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Monogamy and infidelity: are we made to live as a couple?

Monogamy and infidelity: are we made to live as a couple?

June 20, 2024

Let's talk about one of the favorite topics around the world: the infidelity . Traditionally, adultery has been seen as a kind of error against nature, something like a set of small cracks in the surface of what human behavior should be. Thus, the concept of "extramarital relationship" has been associated with a failure on the part of people to appease their impulses and form a family.

In general, infidelities have been considered as an exception, something that does not represent the human essence. However, one might ask if this approach is realistic. Have you ever wondered if there is any mechanism in our brain that guides us towards monogamy ?

The quick answer to this question is: no, there is not. In general terms, that human beings are not monogamous in the same way that some animals are is something that is beyond doubt. First, we must distinguish between sexual monogamy Y social monogamy . Sexual monogamy is something strongly determined by genes, and consists of the practical impossibility of reproducing with more than one partner. This type of "fidelity" is something that is very far away and, really, it is doubtful that anyone could have much interest in experiencing this form of monogamy. For example, some species of lantern fish: when they reproduce, the male is physically attached to the female, much larger, and it goes on digesting his partner until he absorbs it completely.

Infidelity between social monogamous

Sexual monogamy, then, is a very rare phenomenon in nature, since almost all species that reproduce sexually and care for the offspring with a specific partner, copulate with others to the minimum of change and then continue to dedicate themselves to life in family with the usual couple. In these cases we speak of social monogamy, that is, a pattern of behavior guided by circumstances and not by genetics.

In our case, the same thing happens more or less. The most we can say is that we are animals that sometimes practice social monogamy, but not sexual. This is the only type of monogamy we aspire to, since we have the option of living the fidelity as a pact , something that is reached between two people by own decision, but does not occur spontaneously in the members of our species (or at least not in a generalized way).

And is that, although they are frowned upon in some cultures, extramarital relationships are relatively frequent in our species if we compare ourselves with other animals: gibbons, albatrosses, seahorses, etc. For that reason, to consider them the fruit of the exception would suppose to deliberately ignore a great part of the reality. In addition, non-compliance with genetic monogamy is not the exclusive preserve of men, since it occurs frequently in both sexes.

If adultery shocks us, it can be, perhaps, because it is a violation of the rules, not because it has no reason to be. It can be debated whether infidelities (understood as the breakdown of a relationship with the couple) are desirable or not, but it can not be denied that they are totally settled in reality: there are even contact agencies that make infidelity an added value in their lives. Marketing campaings.

But then ... how and why did life as a couple originate in our evolutionary history? What is the point of a gap between sexual monogamy and social monogamy? Evolutionary psychology has certain hypotheses about it.

Evolutionary psychology and its horrible, horrible proposals

In general, when we start to study the reproduction patterns of the human being we find a great variability depending on each culture, but we do not see a strong genetic predisposition that leads us to have children only with one person, as we have seen. However, some evolutionary psychologists believe that in earlier stages of our evolution as apes there may have been a propensity towards monogamy that natural selection assigned us for its usefulness. What was the main use of having a stable partner, according to them?

The possibilities of having many sons and daughters who survive us. A rather surly analysis, yes. According to this approach, romantic love, which is associated with a feeling of obligation towards the couple, is in fact born of a kind of selfishness invisible to our eyes. Social monogamy would be, in short, an agreement based on the self-interest and in the transfer of a confidence to a certain extent undeserved.

Keep in mind that in itself, adultery does not have to be a disadvantage from the point of view of natural selection.For example, it has been seen that women with children born of extramarital relationships could have more reproductive success in certain contexts; that is, they may have more possibilities of leaving offspring. So we can not even say that infidelity is not useful from the point of view of natural selection. But there is another thing that we have to take into account if we want to study the pact of fidelity: differences attributable to sex .

