Frequently Asked Questions

Table of Contents

  1. Isn't Monogamy the Normal Way for Humans to Relate?
  2. Don't All Major Religions Require Monogamy?
  3. Isn't This Really Just About Commitment-Free Sleeping Around?
  4. What About the Children?
  5. Why Now?
  6. What Do You Really Want?

Isn't Monogamy the Normal Way for Humans to Relate?

There is a growing body of research in evolutionary biology and anthropology that concludes that:

True "monogamy", formerly thought to be common in nature, is actually found in less than 5% of mammals.

While humans tend to be genetically "hard-wired" to pair-bond, both genders are equally just as "hard-wired" to be sexually non-exclusive, though for different reasons.

Of the 1,170 human societies cataloged in Murdock's Ethnographic Atlas, over 72% permit multi-spouse relationships. 

So, in the statistical and possibly biological sense, one could say that it is our idealized western-European style monogamy that is "abnormal."  

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Don't All Major Religions Require Monogamy?

Judaism - Polygyny is widely and explicitly condoned and practiced throughout the Old Testament, and is still permitted to non-Ashkenazi Jews, who never accepted the decrees of Rabenu Gershom (965-1023?) ending polygamy.  In certain rare cases even Ashkenazi Jews are religiously permitted polygamy.  However, polygamy is rarely practiced, as there are few places welcoming to Jews where the civil laws will permit it.

Islam - Polygyny is expressly permitted in Islam, per the Koran, "...then marry such women as seem good to you, two, three, or four..."

Buddhism - The Buddhist sacred texts are silent on the subject of monogamy or polygamy.  There are some statements of the Buddha that are interpreted to imply a preference for monogamy for the laity, based on his condemnation of adultery.

Hinduism - Modern Hinduism espouses monogamy, but there is a wealth of traditional references to polygyny [Visnusmrti 24:1,Manusmrti 7:216-226, 8:203-4] and at least one famous reference to polyandry in Hindu religious texts and commentaries.  The practice of monogamy is believed to be a characteristic of the fourth yuga (age of man) the Kaliyuga, the result of an increasingly restrictive evolution of marital practices set forth in the Mahabharata.  Indian law codifying monogamy in the civil realm naturally dates only to the 1950's/60's.

Christianity -  Of course, all contemporary mainstream Christian denominations now prescribe monogamy as a matter of doctrine or dogma.  However, with the exception of 1 Timothy 3, which is directed toward church "leaders" and "helpers", the New Testament does not address monogamy per se.  The consensus among Biblical scholars is that the Book of Timothy was not authored by St. Paul, but rather added significantly later by other early church fathers.  It can be strongly argued that neither Paul (whose real preference was for celibacy) nor the leaders of the early church who actually authored the passage in question, would have felt the need to specify monogamy for these individuals unless it were unusual among believers of the era.  

Old Testament references frequently cited to justify monogamy, such as Genesis 2:24, obviously were not viewed as prohibitive by Judaism, which continued its historic sanction of polygamy for over a millennium after the time of Christ.  Likewise the Seventh and Ninth Commandments, forbidding "adultery" and "coveting neighbors' wives" were both viewed as admonitions against transgressing on the property of others, i.e., the female "possessions" of men.  Neither Commandment was interpreted by Hebrew scholars as forbidding polygyny, nor even relationships between men (married or not) and unmarried women.  

It was not until the writings of Tertullian (A.D. 160?-220?), over two centuries after the death of Christ, that the "institutional" case for monogamy within what became the Catholic Church was set forth.  This was in response to the "heresy" of the Psychics, who in part followed the same logic of a "strict constructionist" interpretation of Paul's writings noted above.  Strangely enough, this doctrine was written by Tertullian after he became a heretic himself, having rejected his earlier Christian beliefs and having been excommunicated.  Tertullian's "psychics" actually were the lineal ancestors of the Catholic Church he had abandoned.  Marriage would not even be recognized as a sacrament for another 1,000 years; divorce would not be absolutely proscribed for another 500 years after that. 

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Isn't This Really Just About Commitment-Free Sleeping Around?

New relationship styles allow people to “love (another) without leaving,” ending the current societal demand that we abandon our existing partner if we want an intimate relationship with another.  New approaches may therefore result in more long-term relationships.  Far from discouraging commitment, the increased love and fulfillment of mutually self-designed relationships strengthen the incentives for maintaining ties between the original, committed partners that make these opportunities possible.

Commitment comes from the heart, not from external “rules.”  Our current 40-70% rate of marital infidelity demonstrates that current relationship styles certainly do not eliminate the desire for intimate connection outside of marriage.

Renowned psychologist Albert Ellis prophetically noted in 1972, "The chances are good that if absolutely no extramarital adventures of any sort were allowed in a society such as our own, people would tend either to refrain from marrying in the first place or would insist much more quickly on getting divorces in the second place."  Since those words were printed, we have witnessed a 7% rise in divorce rates (though at its peak the increase was nearly 21%) and a 17% increase in the age at first marriage for women and a 16% increase for men.  This is but one unfortunate legacy of the well-meaning, but inflexible and restrictive, efforts since 1980 to "turn back the clock" on relationship structures to an idealized past.

