Saturday, April 20, 2024

The Perils of Monotomy (Monogamy + Monotony)

The prerequisite for a good marriage, it seems to me, is the license to be unfaithful.  — CARL JUNG, in a letter to Freud dated January 30, 1910

Remember what Phil said about how sex with his wife had grown overly familiar, how he’d come to feel he and Helen were “siblings, almost”? Interesting word choice. The strongest explanation for the prevalence and intensity of the Coolidge effect among social mammals is that the male drive for sexual variety is evolution’s way of avoiding incest. Our species evolved on a sparsely populated planet — never more than a few million and probably fewer than 100,000 of us on Earth for most of our evolutionary past. To avoid the genetic stagnation that would have dragged our ancestors into extinction long ago, males evolved a strong appetite for sexual novelty and a robust aversion to the overly familiar. While this carrot-and-stick mechanism worked well to promote genetic diversity in the prehistoric environment, it’s causing lots of problems now. When a couple have been living together for years, when they’ve become family, this ancient anti-incest mechanism can effectively block eroticism for many men, leading to confusion and hurt feelings all around.22

Earlier, we discussed how men’s testosterone levels recede over the years, but it’s not just the passing of time that brings these levels down: monogamy itself seems to drain away a man’s testosterone. Married men consistently show lower levels of the hormone than single men of the same age; fathers of young children, even less. Men who are particularly responsive to infants show declines of 30 percent or more right after their child is born. Married men having affairs, however, were found to have higher testosterone levels than those who weren’t.23 Additionally, most of the men having affairs have told researchers they were actually quite happy in their marriages, while only one-third of women having affairs felt that way.24

Of course, sharp-thinking readers will point out that these correlations don’t imply causation: maybe men with higher levels of testosterone simply seek more affairs. Probably so, but there is good reason to believe that even casual contact with novel, attractive women can have a tonic effect on men’s hormonal health. In fact, researcher James Roney and his colleagues found that even a brief chat with an attractive woman raised men’s testosterone levels by an average of 14 percent. When these same men spent a few minutes talking with other men, their testosterone level fell by 2 percent.25

In the 1960s, anthropologist William Davenport lived among a group of Melanesian islanders who regarded sex as natural and uncomplicated. All the women claimed to be highly orgasmic, with most reporting several orgasms to each of her partner’s one. Nevertheless, reported Davenport, “it is assumed that after a few years of marriage, the husband’s interest in his wife will begin to pale.” Until the recent imposition of colonial laws stopped the practice, these Melanesians avoided monotomy by allowing married men to have young lovers. Rather than being jealous of these concubines, wives regarded them as status symbols, and Davenport claimed that both men and women regarded the loss of this practice the worst result of contact with European culture. “Older men often comment today that without young women to excite them and without the variety once provided by changing concubines, they have become sexually inactive long before their time.”26

Closer to home, William Masters and Virginia Johnson reported that “loss of coital interest engendered by monotony in a sexual relationship is probably the most constant factor in the loss of an aging male’s interest in sexual performance with his partner.” They note that this loss of interest can frequently be reversed if the man has a younger lover — even if the lover is not as attractive or sexually skilled as the man’s wife. Kinsey concurred, writing, “There seems to be no question but that the human male would be promiscuous in his choice of sexual partners throughout the whole of his life if there were no social restrictions.”27

For most men and many women, sexual monogamy leads inexorably to monotomy. It’s important to understand this process has nothing to do with the attractiveness of the long-term partner or the depth and sincerity of the love felt for him or her. Indeed, quoting Symons, “A man’s sexual desire for a woman to whom he is not married is largely the result of her not being his wife.”28 Novelty itself is the attraction. Though they’re unlikely to admit it, the long-term partners of the sexiest Hollywood starlets are subject to the same psychosexual process. Frustrating? Unfair? Infuriating? Humiliating on both sides? Yes, yes, yes, and yes. But still, true.

What to do about it? Most modern couples aren’t as flexible about tolerating a variety of sexual partners as the Melanesians and many of the societies we surveyed in earlier chapters. After reviewing the broad literature on Western marriage, sociologist Jessie Bernard argued in the early 1970s that increasing men’s opportunities for sexually novel partners was one of the most important social changes required in Western societies to promote marital happiness.29 But this hasn’t happened yet and seems even less likely now, almost four decades later. Maybe this is why some twenty million American marriages can be categorized as no-sex or low-sex due to the man’s loss of sexual interest. According to the authors of He’s Just Not Up for It Anymore, 15 to 20 percent of American couples have sex fewer than ten times per year. They note that the absence of sexual desire is the most common sexual problem in the country.30 Combine these dismal numbers with the 50 percent of all marriages that end in divorce, and it’s clear that modern marriage is suffering a soft-core meltdown.

In The Evolution of Human Sexuality, the ever-quotable Donald Symons pointed out that Western societies have tried every trick in the book to change this aspect of male sexuality, but all have failed miserably: “Human males seem to be so constituted that they resist learning not to desire variety,” he wrote, “despite impediments such as Christianity and the doctrine of sin; Judaism and the doctrine of mensch; social science and the doctrines of repressed homosexuality and psychosexual immaturity; evolutionary theories of monogamous pair-bonding; cultural and legal traditions that support and glorify monogamy.”31 Need we supplement Symons’s thoughts with a list of specific examples of men (presidents, governors, senators, athletes, musicians) who have squandered family and fortune, power and prestige — all for an encounter with a woman whose principal attraction was her novelty? Need we remind female readers of the men in their past who seemed so smitten at first, but mysteriously stopped calling once the thrill of novelty had faded?

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