Of all the lies people tell one another, there is none that is as ubiquitous, as corrosive to happiness and as laughably untrue as the classic declaration of undying love that excludes all others, forever and ever. "Marriage," Oscar Wilde famously said, "is the triumph of imagination over intelligence." Perhaps, but it's not marriage per se that suggests a vanquished intelligence; it's the nearly universal expectation that a happy couple will "forsake all others" for the rest of their lives—without coming to despise each other in the process. There is a crisis in modern marriage today (the U.S. Census Bureau tells us that about half of first marriages end in divorce), and the culprit is easy to find. Monogamy is what's wrong with marriage. Our notions of till-death-do-us-part conjugal bliss demand that we confuse "love" with "lust," even though the two are as distinctly different as red wine and blue cheese. And sure, they may complement each other when they happen to be in the same place at the same time, but they are discrete, fully autonomous energies. Love might settle in for a lifetime, growing comfortable and sinking roots; lust comes and goes as it pleases. Love is like a farmer, tilling the soil, planning for future harvests. But lust is an explorer, a wanderer, an outlaw. No wonder the Spanish word esposas means both "wives" and "handcuffs."
But this isn't the story we're told by popular culture, religious authorities, mainstream scientists and a legion of therapists who insist—despite a world of evidence to the contrary—that steadfast love and burning desire go hand in hand. This campaign to misrepresent the true nature of human sexuality leaves virtually all of us submerged in a rising tide of sexual frustration, libido-killing boredom, betrayal, confusion, dysfunction and shame. The only widely acceptable alternative to the one-marriage, one-sexual-partner straitjacket—so-called "serial monogamy"—stretches before and behind many of us like a dismal archipelago of failure, islands of transitory happiness in a cold, dark sea of disappointment and loss.
Amazingly, for a problem central to so many lives, we rarely dare discuss the absurdity of expecting our love and lust to march in lockstep. When the subject is raised, nobody knows what to say. Bill Maher asked the obvious question while discussing the Eliot Spitzer situation on his HBO talk show: "When a man's been married 20 years," Maher said, "he doesn't want to have sex, or his wife doesn't want to have sex with him.… What is the right answer?... Is it to just suck it up and live the rest of your life passionless, and imagine somebody else when you're having sex with your wife the three days a year that you have sex?" After a long, fraught silence, Jon Hamm, the tortured lothario of Mad Men, suggested simply abandoning the marriage. "Move on," he advised. "I mean, you're an adult." The normally outspoken journalist P.J. O'Rourke, sitting with Hamm on the panel, just looked down in silence.
But is divorce really the "adult" response to the inherent conflict between adolescent romantic ideals and the inconvenient nature of human sexuality? Is there no way to accommodate reality that's a bit less drastic than the bloody sacrifice of an otherwise functional—possibly even wonderful—marriage?
I was recently sitting in a hotel lobby when I noticed a sexy woman walking across the room. My attention then turned to a textbook-miserable married couple sitting stiffly on a sofa nearby. They were unmoving, but a hurricane of resentment was raging all around them. He was bitterly pretending not to notice the sexy woman. His wife was angrily pretending not to notice that he was pretending not to notice. When they both looked at me, I pretended not to notice what they were pretending not to notice. What a fucking mess! Why is it still considered a taboo-busting provocation to say out loud that no matter how much we love each other, sexual passion for the familiar fades? And no matter how deep our bonds, we'll still notice—and desire—other people? For both men and women, erotic engagement with a novel partner (even if only in flirtation or fantasy) can be one of life's greatest tonics: revitalizing, enhancing, energizing. What evil agenda has convinced us to pretend otherwise? I'm not saying the couple in the lobby should have invited the sexy woman up to their room—not necessarily—but what would have been the harm in acknowledging her obvious beauty? Do they angrily pretend to ignore rainbows and sunsets as well?
Why should it be surprising that we crave variety in our sexual lives? The human appetite for something new is taken as a natural expression of our species' intelligence when it comes to music, art, cuisine, architecture and so on. After all, Homo sapiens is the ultimate omnivore. No other creature eats more different kinds of things than we do—from seeds to snails, roots to rats, and ants to elephants. A hunger for erotic novelty is utterly normal for our species. It has evolved into our bones, you might say. No other creature on Earth spends as much of its time and energy obsessing over sex. Most mammals have sex only when the female is ovulating. For them, sex is about reproduction. But human beings fuck in all sorts of configurations that can't possibly lead to pregnancy. Consider the raw numbers. In our "natural" state—in pre-agricultural hunter-gatherer groups without birth control—our species averages around 1,000 sex acts per birth. Gorillas are more typical of mammals in enjoying only around a dozen or so sexual encounters per baby gorilla born. Chimpanzees and bonobos, the two apes most closely related to us, share our proclivity for nonreproductive sex, coming in at more than 500 sexual encounters per birth. The dolphin, another highly intelligent animal living in large, complex social groups, is the aquatic member of this libidinous hall of fame. For all these species—and especially for our own—sex has never been primarily about reproduction. Babies have always been a by-product of sex, not its central purpose.
Strange as it may sound, many pre-agricultural societies aren't very clear on precisely how sex results in babies. Some hold that a fetus is literally made of accumulated semen. Any sexually active woman is thought to be always at least a little bit pregnant, but her fetus won't begin to develop until she reaches a tipping point. And like women everywhere, the female members of these societies (most of them in Amazonia) aspire to have children who are smart, strong, funny and unique. To that end, the prospective mother will "solicit contributions" from smart men, strong men and funny men. When an anthropologist working with the Aché people in Paraguay asked his subjects to identify their fathers, he was presented with a head-scratcher. The 321 villagers he polled claimed to have, cumulatively, more than 600 fathers. Who's your daddies?
While a society full of shared dads may strike us as a recipe for disaster, the ensuing interlocking social obligations are crucial to the survival of these foraging groups, who still live today as all people did until the advent of agriculture just a few thousand years ago (a blink of an eye in evolutionary terms). And because these relationships promote social cohesion, opting out can be problematic. Anthropologist Philippe Erikson, who studied the Matis people of the upper Amazon, reports, "Extramarital sex is not only widely practiced and usually tolerated, in many respects, it also appears mandatory." If a Matis refuses too many sexual advances, he or she risks being labeled "stingy of one's genitals" in a kind of mirror reflection of our internet age's phenomenon of slut shaming. The isolating nuclear family is a thoroughly modern contrivance, as is our grim insistence that sexual monogamy is an essential part of any authentic expression of love.
Because humans share a highly social sexuality along with chimps and bonobos—with whom we also share more than 98 percent of our DNA—it's very likely that all three species have been randy, promiscuous apes since before they originated. We're just the only ones who are "evolved" enough to try denying it. We need to take a step back and begin again with a clear, scientifically accurate sense of what kind of animal Homo sapiens is—taboos and religious hypocrisies be damned. Our sexual omnivorousness is as self-evident as our dietary omnivorousness, and monogamy comes to us about as naturally as vegetarianism. Now, one may decide to forgo meat. Many of us do, and for good reason. But just because you've decided to give it up, don't think that bacon's going to stop smelling good.