Is monogamy past its use-by date?

Hey dude, the one walking three metres in front of your girlfriend - you do understand she's not a dog or a small child?

Maybe you've had an argument ... but ... no, now you've turned to show her a $247 t-shirt in a shop window and she's nodding distractedly before you charge off again, like a drum major leading a parade.

Coupledom has its challenges - the most widely nominated being sex, monogamy, children, money and "their" parents - so it seems just walking beside your partner should be a cinch.

Wherever I go, however, I see this scenario - men and women strutting ahead of their beloved, a perfect projection how out-of-step a partnership can become. 

Why? Maybe it's just momentary bad vibes or, perhaps it's a deeper contempt, dismissiveness, or frustration that "this is all there is".

After all, most couples meet at the 'right' age, have much sex, decide this is probably as good as they can get, move in together, marry, breed, get fat and become asexual because the only person they're allowed to fornicate with doesn't want to anymore.

How long's this been going on for? 500 years? 1500? 3000?

Much has changed in our modern world from the way we eat, consume information, earn money and spend our leisure time, yet ancient institutions like monogamy remain the same as back when we sacrificed goats to help granddad beat smallpox.

Many argue the human brain is not handling the pace of change of technology - that we suffer increased rates of depression, anxiety and loneliness, so the constancy of traditions like marriage are a rock we can all still build our lives upon.


What if, however, it wasn't the human brain struggling to cope with change, but our outmoded institutions - like marriage, monogamy, the 9 to 5 work week and, an education system older than this (white) country.

Consider: Before 1880, the majority of people had never seen moving pictures. If they'd witnessed a lion charging at them, it was because a lion was actually coming to eat them.

Then, along came film and people could experience a lion scaring the scat out of them without the accompanying danger.

That's a wild shift in perception, yet our brains handled it - just like they've dealt with travel at previously inconceivable speeds, flying, murdering each other in 3D surround-sound and maintaining social networks via a keyboard and phone.

Marriage, however, is an institution thousands of years old, designed largely to protect hereditary property (via monogamy), ensure "someone for everyone" in small, sparsely populated rural communities and to produce children to work the farm.

Today, less than one in a hundred Australians live on farms, the majority of us bumping around cities that provide every opportunity for anonymous sex with multiple partners.

I'd like to include the following extended quotation on the matter, only because I found it so fascinating, it's written by my favourite historians Will and Ariel Durant, and I reckon they learned a thing or two about human nature during the 50 years it took them to complete their 11 volume History of Civilisation.

History does not tell us just when men passed from hunting to agriculture-perhaps in the Neolithic Age, and through the discovery that grain could be sown to add to the spontaneous growth of wild wheat. We may reasonably assume that the new regime demanded new virtues, and changed some old virtues into vices.

Industriousness became more vital than bravery, regularity and thrift more profitable than violence, peace more victorious than war. Children were economic assets; birth control was made immoral. On the farm the family was the unit of production under the discipline of the father and the seasons, and paternal authority had a firm economic base. Each normal son matured soon in mind and self-support; at fifteen he understood the physical tasks of life as well as he would understand them at forty; all that he needed was land, a plow, and a willing arm.

So he married early, almost as soon as nature wished; he did not fret long under the restraints placed upon premarital relations by the new order of permanent settlements and homes. As for young women, chastity was indispensable, for its loss might bring unprotected motherhood. Monogamy was demanded by the approximate numerical equality of the sexes. For fifteen hundred years this agricultural moral code of continence, early marriage, divorceless monogamy, and multiple maternity maintained itself in Christian Europe and its white colonies.It was a stern code, which produced some of the strongest characters in history.

Gradually, then rapidly and ever more widely, the Industrial Revolution changed the economic form and moral superstructure of European and American life. Men, women, and children left home and family, authority and unity, to work as individuals, individually paid, in factories built to house not men but machines. Every decade the machines multiplied and became more complex; economic maturity (the capacity to support a family) came later; children no longer were economic assets; marriage was delayed; premarital continence became more difficult to maintain. The city offered every discouragement to marriage, but it provided every stimulus and facility for sex.

Women were "emancipated"-i.e., industrialized; and contraceptives enabled them to separate intercourse from pregnancy. The authority of father and mother lost its economic base through the growing individualism of industry. The rebellious youth was no longer constrained by the surveillance of the village; he could hide his sins in the protective anonymity of the city crowd. The progress of science raised the authority of the test tube over that of the crosier; the mechanization of economic production suggested mechanistic materialistic philosophies; education spread religious doubts; morality lost more and more of its supernatural supports. The old agricultural moral code began to die.*

The British historian James Burke speculates humanity has now entered a period of transition, where we're trying to solve life's challenges using "archaic and out-of-date instruments".

"We live with institutions set up in the past to solve the problems of the past, with the technologies and values of the past and we wonder why they don't work too well anymore?" he says.

So we blame promiscuity and divorce on 'bad' morals, rather than a once good idea gone bad ... or at least near obsolete.

* This quote is from The Lessons of History, by Will and Ariel Durant, published 1965.

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