A “Correct” Monogamy

A “Correct” Monogamy

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Over the years, a number of my male friends in serious relationships have at some point or another lamented to me:

“She’s great, but I can’t help but worry sometimes that I’m missing out on something. Like, is this it? How do I know?”

They had girlfriends—wonderful girlfriends, girlfriends they were deeply in love with and committed to, often for multiple years; girlfriends some of them are likely to marry one day.

I suspect they came to me with their doubts because of my sexual experience. I was the playboy—the slightly irresponsible friend who was perhaps a little too adventurous—who represented that “something” they couldn’t shake from the back of their minds.

And because of my experiences, because I had lived and seen the other side of those urges, perhaps they looked to me to allay their doubts and insecurities, to reassure them and tell them what they felt was justified (or unjustified), to say, “Yes, you should get out and experience more.” Or say, “No, are you crazy?”

They wanted to resolve the emotional paradox many young citizens of singledom face: the simultaneous need for comfort/stability as well as for newness/excitement.

Unfortunately, I was not of much help: I’d break it to them that girlfriend or not, the paradox doesn’t go away. Being single doesn’t fix your twitch for adventure; it just replaces it with periodic loneliness. A relationship doesn’t cure your loneliness, but replaces it with all of the necessary tedium and petty frustration that comes with getting so close to someone it can hurt.

I always felt a bit stupid answering these kinds of questions. Partly because it’s so personal a question—no matter how well I know a guy, I can never jump into his skin and understand exactly what he’s feeling.

But on top of that, I’ve never really been a monogamy superstar myself.

My first serious girlfriend of three-plus years was riddled with dysfunction and we broke up and got back as often as the weather changed. My second serious relationship of two years was quasi-monogamous at best, and by no means normal.

So what the hell do I know? I’ve never gotten it right, so how am I suppose to know what to say to these guys?

Stay with her, I would inevitably say. See where it goes. It’s not like single people are suddenly going to disappear. You can always be single later. But what you have now, that’s what’s rare.

For the last six years, I have been what most people would consider exceedingly promiscuous. According to statistics, I am in the 99th percentile in terms of lifetime sexual partners – a fact that will surely horrify my mother when she reads it (sorry mom).

According to some, a man who is promiscuous is permanently ruined for long-term fidelity. He’s been emotionally traumatized and ruined for commitment and intimacy; he secretly hates women; or he’s just conditioned himself to be too selfish to ever make the necessary compromises.

Meanwhile, the old pick up and man-o-sphere wisdom questions whether monogamy should even exist at all. At worst, they see it as a fool’s game where a man is merely taken advantage of and used for his resources. Others cite tenuous science or half-baked evolutionary psychological theories to support the idea that since monkeys fuck each other with reckless abandon, so should we.

The fact of the matter is that we don’t know to what degree monogamy is “natural” – how much of it is evolved in us biologically and how much of it has been socially constructed.

But that’s not really the point I’m here to make.

The point is that I think few people, including the people who make these sorts of extreme claims, have ever done a monogamous relationship “correctly.”

Show me someone who pontificates about monogamy, and I’ll show you someone who has probably failed at it miserably.

And I’m no exception. I’ve worried in the past whether I was “ruined” for a permanent commitment or not. My track record is pretty piss-poor.

I want kids and a family one day (not soon, but one day). And at some point, that requires creating a foundation with a loving relationship with one woman.

Yet as I got older and the body count continued to rise, I became a bit worried – maybe I’m just not wired to settle down; maybe my issues with intimacy and my constant need for excitement and new experience are too engrained in me.

This past year, for the first time in my life, I’ve entered into a monogamous relationship without that internal knee-jerk terror and the drama and blame that comes along with it.

I made life hell for my first two girlfriends before I would commit to them. But falling into this one has been relatively peaceful and dare I say joyful.

So as I venture back into commitment and calm my oats, I want to do it right this time: two high self-esteem, self aware people; open communication, no cheating or philandering, no over-dramatic break-ups, manipulation or proxy wars of passive aggression.

