On Monogamy, Our Biological Urges, and Society’s Structure.

Have you noticed how the excitement levels soar through the roof when you’re just starting to explore the body of a new partner? The excitement level usually fades quite significantly after the first few times you have sex, especially if you have sex regularly.

It makes total sense, right? Everything about a potential new partner is intoxicating. But on the sexual front, this eagerness has even got a name: 

The Coolidge Effect.

The Coolidge Effect is what makes you super-duper aroused when there’s a new potential sexual partner.

The story goes that Calvin Coolidge, while he was the US president, was on a farm visit with his wife. His wife observed the rooster mating multiple times and asked the farmer if that’s typical. When the farmer responded that the rooster is mating many times a day, she said: “Please tell that to the president.” When the president saw the rooster he asked the farmer if it’s always the same hen, to which the farmer responded that it’s a different hen each time. The president then replied: “Please tell that to the first lady”.

I experienced this phenomenon myself for the first time last time I was single. Normally, it takes me months (at times even years) between sexual partners. It’s probably not what you’d expect from someone who writes about sex, but it’s true. But last time I was single there was an exception to the rule.

I started seeing this guy. I was interested in getting to know him but wasn’t sure if I am interested in having any type of relationship with him yet. I was definitely not infatuated to any degree. Nonetheless, we touched each other. And even though I didn’t like the way he touched me, I was still excited in my body: goosebumps, shivers all over and increased secretions — you know what I’m talking about, yes?

I quickly realized that this guy was not for me and I moved on. A few weeks went by and I ended up back together with my ex. Not just any ex. The ex that is one of my dearest friends. An ex that is, no doubt about it, the best lover I ever had thus far. The excitement levels were quite high again, but this time, I couldn’t help noticing that my body didn’t generate the same levels of intensity it was producing with the other guy, the “new” guy.

This was my own private experience of the Coolidge Effect.

The Coolidge Effect was observed in many experiments.

If you give a male rat the opportunity to copulate with a ready female, he will do that a few times until he will get quite fatigued. At this stage, he will stop with exhaustion. But if you place a new female rat next to him, he will find renewed energies and start copulating again. Here’s one example of such an experiment.

Apparently, this phenomenon has been witnessed in many mammals, and it’s true for females as well as males. It must have been very beneficial for our ancestors to copulate with a variety of mates, to create a mechanism that excites us when the notion of a new potential mating partner arises. It most probably supports the expansion of the variety of our gene pool.

The Coolidge Effect is supporting the evidence that, from a biological standpoint at least, we were not evolved as monogamous beings.

But didn’t our ancestors marry for life?

In pre-historic societies “serial marriages”, as described by Biological Anthropologist Dr. Helen Fisher, were the norm. Meaning to say, separation of couples, either before or after children, was accepted and accounted for as part of the normal cycle of life.

This norm still exists in some indigenous tribes around the world to this very day. In tribes that accept this as the norm, the “divorce” process is relatively easy, as the entire tribe is accountable for the wellbeing of every member of the tribe, including children. So apart from the heartache of the breakup, which occurs in any cultural settings, there are no assets or custody battles. In many cases, the separation is as simple moving out of the shared house. 

Committing oneself to only one partner at a time resembles what we observe in our Western society these days, with one big difference. In the Western world, the burden of taking care of the less-capable members of society falls entirely under the parents or immediate family of such people. This makes separating much more complicated and draining than what it already is from the emotional standpoint.

It looks like we have a strong case against “humans are supposed to stay with one person for our entire lives”.

So why do most of us hope to find “the one” to stay with for ever and ever?

This tradition was developed later in our social evolution as human beings. It most probably evolved as we moved from a tribal society to an individual-focused one. Without the tribe to take care of us, we developed a structure in which marriages provide that sense of security for the couple.

“The one” offers non-conditional acceptance, and will stay with us for better or worse, for richer, for poorer, through sickness and health, till death do us part.

We crave for that stability that being with one person for the rest of our lives can bring. This stability means that our lives will have a predictable trajectory that most of us seek. We want that security.

In effect, one could say that the social structure of our ancestors was more in line with our biological instinct than the current Western social norm.

Does this mean we are doomed to be in an inner conflict between our instincts that excite us to find a new partner and the society that encourages us to find one partner for life?

How do we resolve this conflict?

If you are already in a long-term relationship and you find yourself agonizing over meeting someone new, you have four options:

  1. Having an affair (I hope everyone that reads this article knows that affairs are painful for everyone involved. I will say no more.)
  2. Having an open relationship, which allows for new and exciting partners to be a part of your mutual experience. (If it’s something you consider, please read my previous article: Why Monogamy is So Difficult and Why Non-Monogamy is Not Necessarily the Answer).
  3. Leaving the current relationship in the hope that the next one will be better. (And here’s a short video by Alain de Botton’s School of Life that can provide some insights if you are considering leaving your current relationship).
  4. Reassure yourself that the relationship that you are in at the moment is worth staying in, worth growing in, and worth investing in. Learn how to make it better and better all the time with the help of inspiring teachers or a trustworthy therapist. Or both.

At the end of the day, it really doesn’t matter if we were supposed to be monogamous or not. Just find the relationship model that suits you and your partner, and then grow and evolve from there.