Value of monogamy

The value of monogamy refers to people's views about the contributions monogamy makes, good or bad, to individual and social well-being.

Some cultures value monogamy as an ideal form of family organization. However, many cultures prefer other forms of family organization. Anthropological data suggests a majority of societies prefer polygamous marriage as a cultural ideal.

There are multiple forms of nonmonogamy that are used to organize families, as well multiple forms of monogamy such as marriage, cohabitation and extended families.

People disagree strongly about the value of monogamy and monogamy has been criticized and supported. Two common criticisms of monogamy are that socially monogamous marriage oppresses women and that lifelong sexual monogamy is unrealistic. Supporters of monogamy have argued that a society that supports monogamous marriage can promote women's equality and that sexual monogamy facilitates intimate and lasting relationships.


Criticisms of monogamy vary in scope. Some criticisms reject all types of monogamy as inherently negative. Other criticisms accept social monogamy as a positive form of relationship, but reject sexual monogamy as an unnatural constraint on sexual behavior. Still other criticisms accept all types of monogamy as positive forms of relationship, but reject that idea that monogamy should be imposed on all people as the only legal option.

It is not possible to review all criticisms of monogamy in a single section. This section simply introduces two relatively common criticisms of monogamy.


Friedrich Engels, a colleague of Karl Marx and pioneer in communist philosophy, wrote about monogamous marriage in his book, The Origin of the Family, Private Property, and the State. Engels describes monogamous marriage as a social institution designed for two main functions. First, monogamous marriage ensured wealth was passed down to biologically related offspring. Second, monogamous marriage trapped women in a life of unpaid domestic and childrearing labor. Engels believed the communist revolution would undermine both of these functions. A communist society would no longer allow wealth to be passed down to biological offspring, and a communist society would socialize the work of raising children. Monogamous marriage would no longer serve any purpose in communist society. Eventually monogamous marriage would fade away.

According to Engels, the rise of monogamous marriage coincided with oppression of women by men.

"Thus when monogamous marriage first makes its appearance in history, it is not as the reconciliation of man and woman, still less as the highest form of such a reconciliation. Quite the contrary. Monogamous marriage comes on the scene as the subjugation of the one sex by the other; it announces a struggle between the sexes unknown throughout the whole previous prehistoric period. In an old unpublished manuscript, written by Marx and myself in 1846, I find the words: 'The first division of labor is that between man and woman for the propagation of children.' And today I can add: The first class opposition that appears in history coincides with the development of the antagonism between man and woman is monogamous marriage, and the first class oppression coincides with that of the female sex by the male."
The way to undo this oppression, according to Engels, was to grant women and men equal rights in marriage and to socialize the care of children so women could work and earn their own livings. These changes would free women from financial dependency on men and allow women to dissolve marriages with tyrannical husbands. Monogamous marriage would become an agreement people entered purely for love and desire. Later generations, growing up without the oppressive history of monogamous marriage, might find alternative ways of arranging their private relationships.

Some feminists have criticized monogamous marriage for many of the same reasons Engels had criticized it. For example, Julia Penelope has claimed "Both monogamy and nonmonogamy name heteropatriarchal institutions within which the only important information is: how many women can a man legitimately own?" However, feminism encompasses a broad range of writers and ideas, and it would be unfair to characterize all feminists as opposed to monogamous marriage. Feminism contains a diverse range of views about monogamous marriage.


Many authors criticize lifelong sexual monogamy as unnatural and unrealistic. They contend that humans have never been a sexually monogamous species, and that cultural expectations of sexual monogamy place enormous burdens on individuals to fulfill all the sexual needs of their partners. These expectations are quite unrealistic given how much variety exists in people's sexual desires and sex drives. In addition, sexual desires and sex drives can change over time due to circumstances (e.g., periods of high stress or poor health) and due to normal aging (e.g., changes in hormonal levels). Loving partners can find themselves mismatched in terms of their current sexual desires or sex drives. The failure to live up to unrealistic expectations of lifelong sexual monogamy causes people needless suffering.

Research supports the claim that lifelong sexual monogamy is unnatural and unrealistic. Biologists have strong evidence that social monogamy is rare among animals, and that sexual monogamy is even more rare, as most socially monogamous species are not sexually monogamous.

It would be somewhat odd if people were sexually monogamous for life. The fact that 80-85% of societies allow polygynous marriage further argues against the idea that sexual monogamy is built in to human nature.

Studies of extramarital affairs and divorce provide evidence that lifelong sexual monogamy is unrealistic. Substantial numbers of people engage in extramarital sex.