Just the mutual growth and pursuit of both partners’ happiness. And the minute that growth or happiness becomes unfeasible, a mutual acknowledgement that it will be over.

I want to do it right this time, for the first time. Even if it doesn’t work out, even if it fails spectacularly, I can look back and say: “I did that relationship the right way.”

And hopefully then, I’ll feel like I’m able to speak on it with some sort of pride and authority.

 

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51 Comments

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  • Reply

    Josh Hester

    3 months ago

    Very good article! I find it interesting how as men, we always find a reason to argue that something better can exist. Single or in a committed relationship, something always lurks at us. Perhaps its the comfort of a trusted serious relationship without the danger (and loneliness of being single/chasing women). Maybe we are inclined to find danger, even in the most sorrowful moments. Which women have yet to fully satisfy the danger need.

  • Reply

    Cameron

    3 months ago

    awesome post, I wish you all the best in your relationships! x

  • Reply

    Almog

    3 months ago

    From all of us on the same boat… Good luck.

  • Reply

    Leo

    3 months ago

    Good luck! Especially after the oxytocin runs out and you don’t feel the honey moon phase anymore. Usually after 3 years, at least that’s what I’ve heard among my friends and myself included. Sigh!

  • Reply

    Leo Q

    3 months ago

    Just my 2 cents on the question that some will have: “what if it fails?”.

    As a guy who said “I’ll do this relationship the right away”, and then had that relationship go down in flames… I can say: It was worth it. And actually, the flames weren’t so bad as in previous relationships (filled with drama and aggression and infidelities).

    This time I got to say, “this is how it’s suppossed to happen”. And sure, I made mistakes in this last relationship, but it has a feeling of being “OK”. Of course, I’d hope that yours (Mark) and everyone else’s relationship have a great future, but even if it doesn’t, I’ve realized that it’s nice to do monogamy for the right reasons. I don’t really regret the couple of times where I let pass some opportunities because I had a girlfriend.

    I would totally do it again. Of course… while correcting some things :-)

  • Reply

    Nicholas

    3 months ago

    Nice job, Mark. This post seems to me to tie together a number of concepts you have written about in the past: Attachment Theory, Delayed gratification (marshmallows), maturity, etc. I think it was Helen Fisher who wrote about all of those things as indictors of fidelity/monogamy potential.

    As someone who was faithful throughout a marriage, I say to you that I do not believe the facts of your sexual history makes you unfit for faithful commitment. I think what makes someone ready for commitment/monogamy is the way we hold our experiences from the past and our expectations about the future. It is not, in my opinion, the fact of, say, childhood neglect, but what that history means to us in the present. If we watched a borderline mother drive a “nice guy” father crazy with angry outbursts and affairs, we might overcompensate with sexual “conquests” without understanding where the urge comes from.

    I do not believe any one person or thing will ever be enough to satisfy the full depth of my human potential. Paradoxically, I need a secure and stable (loving) environment for personal growth. I think that’s true for “her” as well, and so I can learn to negotiate the shape-shifting, give-and-take of a monogamous relationship. Some people are too wounded or immature to learn the dance.

    In my late teens and early twenties, I was not there yet. Some of your advice-seeking friends may be like I was then. Just depends where they are in their personal journey. I will stop now because this could become a 250 pager…

    • Reply

      Mark Manson

      3 months ago

      Thanks for posting. And I agree… the idea that someone with intimacy issues and an excess of promiscuity not being able to ever settle down kind of flies in the face of the idea of self-development in general.

      I read something very interesting from the famous developmental psychologist Erik Erikson recently. Erikson believed that true intimacy couldn’t be achieved until a person’s personal identity had been sufficiently solidified. I.e., until you are comfortable with the person you are, you’re never going to be able to truly and comfortably share that identity with someone else.

      Makes sense and gels quite a bit with my experiences.

