The Science Of Monogamy

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The debate about monogamy has been long and fierce. Some believe that it is unnatural for humans to promise themselves to one person for their entire lives, and that we should instead embrace open relationships. Others believe that choosing monogamy honors, protects, and enhances a relationship with a partner who is extremely important, and that the jealousy that can arise from a nonmonogamous relationship isn't worth the potential benefits of sexual freedom.

Some people even disagree - with their own partners - about whether or not their relationship is monogamous. A recent study conducted at Oregon State University found that young, heterosexual couples frequently do not agree with their partners about whether or not their relationship is open. 434 couples between the ages of 18 and 25 were interviewed about the status of their relationship, and in a whopping 40% of couples only 1 partner reported that they had agreed to be sexually exclusive with their significant other. The other partner claimed that no such agreement had been made.

"Miscommunication and misunderstandings about sexual exclusivity appear to be common," says public health researcher Jocelyn Warren. Many young couples, it appears, are not communicating the terms of their relationships effectively - if, that is, they're discussing them at all - and event amongst couples who had explicitly agreed to be monogamous, nearly 30% had broken the agreement and sought out sex outside of the relationship.

"Couples have a hard time talking about these sorts of issues, and I would imagine for young people it's even more difficult," Marie Harvey, an expert in the field of sexual and reproductive health, posits. "Monogamy comes up quite a bit as a way to protect against sexually transmitted diseases. But you can see that agreement on whether one is monogamous or not is fraught with issues."

Difficult though the subject may be, it's clear that every couple must come to an unequivocal, precisely-expressed understanding regarding the status of their relationship. Lack of communication can lead to serious unintended risks, both physical and emotional, for partners who unknowingly disagree about the exclusivity of their relationship. What is less clear is which choice - if either - is the "right" one. Is monogamy or nonmonogamy a more effective relationship style? Can one scientifically be proven to be better, or more "natural," than the other? Or is it simply a matter of personal preference?

We'll take a look at the scientific support for each approach in more detail in the next posts.