Ellis concluded, "When an individual makes sure that he [sic] experiences wider-range involvements than he is ever likely to experience in conventional marriage he is attending to what is perhaps one of the most "normal" or healthiest aspects of adultery - especially when considered from the standpoint of those who want to aid or "save" marriage. ...Given the option of maintaining their marital arrangements but still engaging in outside affairs, they frequently pick this option over complete dissolution of stable arrangements."

The real danger to committed relationships is the mindset that translates any need for anything more than a single partner can provide into a requirement that the relationship be ended.  It is almost certain that more otherwise acceptable relationships have ended on the ultimatum to "love (only) me or leave me" than for any other cause.  What a terrible waste!

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What About the Children?

It’s hard to imagine any relationship style harder on children than the roller coaster of “serial monogamy” (because of the stresses that frequently precede and/or accompany divorce and remarriage, with all the attendant expectations).   While arguably not as cataclysmic to children as often feared, there is still a positive value in minimizing or avoiding these stresses if possible.  Alternative relationships can offer new family structures to replace the sorely missed extended family.  New relationship forms often result in children receiving more loving, conscientious adult attention and guidance, not less.  And even if these relationship styles do result in more "transitions" in children's lives (which they may), what research there has been shows that potential negatives can (and often are, because of the inherent nature of alternative relationships and their differing expectations and approaches) be successfully minimized.

All the research that has been done to date on children raised in alternative family structures, such as group marriages, communal living, and children raised by gay and lesbian couples has concluded that no significant harm, and some very positive benefit, comes to these children.  This is a field that requires more study, to be sure, but the research to date has been very encouraging, and valuable in dispelling stereotyped assumptions.

Carefully and ethically exploring new relationship styles is not a matter of pitting the need of adults to fashion intimate relationships that work against the need of children to have stable, loving homes.  Rather, it is a fresh look at ways to satisfy both important societal objectives.  All research to date has agreed on one thing: living with desperately unhappy adults forced to remain in dysfunctional relationships is never good for children.

What can be wrong about demonstrating to children the virtues of love, trust, honesty, communication, non-possessiveness, self-awareness, managing jealousy, valuing individuality and personal growth, and promoting gender equality?

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Why Now?

There has been a "quiet revolution" in the relationship arena over the last 5-10 years:

The dramatic rise of the Internet has removed many of the barriers that formerly isolated people who were curious about new ways of relating, and allowed them to form first virtual, and later real, communities.

The broad reassessment of life in general that accompanied the coming of a new century and a new millennium brought with it revolutions in thinking in the areas of religion, the social and "hard" sciences, and relationships between the genders.

The growing economic and social equality of women has given many of them, for perhaps the first time in history, a real choice about how they want to live their intimate lives.  This has freed them of many of the social constructs that formerly constrained their natural biological desire to experience a fuller range of relationships while still maintaining a balanced long term interest in family and commitment.

The hard-won successes of the gay and lesbian rights movement shone the spotlight on a culture very different from the homogenized heterosexuality once thought to be "the only way," thus challenging everybody to think about new forms of relating.

The emergence of an increasingly strident movement to put everyone into the procrustean bed of monolithic monogamy has generated a backlash among those millions of people who had proven unable or unwilling to accept a "life sentence" in an unfulfilling and emotionally barren relationship.

Finally, we realized that social scientists and psychologists, who in the 1970's generated much groundbreaking research into these new forms of intimate relationships, had simply stopped doing so during the 1980's pendulum swing of the country to more "conservative" viewpoints.  As a result, we know far less than we need to about the experiences of those exploring alternative relationships in the last two decades, a time in which so much else has changed.  It is time to restart the engine of research and examination of this increasingly common process of exploration and discovery.
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What Do You Really Want?

We want the right of adults to make choices about their intimate relationships, and the choices themselves, to be respected.  This certainly includes the right to choose conventional monogamy - we must emphasize that we have no objection to that choice, so long as it is a choice - but that choice needs no additional advocates.  It is those who may wish to make other valid choices that need acceptance and support. 

We want to encourage research by competent scientists into all the relevant areas of these new relationship forms, and identify their strengths and weaknesses, and to encourage the publication of that research.

We want to help people make good decisions about pursuing alternative relationships, and give them the education and training they need to maximize their chances of success, and minimize the dangers of failure to themselves, their partners, and their children if any.

We want, in the spirit of tolerance and individual liberties enshrined in the U. S. Constitution, to help rational opponents of these rights come to understand and respect the validity of these choices, even if they reject these alternatives for themselves.

We want to do all that is possible to ensure that the public debate about these choices is a fully-informed one, and that empirically valid, scientifically sound and trustworthy data are provided to policymakers and the media.

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The Institute for 21st Century Relationships - The Foundation of the National Coalition for Sexual Freedom