      • Reply

        Mia

        23 weeks ago

        Hi Mark,
        I would be interested to know if you have examined the dynamics of the relationship between your parents including your views about positive and negative sides of each of your parents. This proved to be a very useful exercise for me on my path to self development and understanding of myself. I read quite a bit about the Oedipus complex and subconscious attraction to someone who is like your opposite sex parent and competitiveness with the same sex parent. I read Helen Fisher’s study Nicholas mentioned in his above comment and a few points confirm this e.g. being aware that your same sex parent cheated makes you more likely to do so too.
        I would really appreciate your honesty on this as it would provide some valuable insight that could help my relationship. Apologies if you already touched this in other article – let me know.

        All the best on your path to growth!

  • Reply

    Shaun

    3 months ago

    I have been questioning my approach to monogamy lately. I am no expert, having unsuccessfully attempt monogamous relationships in the past. I came to a realisation that it is other mens approach to it that puts me off, not wanting to fall into the same ruts that they have and that they seem oblivious to.

    I have several close friends who are in monogamous relationships and from my experience there are 3 standout problems they all have (and often bore me with).

    Firstly, their relationship emasculates them. So many times I have heard them moan about having to do things they don’t want (long phone calls at night if they don’t live together, cheesy dates, random gift buying). When I ask why they do this their response is always “its just what people do”. There is a difference between wanting to do that and being pressured by society. That for me is not a valid reason to do anything. I don’t want to live my life based around the way others have chosen to live theres.

    Second, they settle. Not for the girl, the girl might be lovely. They settle for the relationship. They might have had big aspirations, but now they’re in a relationship so thats good enough. They put all their eggs in one basket, and if the relationship fails they are devastated because they have put everything into it and have wasted years because they haven’t continued to grow outside of the relationship.

    And finally, they seem to forget about who they were in the first place (closely linked to point 2). If a girl falls for you because of your passion for something, your sense of adventure, etc, and you change to a lap dog adhering to her every whim then you are not the same person she fell for and it is likely to collapse. Similarly if you are enchanted by a womans beauty and two weeks later you wake up and shes 25 stone, I’m guessing you won’t feel the same way about her.

    Many of them don’t realise that it is these behaviours that mean they struggle to find someone in the first place.

    So I have recently been thinking that maybe it is just that it is my friends interpretation of a monogomous relationship that I am not looking for. Hopefully in future I will learn more about myself and find out more about what I would want from a monogamous relationship as I would like a family in the future.

    • Reply

      Mark Manson

      3 months ago

      All three of these things make me weary as well.

  • Reply

    Mom

    3 months ago

    “For the last six years, I have been what most people would consider exceedingly promiscuous. According to statistics, I am in the 99th percentile in terms of lifetime sexual partners – a fact that will surely horrify my mother when she reads it (sorry mom). ”

    Have to admit….this prompted a huge “gulp” when I read it! Still love you and am proud of you! :-)

    • Reply

      Jen

      3 months ago

      I imagine the average number of lifetime partners is well below what we assume it to be, which might be some comfort. Isn’t it below 20? Maybe even single digit?

      • Reply

        Mark Manson

        3 months ago

        It’s seven (see comment below).

        • Reply

          Alex

          3 months ago

          Where did you find distributional statistics on number of sexual partners or are you just guessing? I’ve been able to find the average for male/female from a few different studies; but, I’ve never been able to find a distribution.

          If you have a link to share, I’d love to see it.

          • Mark Manson

            3 months ago

            As I posted in a previous comment, a couple years ago I saw it in a sex survey. I don’t remember which.

            Those numbers are just estimates.

  • Reply

    Anonymous

    3 months ago

    You can be polyamorous and still settle down with a family someday, they aren’t mutually exclusive. Have you considered it? Sounds like it might work well for you.

    • Reply

      Mark Manson

      3 months ago

      I’ve considered it and even experimented with it, but I figure I should be able to do monogamy correctly before I start taking polyamory seriously as a long-term solution.