About half of married people in the United States divorce, and the majority of divorced people find new partners and marry again. Many people, perhaps the majority, simply do not live up to the expectation of lifelong sexual monogamy.


The defense of monogamy is as varied and rich as the criticism of monogamy. This section presents examples to counterbalance the criticisms in the previous section.

Women's equality

Although the founders of communism believed monogamy oppressed women and had no place in communist society, the communist revolution in China brought new ideas about monogamy. The newly formed communist government established monogamy as the only legal form of marriage.

"The 1950 Marriage Law called for sweeping changes in many areas of family life. It forbade any 'arbitrary and compulsory' form of marriage that would be based on the superiority of men and would ignore women's interests. The new democratic marriage system was based on the free choice of couples, monogamy, equal rights for both sexes, and the protection of the lawful interests of women. It abolished the begetting of male offspring as the principal purpose of marriage and weakened kinship ties which reduced the pressure on women to bear many children, especially sons. With arranged marriages prohibited, young women could choose their own marriage partners, share the financial cost of setting up a new household, and have equal status in household and family decision-making. The Government then initiated an extensive campaign of marriage-law education, working jointly with the Communist Party, women's federations, trade unions, the armed forces, schools and other organizations."
The communist revolutionaries in China viewed monogamy as a means of giving women and men equal rights in marriage. This view has since been echoed by women's rights movements in nations that allow polygamy.

In nations that allow polygamy, women often feel the practice of polygamy makes them second-class citizens and lowers their quality of life. The women's rights movements in these nations want to make monogamy the only legal form of marriage. The United Nations joined these efforts in 1979 when the General Assembly adopted the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, an international bill of rights for women that over 180 nations have agreed to implement. Article 16 of the Convention requires nations to give women and men equal rights in marriage. Polygamy is interpreted as inconsistent with Article 16 because it extends the right of multiple spouses to men but not to women. The United Nations has established the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) to monitor the progress of nations implementing the Convention. The United Nations is thus working through the Convention and CEDAW to promote women's equality by making monogamy the only legal form of marriage worldwide.

The African Union has recently adopted the Protocol on the Rights of Women in Africa. While the protocol does not suggest making polygamous marriage illegal, article 6 of the protocol states that "monogamy is encouraged as the preferred form of marriage and that the rights of women in marriage and family, including in polygamous marital relationships are promoted and protected." The protocol entered into force November 25, 2005.

Secure relationships

Many authors claim sexual monogamy promotes security, intimacy, and stability in relationships. Their claim stems from observations of couples exploring open marriage. Although some people have happy and stable open marriages,

sexual non-monogamy proves too difficult for most couples to manage and their relationships suffer as a consequence.

Sexual non-monogamy provokes jealousy and insecurity in most couples. Conversely, sexual monogamy reduces jealousy and builds the kind of trust and intimacy that makes relationships stable. This appears to be born out by research. People in sexually non-monogamous relationships experience jealousy more frequently than people in sexually monogamous relationships.

Some studies report at least 80% of people in open marriages experience jealousy over their extramarital relationships.

A five year study of bisexuals observed a shift from sexual non-monogamy to sexual monogamy in many participants because they "...felt that nonmonogamy was too time consuming, took too much energy, or was too complicated. They also thought that it got in the way of developing love, trust, and more intimate relationships with a partner."

Mating equality

Having people pair off in monogamous relationships insures that everyone can mate. In contrast, polygamy means some men will fail to find wives, and promiscuity results in mating inequality based on attractiveness.

"Marriage is an institution; it places artificial limits on women's choices. To repeat: Nature dictates that males display and females choose. Monogamy artificially strengthens the male's position by insisting that 1) each female must choose a different male; and 2) each female must stick to her choice. Monogamy entails that highly attractive men are removed from the mating pool early, usually by the most attractive women. The next women are compelled to choose a less attractive mate if they wish to mate at all. Even the last and least of the females can, however, find a mate: For every girl there is a boy. Abolishing marriage only strengthens the naturally stronger: It strengthens the female at the expense of the male and the attractive at the expense of the unattractive."

"Marriage, like most useful things, was probably invented by men: Partly to keep the social peace, partly so they could be certain their wives' children were also their own. The consequences of marriage must have appeared soon after its institution: the efforts previously spent fighting over mates were replaced by strenuous exertions to provide for, rear, and defend offspring. No doubt surrounding tribes wondered why one of their neighbors had recently grown so much stronger. When they learned the reason, imitation must have seemed a matter of survival."

See also

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