Till death do us part… right? For some folks, maybe, but sticking to one mate for life is a rare phenomenon. Across the globe, about 95 percent of mammalian species and 85 percent of human cultures are polygamousCooperative breeding and monogamy in mammalian societies. Lukas, D., Clutton-Brock, T. Department of Zoology, University of Cambridge, Downing Street, Cambridge UK. Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 2012 Jan 25.The benefit and the doubt: why monogamy? Schuiling, G.A., Division of Human Biology, Faculty of Medical Sciences, University of Groningen, Groningen, The Netherlands. Journal of Psychosomatic Obstetrics & Gynecology, 2003 Mar;24(1):55-61.. But for the rest of us bonding to one partner, the benefits could be more rewarding than any type of bed-hoppingNeural correlates of long-term intense romantic love. Acevedo, B.P., Aron, A., Fisher, H.E., et al. Department of Psychology, Stony Brook University, Stony Brook, NY. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, 2012 Feb;7(2):145-59. Epub 2011 Jan 5..
My Heart Will Go On (And On…) — Why It Matters
Monogamy is defined as having a single mate (aka sexual partner) during a certain period of time; sometimes it refers to marriage. On the flip side, polygamy means having more than one partner at the same time. In the USA, the number of monogamous couples has increased significantly since the 1970sHeterosexual, lesbian, and gay male relationships: a comparison of couples in 1975 and 2000. Gotta, G., Green, R.J., Rotblum E., et al. Alliant International University, Clinical Psychology, San Francisco, CA. Family Process, 2011 Sep;50(3):353-76. doi: 10.1111/j.1545-5300.2011.01365.x.Estimating the strength of sexual selection from Y-chromosome and mitochondrial DNA diversity. Wade, M.J. Shuster, S.M. Department of Biology, Indiana University, Bloomington, Indiana. Evolution, 2004 Jul;58(7):1613-6.. Perhaps surprisingly, marriage rates across the USA have actually decreased in the past few decades (2.1 million Americans were married in 2009, the same number as in 1970, although the national population has increased by about 100 million people in the last 40 years). But, in 2008, Americans were 10 percent more likely to say lipstick on the collar was wrong than they were in the 1970s; one study estimates about three quarters of married people today stay faithful to their spouses.
There are plenty of possible theories to explain the increasing rates of monogamy in the USA. Potential reasons range from economic factors to differences in mates’ childhood environments, and some suggest natural selection is pushing us toward tighter-knit family units. Some scientists have looked into the potential health benefits of sticking to a single mate. Research comparing the health status of monogamous and polygamous couples is pretty scarce, but studies suggest pairing off has benefits for our health and happiness that flying solo doesn’tThe neurobiology of pair bonding: insights from a socially monogamous rodent. Young, K.A., Gobrogge, K.L., Liu, Y., et al. Department of Psychology and Program in Neuroscience, Florida State University, Tallahassee, FL. Frontiers in Neuroendocrinology, 2011 Jan;32(1):53-69. Epub 2010 Aug 3..
Turns out there’s little reason to lose a guy (or girl) in 10 days. In many cases, people in relationships live longer than single ladies and gents. Intimacy between two is also linked to lower rates of depression, higher immunity, and better heart healthThe neurobiology of pair bonding: insights from a socially monogamous rodent. Young, K.A., Gobrogge, K.L., Liu, Y., et al. Department of Psychology and Program in Neuroscience, Florida State University, Tallahassee, FL. Frontiers in Neuroendocrinology, 2011 Jan;32(1):53-69. Epub 2010 Aug 3.. Married folks may even be less likely to get cancer than unmarried peopleMarital status and colon cancer outcomes in US Surveillance, Epidemiology and End results registries: does marriage affect cancer survival by gender and stage? Wang, L., Wilson, S.E., Stewart, D.B., et al. Cancer Epidemiology 2011;35(5):417-22.. And relationships aren’t just about the honeymoon feeling. In one study, participants looked at photos of their sweeties and results indicated lovebirds in long-term partnerships showed levels of pleasure-boosting hormones similar to people in new relationshipsNeural correlates of long-term intense romantic love. Acevedo, B.P., Aron, A., Fisher, H.E., et al. Department of Psychology, Stony Brook University, Stony Brook, NY. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, 2012 Feb;7(2):145-59. Epub 2011 Jan 5.. In fact, people in long-term relationships also produced attachment hormones (like oxytocin) that people in short-term relationships didn’t haveNeural correlates of long-term intense romantic love. Acevedo, B.P., Aron, A., Fisher, H.E., et al. Department of Psychology, Stony Brook University, Stony Brook, NY. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, 2012 Feb;7(2):145-59. Epub 2011 Jan 5.. (Of course, it’s unclear if the participants in any of these studies who said they were in a monogamous relationship really were faithful to their partners.) Still, monogamy may not be for everyone — to each his/her own?