      • Reply

        Anonymous

        3 months ago

        Hmm, I didn’t think of it that way. Very noble of you. Best of luck.

      • Reply

        Drewid

        3 months ago

        That only makes sense if you consider polyamory as something you *do* rather than something you *are*.

        “I should be able to do heterosexuality correctly before I take homosexuality seriously as a long-term solution.”

        How would that ever work?

  • Reply

    Andrew

    3 months ago

    This is an awesome post. Well written.

  • Reply

    Pellaeon

    3 months ago

    Good luck with the new relationship! I really liked this piece, and I particularly appreciate how you took the time to qualify your opinions. Very often, when writing/talking about dating, I see guys position themselves as experts and make blanket statements without taking into account how their background might bias their opinions in one way or another. They lose a lot of credibility in my eyes. One of the reasons I continue to visit and read your site is that you take the time to acknowledge that all of your opinions are influenced by your experiences, rather than claiming that you’re an arbiter or sole truth.

  • Reply

    TN

    3 months ago

    You continue to be my stream of thoughts put into words, in a way better than I ever could.

    I was a late bloomer and never even kissed a girl until I was 19, but the “body count” rose not long after that and a decade later I’ve met maybe two girls that I could even begin to picture myself considering the monogamy thing with.

    Everyone else I’ve been with, almost without a second thought I said to myself, I’d rather find a new girl than “stay” with her. At the risk of bragging, I think we’re alike in the sense that we’re at the upper-end of the “bell curve” so the girls that are in that percentile that we’d want to end up with are so far and few between that we search and search for it.

    Not that I’d necessarily wish to be closer to the center where the pool of girls “at my level” are in greater numbers, but certainly when that’s the case I think the idea of settling is much easier.

  • Reply

    David

    3 months ago

    It’s kinda ironic, if that’s the right word, that you released a book some time ago on attracting women through honesty, and yet now you’re saying that this is the first time you’ve done it yourself. At least in terms of a relationship.

    Or did I miss something?

    Still a great book though

    • Reply

      Mark Manson

      3 months ago

      No, although my track record isn’t perfect, I never outright lied to women. It was more that I was emotionally incapable of handling the kind of commitment necessary for a stable monogamous relationship. My emotions were all over the place, I was always very ambivalent, etc.

      I’ve always been big on honesty.

      • Reply

        David

        3 months ago

        What kind of honesty was it? Was it more about being direct in communicating verbally or otherwise that you were interested more sexually than something long-term, and didn’t buy flowers, take them to dinner etc as a ‘Nice Guy’ dishonest way of getting what you wanted.

        In other words, you were simply honest about what you wanted?

        • Reply

          Mark Manson

          3 months ago

          Yes, I was as honest as possible about my feelings and behaviors, its just that my feelings and behaviors weren’t exactly predictable or stable due to my insecurities and fear of commitment.

  • Reply

    jon

    3 months ago

    This is a bit of a sweeping statement, but has dating in non-anglo countries made it easier to fall into relationships without outbinternal knee-jerk terror and the drama and blame ,that you wrote above ?

    The 99 percentile is that 400 – 500 ?

    • Reply

      Mark Manson

      3 months ago

      Wow! You vastly overestimate people’s sexual habits (too much time in the community perhaps?). Median sexual partners in the US is 7 over a lifetime for men, 5 for women).

      I forget which survey I read it on, but 90th percentile was around 30 partners, 99th percentile was around 55 partners.

      After a little Googling, I found a CDC survey from 2008 saying that only 20% of men sleep with more than 15 women in their life (80th percentile).

      • Reply

        David

        3 months ago

        When people answer that question, is a ‘partner’ a real girlfriend or do the figures include one-night stands?

        I think the figures are understated personally, that number seems quite low..

        • Reply

          Mark Manson

          3 months ago

          Sexual partners = sexual partners; not relationships.

          You have to remember for every single guy carousing through an educated and lively metropolis like Prague or New York City there’s another guy out in the countryside who married his first girlfriend.