A mother knows that every effort she can make to conceive and raise offspring will be matched by the perpetuation of her genes. In comparison with the male, a female is certain that the sacrifices she can make to keep her young survive will not be in vain. Males do not have this security (in their case there are more reasons to doubt whether the offspring they protect is theirs or not), but, on the other hand, they do not become more vulnerable during the gestation period. Precisely for that reason, according to the logic of the natural selection , a male has less value than a female as a breeding pair, because the latter, besides being fertilized, takes care of the offspring for a long time. If half of the population of a species invests much more time and effort in breeding offspring, the evolutionary psychologists will tell us, the individuals that make up that half of the population will become a resource by which the other half of individuals It will compete fiercely. In addition, if the survival of the offspring is compromised by their fragility, it may be more convenient for the male to be always close to provide resources and offer security. Hence, an emotional state similar to romantic love, relatively long lasting and involving the exclusivity of a couple, may be useful.

Monogamy explained by jealousy and infant deaths

One of the most obscure conclusions about the origin of social monogamy centers on the important role of something like jealousy. According to a study published in the magazine Science, monogamy tends to appear in populations of mammals when the females are very far apart and their density over the territory is low, which would make it difficult for the males to watch them all and prevent intruders from fecundating them. So, if this is true, the care of the young by the males would be a kind of necessary evil.

There is another study, published in PNAS, in which it is suggested that monogamy could have arisen to avoid infanticide on the part of males. This could have been the case because, in many polygamous mammals, it is common for each dominant male change to kill the offspring of the previous dominant male in order to make the females sexually receptive again. All this is horrible, is not it? If you want, you can rethink the monogamous habits of the lanternfish. Let's see if that way you recover.

You may have realized that all of the above is painfully reasonable if we think of the human being as a animal that is guided by certain impulses . In the vast majority of vertebrates, the offspring already have the ability to move on their own within a few hours of birth, and some are completely independent. In comparison, our babies are born myopic, unable to coordinate arms and legs and with difficulties even to keep the head off the ground. They need all the attention possible, and it may not be enough with the help of a single agency.

However, many psychologists and anthropologists believe that it is cultural dynamics, and not genetics, that explain the assignment of parenting tasks. That's why we are so unpredictable, according to them. Today there are many people who, despite experiencing romantic love and the need to be linked to a person, do not even consider having babies. Other people do not even believe that this form of attachment exists. This may be true because the great brains created by this process of "pairing" would have made possible the appearance of a type of thinking sufficiently abstract to diversify the forms of love: love for the community, love for friends, etc.

All these links are characterized by allowing the creation of groups of close people who can help raise the children. And is that although the couple formed by biological parents is not always responsible for raising the smallest, there is almost always a protective social circle around the baby, and may even that in certain contexts this mode of parenting is more beneficial, such and how Skinner proposed in his novel Walden Two . In these situations, love can be seen as the glue that holds together this circle of people dedicated to breeding and who replace each other. After all, the roles of "protective figures", like any other role, are interchangeable.


One of the problems of evolutionary psychology is that it provides explanations about the behavior of human beings that most people do not like and that, moreover, are insufficient in themselves. For this current of psychology, a large part of the behavior is explained as being a result of adaptation to the environment (ie to make sure that our genes pass to the next generation). For example, we get to see the relationships between men and women as a game in which we seek to use the opposite sex to make more likely the perpetuation of our own genes, or the genes that most resemble ours. In addition, we must bear in mind that the object of study of this discipline is something that can not be experienced: the evolutionary history of the species.

Somehow, evolutionary psychology provides possible explanations about certain patterns of behavior, but does not identify or fully explain them. Human beings are characterized by being acculturated, and learning explains a large part of our psychological aspects.

However, although evolution does not determine our behavior, it can actually explain certain very general trends, and it can also help to formulate experimental hypotheses in the species to which we belong right now: Homo sapiens.

It is true that the attachment or love we feel toward people who are not our children could also be understood as part of a evolutionary strategy to ensure the transmission of our genes. However, it could also be understood as a phenomenon that escapes explanations based on biology. In spite of this, if we want to descend from that idealistic conception of love to immerse ourselves in the swamp of crude scientific explanations, we must admit that there is nothing in nature or in our genetics that seems to go against occasional infidelities . It is possible, even, that the natural evolution sees these dabbles with good eyes.

Should You Be Monogamous? (June 2024).

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