Does the entire wedding industry these days seem like one big racket to you? In your lifetime, how many thousands of dollars have you spent flying all over the country (or out of it) to watch people say “I do,” buying place settings and champagne flutes from couples’ Williams-Sonoma registries, and oohing and ahhing over boulder-size diamonds on your girlfriends’ ring fingers? Adding up the numbers can be a dizzying experience, but what’s truly disarming is the fact that your total payout most likely pales in comparison with the price tag for just one of these celebrations. In 2009, industry-trend resource TheWeddingReport.com reported that the average cost of a wedding in the United States was $19,580—that’s more than $12,500 greater than the median annual tuition at a four-year public college.
What’s worse, many of these marriages don’t even last; in fact, some social scientists have estimated U.S. divorce rates to be as high as 41 percent. Yet people just can’t seem to stop equating “happily ever after” with settling down with one person for the rest of their lives—even though numerous studies suggest that humans actually aren’t hardwired that way.
Monogamy Is Multifaceted
Ironically, the word monogamy doesn’t have only one meaning; rather, scientists have long subdivided it into three distinct categories: social, sexual, and genetic. In his book, Monogamy: Mating Strategies and Partnerships in Birds, Humans and Other Mammals, anthropologist Ulrich H. Reichard defines social monogamy as “a male and female’s social living arrangement (e.g., shared use of a territory, behaviour indicative of a social pair, and/or proximity between a male and female) without inferring any sexual interactions or reproductive patterns,” and further establishes that for humans specifically, “social monogamy equals monogamous marriage.” He characterizes sexual monogamy as “an exclusive sexual relationship between a female and a male based on observations of sexual interactions.” Finally, he describes genetic monogamy as a situation in which “DNA analyses can confirm that a female-male pair reproduce exclusively with each other.”
In the animal kingdom, sexual and genetic monogamy both occur in certain species, but both types are rare: according to LiveScience.com, only 3 to 5 percent of some five thousand mammal species have been observed to form exclusive, lifelong, and sometimes fierce bonds. A male prairie vole, for example, will not only remain loyal to the female he lost his virginity to, but also fight off other females who try to vie for his affections. Male anglerfish are also very attached to their partners—literally. When this fish mates, he affixes himself to a female’s body with his teeth; his mouth then fuses permanently to her skin and their bloodstreams merge, until the male becomes solely a source of sperm for the female. Birds are also well known for being monogamous: bald eagles mate for life, as do some types of geese, and the latter refuse to take on new partners even when their original mates die.
In humans, individual circumstances make monogamy less straightforward. For instance, a married man who is sexually unfaithful to his wife still classifies as socially monogamous, despite his infidelity. If that man procreates only with his wife, he’s both socially and genetically monogamous; however, if he remains married, has a child with his spouse, and fathers a child outside his marriage as well, he’s socially monogamous, but not genetically or sexually so. Because society is quick to excoriate people who have extramarital affairs, we applaud individuals who practice all three types of monogamy. Yet some evidence points to the idea that these “role models” are actually contradicting their biological and emotional nature by remaining legally and physically committed to a single partner.