Making sense of monogamy

At least 35 per cent of university-aged students cheat on their partners at some point, study says

Monogamy is a historically constructed concept and is not as normal and natural as some believe it to be, History prof says
Monogamy is a historically constructed concept and is not as normal and natural as some believe it to be, History prof says
Photo: 

Many of us equate infidelity with the cardinal sins.

It’s not just confined to tired marriages anymore either, as some studies show that at least 35 per cent of university-aged students cheat on their partners at some point in their relationship.

One third-year student described himself as a reformed cheater. He said that he blames an emotionally barren relationship for his temporary unfaithfulness last year.

“Actually, I don’t regret it at all,” he said after much deliberation. “I had been emotionally cheating for a good month at least, but only physically cheating a few times before I broke up with [my girlfriend],” he said, adding that this happened during his second year at Queen’s when he was with his girlfriend of over two years.

“I did it because I wasn’t emotionally happy with my girlfriend,” he said. “I was falling in love with someone else.”

He defined cheating as doing anything that you would normally only do with a partner with somebody else. He said he never told his girlfriend at the time that he cheated on her.

“What good could possibly come from telling her?” he said. “I was already breaking her heart.” While he said he wouldn’t do it again, and would himself be devastated if his current girlfriend cheated on him, the majority of his friends at Queen’s cheat and aren’t ashamed to say that they do.

“I don’t know if it’s just the university atmosphere, going out and partying and hooking up,” he said. “There are people who are continually cheating and ones that just cheat once and a while. Most of them don’t seem to feel bad about it at all, they seem to have no regrets.”

Many scientists believe that evolution may predispose us to infidelity, and that different cultures place different values on it. In one study, university-aged participants identified emotional disengagement, sexual disinterest and increased anger as dominant factors that could signal infidelity in a relationship.

James Hotze, director of the Sexual Health Resource Centre (SHRC) said definitions of fidelity are specific to individual relationships and that it’s important to not necessarily equate infidelity with wrongdoing.

Hotze, ArtSci ’11, said that while the SHRC doesn’t take a stance on whether infidelity is right or wrong, he defines cheating as being outside the boundaries of a relationship that have been negotiated within the relationship.

“The way we deal with relationships is heavily influenced by hetero-patriarchy,” Hotze said. “[It’s important for people to] communicate openly and honestly.”

History professor Steven Maynard teaches a course called “The History of Sexuality in Canada.” He told the Journal via email that the concept of monogamy is not as natural as some people may believe.

“One of the things we discuss in my course … is this notion that fidelity or monogamy is somehow the ‘natural’ or ‘normal’ way to organize our personal or intimate relationships. This, in fact, is not true,” he said. “Monogamy—two people together, to the exclusion of all others—is, like so many other aspects of sexuality, a historical creation.”

Maynard said he thinks there are a couple reasons why monogamy is still such a taboo subject to raise.

“First, even though it flies in the face of the historical evidence, we’ve come to identify monogamy and one of its frequent offshoots, the nuclear family, as unchanging bedrocks of societal stability, and so any effort to question them or tamper with them is, for some people, tantamount to chipping away at the cornerstone of society.”

Maynard said the second reason is that people look to their intimate relationships as a place to find safety and security.

“We imagine that being in a relationship with only one other person, we won’t have to confront feelings of jealousy and insecurity,” he said. “This is totally understandable, but I think we also know that monogamy doesn’t always deliver on its promise. Still, rather than rethink the shape of our relationships, many people opt for a sort of serial monogamy. It’s a bit of a paradox.”

Maynard said it’s impossible to generalize historical attitudes towards monogamy in Canada.

“In the 19th century, for example, First Nations cultures had a remarkable range of relationships, including plural marriages and relatively uncomplicated ways of ending relationships that were no longer satisfying,” he said. “The model of monogamy was in fact imposed on Native peoples as part and parcel of the efforts by white Euro-Canadians to colonize western Canada.”

Maynard also cited other past examples of non-traditional unions in Canada, such as the country’s long history of polygamy, which has become the subject of legal struggle in British Columbia, and the “free unions” of early 20th century Finnish immigrants in Northern Ontario.

“I think if we understand our relationships—monogamy, marriage, etc.—as products of history rather than as somehow natural, unchanging monoliths, we can do away with the idea that we are simply saddled with them and, instead, see them as open to change, experimentation, and exciting possibilities.”

All final editorial decisions are made by the Editor(s)-in-Chief and/or the Managing Editor. Authors should not be contacted, targeted, or harassed under any circumstances. If you have any grievances with this article, please direct your comments to journal_editors@ams.queensu.ca.

When commenting, be considerate and respectful of writers and fellow commenters. Try to stay on topic. Spam and comments that are hateful or discriminatory will be deleted. Our full commenting policy can be read here.