers, if a man is monogamous and he has sex with the same woman twice a week, he will have a baby once a year. That’s because women can only give birth about once a year. You can keep having sex with the same woman, but if she’s pregnant, she’s not going to get pregnant again.
Now, our seed spreader, player, alpha male, he’s taken his Superbowl ring out to the parties and he is trying to have sex with as many women as possible. He doesn’t know if they’re operating or not. So guess, how many women does he have to copulate with during the course of one year to match the mating success, the reproductive success of a monogamous male? You think it’s 5, 10, 20, maybe 30?
Sit down, it’s 33. Oh yeah, he’s got to be good at his game. And that takes a lot of work. It takes money, it takes the social skills, emotional skills, it takes time. I mean, what are dates? Dates are interviews for sex. Aren’t they? At the beginning, of course they are. So players and seed spreaders have to work a lot harder for reproduction than monogamous men.
So, if most cultures endorse and enforce monogamy, what do we really have most often as a human species? We have a few things. We have mostly serial monogamy, which means different bouts of one on one relationships in a series. In other words, the first person you fall in love with and have sex with the first time in your life, unless you’re enforced by your religion to marry them and stay together until death do you part (and you manage that somehow), most people have divorces and they have multiple relationships over the course of their lifespan.
We also have what’s called perceived monogamy or sometimes called social monogamy, where people realize that for their kids, for their families, for socializing as a couple, to build businesses, to build capital and equity and the house they own together, etc, they stay together. But they have extra pair bonds on the side.
And then there is a very small portion of our population who openly practice some form of polygamy, maybe conscious non-monogamy or swingers or falling in love with one or two people, being in a relationship with a couple. And this works for only a very, very small portion of our population because we have also evolved to have sexual jealousy. You’re going to have to listen to our episode called Poly Wanna Cracker for more on that.
So the answer, is monogamy natural. Yes. Human pair bonds where fathers and mothers invest in offspring that come out of their union, is the best deal we have for our evolution, for our reproductive success.
Oh, and gentlemen, if you’re asking yourselves, “Well, wait a sec, every time I have sex is not like I want to actually have a baby. In fact, I want to make sure I use a condom. I don’t even want to reproduce and have more kids. It’s really about the sex.” I just want to remind you that I do a bad – Brooke, don’t I do a bad guy imitation?
Brooke Peterson: It’s one of my favorite things ever.
Dr. Wendy Walsh: So anyway, if you’re thinking like that, remember that you didn’t evolve to consciously want children. The mechanism that Mother Nature gave you is you evolved to simply want to copulate. That’s it. You’re not thinking past the outcome. Alright, just want to throw that in.
Is monogamy natural? Absolutely. Is it for everybody? Yes, if they want to reproduce. Is it forever? No, we mostly practice serial monogamy. So I’m also here to pull you off the guilt train if you’ve gone through a divorce or two. Yeah, it’s normal.
But, if you’re finding long-term monogamy, uh, a little challenging, there are some tips and tricks that have been proven by science to help keep you together, help keep you excited about each other. The first is you need to learn how to manage your own stress. The problem is, if you don’t have an ability to regulate your own emotions, to have ways to self-console, whether it’s just going out for a run when you’re feeling stressed or finding other people to vent to – if you don’t, you’re going to end up taking it out on the people you love the most.
Along the same lines, you have to practice some self-management when it comes to your own life and your own goals. Yes, as a couple, you need to get together and figure out what your goals are and it might be good to revisit that every single year and say, “What would we like to accomplish as a couple every year?” But also ask the question what you’d like to accomplish as an individual.
Remember, somebody else is not responsible for your happiness or your meaning in life. You have to own your own happiness, make yourself happy first so that you can bring that happiness into a relationship.
Also, there are a couple of physiological things that you can do; touch often. If you’re sitting in two arm chairs watching television, you need to be snuggling on the couch. If you’re sleeping in a bed together at night, but keeping over to your side, at least touch toes. Your body releases so much dopamine just from physical touch.
Also, there’s research to show that a hug that lasts at least 20 seconds releases the most amount of dopamine. So no quick peck on the cheek and run out the door, honey – come on back here, let me give you a smooch and a nice long hug. And while you’re at it, how about a deep wet kiss?
Yes, we exchange information through our saliva. It’s one of the reasons why women like to kiss more than men, because we’re picking up all kinds of information about somebody’s mate status. But it’s also a way to increase bonding. So if you’ve been in a long-term relationship and it’s gotten a little brother – sisterly, you need to get it back to erotic.
You know what happens with people who have been having sex with each other for a really long time? They do the same positions, they do it in the same room, in the same bed, at the same time, etc. Whereas, we are actually wired to respond to novelty. So you’ve got to change it up a little bit. Change rooms, change time, change wardrobe. And gentlemen, if you’re wanting a woman, your woman to get into it, again, it has to change inside her head.
Sometimes if you just do some housework and keep the house a little cleaner for her, she has time to take her bubble bath and put on her new underwear. But for her, foreplay might start days before the sex, as she’s getting in the mood, as she’s thinking about it. So don’t dismiss the idea of candles, champagne, and new lingerie. They can really make a difference. Novelty is everything.
And when in doubt, don’t be embarrassed. Go see a licensed sex therapist. It can really bring your sex life back. I think long-term monogamy can work, but it does take some work and some optimism.
Alright, thanks for listening to this episode of Mating Matters. I’m Dr. Wendy Walsh here with producer, Brooke Peterson.
I’d like to do a call out for a specific kind of guest. We’re going to talk about sexual fetishes because they’re interesting, and aren’t humans fabulous? Wacky and wonderful, we are.
So if you have a particular sexual fetish and you’d like to anonymously call us, please do. The line is (323) 207-8277. That’s (323) 207-8277. We can alter your voice, you don’t have to give us your name. But we’re really fascinated to hear your story of what kinds of things cause arousal in you.
Thanks for listening to Mating Matters, we’ll see you next time.
Mating Matters is produced in partnership with iHeartMedia. It is researched, interviewed and written by me, Dr. Wendy Walsh. And it is edited and produced by Brooke Peterson.
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The sound was pretty good, hey?