I Do (or Don’t) — Your Action Plan
It’s not clear that everyone benefits from a monogamous relationship. Some people have proposed contemporary alternatives to monogamy (like the ol’ “doesn’t count when I’m on vacation” thing), suggesting a relationship can be successful even if it’s not exclusive. And certain couples are coming up with their own terms of commitment, agreeing to have flings with other people on the side.
Some of us may also be more likely to seek out a monogamous relationship than others. Interestingly, scientists have discovered a male gene that’s linked to pair-bonding, and not every guy out there has itGenetic variation in the vasopressin receptor 1a gene (AVPR1A) associates with pair-bonding behavior in humans. Walum, H., Westberg, L., Henningsson, S., et al. Department of Medical Epidemiology and Biostatistics, Karolinska Institutet, Stockholm, Sweden. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 2008 Sep 16;105(37):14153-6. Epub 2008 Sep 2.. Whether that’s a fair excuse for being unfaithful is a whole other story. (Can’t blame genes for everything.)
And a monogamous partnership doesn’t automatically benefit our health. Especially for women, unsatisfying exclusive relationships are associated with serious negative health effectsConflict and collaboration in middle-aged and older couples: I. Age differences in agency and communion during marital interaction. Smith, T.W., Berg, C.A., Florsheim, P., et al. Department of Psychology, University of Utah, Salt Lake City, UT. Psychology and aging 2009;24(2):259-73.. Bad relationships can contribute to the development of depression, high blood pressure, and obesity — things few talk about in theirmarriage vows.
For those with a long-term sweetie, here are some ways to spruce up that relationship and really bond with your babe:
- Get the adrenaline goin’. Skydiving? A roller coaster ride? Try doing new and exciting activities together to boost adrenaline, which may heighten emotions and feelings of pleasure.
- Do the deed. A satisfying relationship isn’t just about communication and commitment. Good sex helps, too, so keep on keepin’ onSexual satisfaction and relationship happiness in midlife and older couples in five countries. Heiman, J.R., Long, J.S., Smith, S.N., et al. The Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender, and Reproduction, Indiana University, Bloomington, IN. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 2011 Aug;40(4):741-53. Epub 2011 Jan 26..
- Cuddle up. It doesn’t have to be all sex, all the time. (Well… your call.) Just a simple touch can strengthen that bond, so get cozy on the couch and feel the love start flowin’The science of interpersonal touch: an overview. Gallace, A., Spence, C. Department of Psychology, University of Milan-Bicocca, Milan, Italy. Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews, 2010 Feb;34(2):246-59. Epub 2008 Oct 17..
- Be a power couple. Need another reason to exercise? Besides releasing feel-good endorphins, workin’ out together can bring couples even closer and reinforce trust. For some extra sexy-time, try naked yoga.
- Give a kiss. Lips aren’t the only things that’ll get closer. Kissing releases the hormone oxytocin, bringing couples together emotionally as well. So go ahead and pucker up!
- Use social media?! If out of date ideas, find new ideas on the web to help spark some innovation. (People aren’t just friends on this platform.)
Did you know?
- Most mammals (including most humans) are polygamous, meaning they have more than one mate at a time.
- In the USA, monogamy rates have increased significantly since the 1970s.
- People in relationships tend to outlive their single pals.
- Long-term partnerships are linked to a lower risk of depression, better heart health, a stronger immune system, and better cancer survival rates.
- Some people suggest alternatives to monogamy, like when spouses agree they can have sex with other people.
- An unsatisfying relationship is associated with poor health, especially for women.
Special thanks to Professor of Psychology Dr. David Barash and Professor of Biology Dr. Milind Watve for their insights on the benefits of monogamy.