Monogamy is a hard thing to achieve, but it’s so worth it.
By jack murnighan
Last updated on Oct 31, 2023
Photo: Susannah Townsend | Canva
I’m single, 40, and have dated more than any good man should. Add to that the fact that I love women, I love seducing, and my ego is clearly invested in the power it gives me, and something tells me I’m not the man you’d think would advocate devotion and fidelity. But the truth is, I’m a closet monogamist.
It doesn’t come easily (it might not even come naturally), but at the end of the day, I think monogamy is a majesty worth fighting for. Many of the reasons are obvious: the comfort, having a good-guy reputation, the regular and maybe even condom-free intimacy, but there are some that might surprise you.
One of them is the fight itself. Monogamy is one of those rare things where both the reward and the struggle alone justify the effort. Striving to be monogamous helps us focus on things that make us better people. Of course, socio-biologists want to say that men have “natural” inclinations against monogamy, that when we were still wearing pelts, there were no relationships and the survival of the species depended on our attempts to impregnate as many hominid females as we could.
Could be true, but what of it? In the same way that today I choose to grill my buffalo burger rather than eat it raw — and enjoy it a lot more that way — cultured man can benefit by not simply giving in to his prehistoric impulses because now his nature is something different, larger.
We’ve evolved so that intimacy can (and should!) be a lot more than just the delivery of semen, and monogamy helps set us on that course.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m aware that being monogamous is a lot more challenging than lighting a charcoal grill. I confess to having the stereotypical male skin-level desire: my eyes see, sometimes my insides shudder, and a few times a day some part of me can’t help but wonder what it would be like to sleep with this woman or that. We all know that most men are like this, but the civilized among us make themselves as immune as possible.
It’s harder to describe the psychology and identity behind that desire. It took me a long time to realize how much attention I need as a person and that, despite all the confidence I have and successes I’ve had in various quadrants of my life, a lot of me still just wanted to believe that I was liked. As men, we’re taught to be independent and self-sufficient, but few of us can, or even should be.
We need other people for all kinds of reasons, and part of us needs to know that we can affect them. Seduction does that — for both men and women — giving us the sense that someone wants us, endorses us, and will let us influence them.
We know that men often try to seduce women like they try to make money, for power and prestige, but when you look deeper you see that it’s more than just belt-notching: intimacy and seduction help us believe in ourselves and that can be a tough thing to give up. But the last few sentences actually frame the other side of the problem:
As men, we want to form our identity, but we rarely realize how much no other people — but a single person — can help do that.
Many, perhaps most, of us dream of spending our lives with a partner, having all the comfort, intimacy, trust, and history that one can only gather by getting together with someone and staying together. But what’s not on that list of benefits is “self” — and that’s the key to it all. We think we achieve self by influencing and seducing, doing and building and earning, but a lot of men never experience the deeper, more meaningful self that can be achieved in the sharing and communing, trials and triumphs, with a lifelong partner.
Of course, I’m talking about the right partner in the right circumstances but here, too, monogamy can help. If you’re in a relationship and finding yourself really wanting to act on the messages your nether side is sending, it’s time for some heavy-duty examination — of your relationship and of yourself. Self should come first, asking the question of what’s really going on. Is the new woman just attractive and you feel the twitch? If so, remember that your fantasy might well be better than the realization would be.
Or has it been a long time since you’ve been with someone new? Okay, that might be tough but why? Maybe it means the intimacy in your relationship has gone stagnant (is that your fault? your partner’s? Is it laziness or are there deeper problems? All this should be explored). If that’s the case, perhaps you’re just missing the physical pleasure and you should try to resurrect your love life with your current partner first. Men and women certainly stray less if they’re happy with what they have at home.
But maybe your love life is fine with your partner, but you’re missing the seduction thrill.
That means that your sense of self isn’t what it needs to be and here, too, you have to ask if you’re not doing enough or if your partner is not doing what you need — or both. Feeling the need to seduce should be a wake-up call that you’re not getting the ego satisfaction that’s necessary from the other areas of your life. You should probably try to work on those before you go and cheat on the partner you love.
Or perhaps it is the relationship: you’re not being intimate because your partner doesn’t want to or you don’t want to and you want to cheat because they’re not making you feel how you need to feel. But, again, it’s worth trying to salvage the relationship before you run out and get with someone else.
Infidelity is a symptom, not a solution. Ultimately the impulse to cheat might help you get out of a bad relationship but first, you need to see if the relationship is worth trying to hold on to. Striving for monogamy helps you get the most out of a partnership by facing the challenges head-on — the only way that works.
It’s clear that none of these questions is about the supposed object of the cheating desire; they’re about you and your relationship and how those things are doing. (And if you’re asking yourself if the new person would be “better for you” than the person you’re with, remember that you probably barely know them, are thinking wishfully, and that eventually they’ll have their ticks and foibles and annoyances like your current partner, too). That’s why I think monogamy is worth fighting for because ultimately the fight is not to keep yourself from straying, it’s to help yourself become a person that, with the love of the right partner, can get the fulfillment, joy, and self that you need, without having to scratch the libidinal itch for someone else.
Yes, it’s very daunting to think that you might only be intimate with one person for the rest of your life, but at the same time, maybe it just requires a rethinking of what intimacy means.
The key to long-term happiness is to have intimacy be less about seduction, ego, and the symbolic sense of power and more about pleasure, feeling, and an act of love. With that model, the best love is love with someone you know and trust and it should get better and better.
I understand that there are only so many ways of being intimate and you might sometimes feel in a rut, but truthfully that’s just a challenge to expand your habits, leave your comfort zone, and grow as a person with your partner. Every challenge to having a fuller love life with someone you love makes you a better person — more creative, expressive, and self-aware.
Intimacy with only one person is the hard way, but it’s the way that makes us grow and develop to be the fullest people we can be.
Most impulses toward infidelity are ultimately either passing physical blips or signs that something else is wrong. If you go after the problems themselves, then the band-aid solution of cheating stops being worth it. You’ve addressed the problem at its source and you have the reward of that much richer a relationship, a self, or both.
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Jack Murnighan has a Ph.D. in medieval and renaissance literature from Duke University. He is a former editor and writer for Nerve, an author, and a blogger.