          Also, don’t forget about fat people, religious people, hyper-conservative people, mentally ill people, etc.

      • Reply

        Drewid

        3 months ago

        I’d be curious to hear about the mean rather than the average. Assuming you *didn’t* marry your first girlfriend, and you’re looking for an active and robust sex life with a variety of interesting people, what can/should you expect?

        • Reply

          Mark Manson

          3 months ago

          From what I understand the median is actually lower than the average. The old addage about 10% of men doing 90% of the fucking seems to be true. It’s men on the high end who drag the average higher than the actual median.

          • Jani

            3 months ago

            Does nobody wonder how they came up with these numbers? I can’t think of a way that would measure it accurately because you can’t ask it to a dead person.
            It’s also not important. The quality of the sex is more important than the quantity.

          • Mark Manson

            3 months ago

            I agree it’s not that important. And most of these sex surveys use controversial methods (one glaring hole in them is that men ALWAYS report more partners than women, in every country, every generation, etc.).

            They’re fun to look at, but I’m surprised that that statement is the one getting everyone’s attention.

  • Reply

    Jani

    3 months ago

    What do you mean with doing a relationship the “good way”??

    • Reply

      Mark Manson

      3 months ago

      “So as I venture back into commitment and calm my oats, I want to do it right this time: two high self-esteem, self aware people; open communication, no cheating or philandering, no over-dramatic break-ups, manipulation or proxy wars of passive aggression.

      Just the mutual growth and pursuit of both partners’ happiness. And the minute that growth or happiness becomes unfeasible, it an acknowledgement that it will be over.”

      • Reply

        Jani

        3 months ago

        That’s a lot of words, without actually saying something. Personally, I find this one of your weakest articles. It doesn’t contribute something of value, it’s just fluff.

        “no cheating or philandering, no over-dramatic break-ups, manipulation or proxy wars of passive aggression.”
        That’s just stating the obvious. Everybody knows that being passive aggressive is the wrong way to deal with issues. No body is on purpose passive aggressive. Everyone in a dysfunctional relationships does the best what he/she can, only after the relationship they see how fucked up it really was. So, saying what a good relationship should and shouldn’t be is useless, because you won’t notice it when you are in one.

        I have the feeling that you see having a relationships the “good way” as a relationship without drama*. But having a relationship the “good way” isn’t about avoiding drama, but about owning up to it. Being honest with your partner and learning from your mistakes.
        That are in my opinion, two big reasons why people are in dysfunctional relationships:
        - They aren’t honest about their frustations, desires,… with their partner.
        or/and
        - They don’t learn from their experiences.

        *My definition of drama is destructive coping mechanisms.

        • Reply

          Mark Manson

          3 months ago

          “But having a relationship the “good way” isn’t about avoiding drama, but about owning up to it. Being honest with your partner and learning from your mistakes.
          That are in my opinion, two big reasons why people are in dysfunctional relationships:
          - They aren’t honest about their frustations, desires,… with their partner.
          or/and
          - They don’t learn from their experiences.

          *My definition of drama is destructive coping mechanisms.”

          This is basically exactly what I said in different words. When I say “two high self esteem individuals with open communication and no manipulation” that’s basically what I mean: being honest about our emotional needs and learning from our problems and working together on them.

          No where did I say I was avoiding drama. And I know you’ve read my blog long enough to know that I’m naive enough to think relationship problems won’t happen and aren’t sometimes healthy.

          As for not recognizing a relationship is dysfunctional until after you’re in it — this is only true for your first dysfunctional relationship. Every relationship has its share of problems and dysfunctions, but if both people are self-aware and have survived a highly deleterious relationship in the past, they should be self-aware enough to know when a current relationship is not meeting their needs anymore.

          But there are two points of the article:
          1. That it’s hard to talk seriously about what’s right/wrong in a monogamous relationship until you’ve been successful at sustaining a healthy one.
          2. I feel that I have yet to sustain a healthy one for more than brief periods of time (The last six months of my last one was about as close as I’ve gotten), and that this is me making a commitment to do so.

