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Monogamy Is a Patriarchal Myth and Other Things Your Parents Probably Never Taught You: Part 1

10/01/2012 07:12 pm ET | Updated Dec 01, 2012

“There’s no denying that we’re a species with a sweet tooth for sex.” -Christopher Ryan

Ask anyone who's married or in a relationship of more than a few years: long-term commitment is HARD. Lately, a few of my married friends have admitted that they're feeling attracted to men who aren’t their husbands, and the guilt is just crushing them. It got me thinking: what makes lust for others start and what (if anything) makes it stop?

Attraction is a force nearly impossible to describe; only poets do it justice. We feel it, we don't spend time analyzing it. And yet so many of us end up in sexless marriages or long-term relationships that deaden over time. Some get the two-year itch, the five-year itch and the seven-year itch. But damnit -- it’s quite an itch, and not scratching it can lead to frustration, projection and depression. Also, divorce.

Here's one answer: we’re not meant to mate for life. There is a growing array of scholarship debunking the myth of monogamy as our natural state, including the seminal (no pun intended) Sex At Dawn: The Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality by Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jetha. The authors are a married couple, but that’s by far not the most fascinating thing about the book. The super-micro version of their thesis is that in terms of human history, we just invented monogamy like, five minutes ago -- because we went from hunter-gathers to landowners. Before that, we lived communally and children were raised by the clan.

After the advent of agriculture, men realized that they had to know the paternity of their children to pass on property rights. Thus, monogamy was born a mere 8,000 years ago. (Romantic love came way after this -- the concept was invented in the 17th century. Up 'til then, marriage was a merely a business contract, or so say the authors.)

So monogamy is a cultural myth, and yet so many of us fundamentally believe in "til death do us part." Forget about applying a magical self-help fix here; it's going to take some major consciousness-raising to wrap our brains around these conundrums.

Getting It Right the First Time

Some of us marry people we’re not sexually compatible with because we don’t value our own sexual needs enough; even "liberated" women who have lots of sex before marriage. We buy into the heterosexist view that women must partner up with strong providers, ones that will make good dads, etc. (And some of us need to admit that we're dealing with massive father complexes.) We’re unconsciously parroting evolutionary psychology's conventional view: women are meant to be monogamous, bring up the babes and thus propagate the species, while men are meant to spread their seed. The underlying assumption is that women aren’t really into sex -- we value motherhood and shopping more.

Let’s get something straight: Women are programmed for pleasure. It’s just society’s built-in misogyny that throws a wrench in biology’s plan for us. We’re not taught to value our bodies, our sexuality and our desire enough. Imagine if we taught teenage girls the value of sexual pleasure at their first period? What if we gave our daughters not just a box of tampons -- but a vibrator, too?

But no matter how important it is to honor pleasure, expecting hot sex to be the only foundation for a relationship is rather ridiculous. You can’t always build authentic intimacy with someone you’re desperately chemically attracted to.

Often the one you lust for will not be the one you want to have a conversation with in the morning. (And sometimes, off the charts one-night-stands turn into long-term relationships. There's no map for this stuff; life is messy and unpredictable.) When we know the difference between love and lust and find someone that stimulates both mind and genitals it’s all kinds of magical, but this confluence can feel as rare as a finding a peacock on your fire escape.

This is why so many of us end up with “good men” who don’t know how to properly please us. (Remember that oxytocin released at climax, is the same hormone that floods your body to make you forget the vicious pain of childbirth. It also apparently makes you forget when a guy is great in bed but a douchebag the rest of the time.) Theory: if we can get rid of the Madonna/Whore complex, maybe we can kill off the “boring but good man/sexy bad boy” complex, too.

Read more on EcoSalon.com

Stay tuned for part 2 of this story, coming soon.

Note: This post first appeared on EcoSalon.com in a slightly different form.