          Sorry you thought it was “fluff.”

          • Alex

            3 months ago

            I tend to agree with Jani here. The title, “A “Correct” Monogamy”, implies that you intend to provide a prescription or definition. Instead, it’s meta-commentary.

            Your history of excellent blog posts has led me to expect a higher standard. This one just seems a little unpolished.

  • Reply

    Daniel Aledo

    3 months ago

    so, what is “correct” monogamy as opposed to “incorrect” monogamy?

    • Reply

      Mark Manson

      3 months ago

      Correct = two emotionally healthy individuals who communicate openly and honestly, who are self-aware, and work together towards each other’s development and who are both willing and unafraid to walk away if their needs are no longer being met.

      Incorrect = two emotionally unhealthy individuals who don’t communicate openly, who are manipulative, who are emotionally unaware, and who are primarily concerned with their own needs rather than their partner’s.

      • Reply

        Leo

        3 months ago

        Wow! Your definition of correct monogamy requires a LOT of effort and work, I know you have done it, but I’m glad you mentioned it. IMHO a lot of people is like this: I went to college, I graduated, I got a decent job, now it’s time to get married and have kids. Just like that! They think is the next logical step in their lives and they do it, they don’t think too much about it, and of course the problems arise because they haven’t made the effort to achive all the aspects you mentioned in your definition. Congrats!

  • Reply

    realistik1

    2 months ago

    Have you ever noticed that the people who promote monogamy are the ones who have the most to gain for it? Yeah, women, of course want monogamy for the primary reason to keep resources from the male dedicated to her and her children. The others who hold up monogamy as a high value are the moral preachers who propose difficult, if not impossible, values as an achievement and when a man can’t remain monogamous then the preacher has the opportunity something to sell him that will direct him to monogamy. They preach that being promiscuous is morally wrong. They preach that they will help you if just follow them and fill their coffers on Sunday.

    The true obstacle to promiscuity, however, is that getting female sexual partners for free is extremely difficult if a male’s standard are high enough. Thus, monogamy becomes the standard in society by default anyway unless a man has enough resources or charm to get all the women he desires into bed.

    Monogamy is pretty much here to stay.

  • Reply

    Elisia

    2 months ago

    I nodded along until you said this:

    ” And the minute that growth or happiness becomes unfeasible, a mutual acknowledgement that it will be over.”

    I don’t believe that growth is ever constant. It comes and goes in waves. There will be times over your relationship where you and your partner won’t be on the same page and you’ll question why you are together in the first place. It’s the people who weather these times that experience true growth and happiness.

    • Reply

      Mark Manson

      2 months ago

      I don’t disagree. “Unfeasible” means impossible. As long as there’s a possibility, you have to keep working towards it.

  • Reply

    Angela

    8 weeks ago

    This article feels a little sexist, as it mainly deals with men who struggle with this issue. But I can honestly say that I’ve met & been with plenty of men who do not feel much of the need to be promiscuous & are for the most part, happy, stable & content to be monogamous. It is myself who has dealt with the challenge above, mainly in the past though.

    • Reply

      Mark Manson

      8 weeks ago

      It’s a personal article and I happen to be a hetero man. Therefore it is not sexist.

      • Reply

        Angela

        7 weeks ago

        Ok fair enough…From where I was coming from, I guess the article gave the invisible impression that it appears mostly men struggle with this issue, so it makes men look ‘bad’. When I said it seemed sexist, I was referring to the tone of the article, not saying you as a person are sexist. But I understand what you meant as well, good point.

        • Reply

          Mark Manson

          7 weeks ago

          Ah I see. Yeah, one problem with some of my older dating articles is that years ago my blog was primarily a men’s dating advice site. It only became a gender-neutral site about a year ago and so sometimes when women dip back into the archives there feels like there’s a bit of a message mismatch. Sorry about that.

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