Are you a Serial Monogamist?
If you're rarely single for more than a couple of weeks, then it sure looks that way. Why are modern relationships evolving from forever to for the time being?
Published 11/07/2014 | 02:30
Someone once said that if promiscuity is like never reading past the first page, monogamy is like reading the same book over and over. A fairly damning description, but it hasn't stopped monogamy becoming our societal and cultural ideal.
Yet somewhere along the way, our stop-start society has resulted in a relatively new phenomenon: people who are committed and devoted to their partners, albeit for a limited period of time. Rather than commit to one other for life, they find themselves lurching from one great relationship to the next in their ongoing romantic quest. According to experts, serial monogamists still believe in an ideal love, yet have given up on the basic pretence that it should last forever.
In a way, it stands to reason that evolutionary theory would clash with the modern way of thinking to create serial monogamy. Signing up to a lifetime together may have made great sense in the past, but now we're living much longer than our forefathers. According to Katherine Woodward Thomas – the US psychotherapist who coined the now famous term 'conscious uncoupling' – "the happily-ever-after goal of love that most of us are aspiring to is a myth that was created long ago when a life span was 35 years. We are living three lifetimes compared to early humans so it is natural to want to change partners and have two or more significant relationships in our lives."
Since his first relationship at the age of 16, Dubliner Alexis Nealon (40) has rarely been single. Totting up his romantic past, he counted five long-term relationships, and six shorter relationships of note. "They lasted long enough to get to know each other and work out if there was a mutually imagined future," he explains.
"Temporally, the time between relationships has varied for me," he adds. "I would be conscious of rebounding, but would also think that moving on is healthy. I don't think that practising bachelorhood is the best way to prepare for dating."
Far from moving mindlessly from one relationship into the next, Alexis has attempted to take stock and regroup before he moves on.
"I have been surprised at the starting of a relationship," he admits. "I have found myself trying to do something differently, to see would the results be better.
"I wouldn't be afraid of being alone," notes Alexis. "I like company, but also my own space. I would probably subscribe to the idea that humans are rarely suited to a single life partner, but also believe that stable families require continuity."
Yet according to relationship expert Tony Moore (www.relationshipsireland.com), moving from one long-term relationship to the next isn't necessarily a positive thing. Far from being romantically lucky, the bar has often been set fairly low. Serial monogamists are often simply in love with the idea of being in love.
"For psychological reasons, someone who finished one relationship on Monday and starts another on a Tuesday doesn't want to be on their own, and wants to be seen by others as having someone," he asserts. "Perhaps this goes back to early life experiences, when they might have felt abandoned. That can be a very powerful drive for serial monogamists. It's a very primal feeling for them, not wanting to be alone. Many of them are willing to settle for someone who they like, or who likes them back. Out of fear of being alone, they tend to find someone who half fits."
Quite apart from this primal impetus, society also helps turn the screws: "People are applauded and congratulated in our society for being a couple . . . committing to someone is blessed by and encouraged by the community. There's always a great pressure in that," observes Moore.
From the outside, moving from one long-term, functional relationship to the next looks ideal: the actions of an emotionally healthy and well-adjusted person. Yet according to Moore, things are rarely as they seem.
"It's not really about finding great partners," he says. "For serial monogamists, the whole drive is to be in a couple; any couple. For other people, if something happens with someone along the way, that's fine . . . but for serial monogamists, their life's ambition is to be with someone; oftentimes anyone. If you go by the logic that a 'soulmate' happens once or twice in a lifetime, finding one every few months doesn't make sense.
"Often, serial monogamists are stifling to be with," he adds. "They use words like 'soulmates' a lot, and there's an underlying sense of 'you mustn't leave me' in the relationship."
Nealon, for his part, doesn't readily agree with Moore's assertions: "Expert opinions (on serial monogamy) are all very well, but they are generic by nature," he counters. "If the chemistry and energy is there between two people, nothing can stop it.
"The alternatives to serial monogamy – polygamy, open relationships, celibacy, being unhappy in a permanent relationships – all have their own difficulties," he adds. "I may have unrealistic expectations at times, but I've also had wonderful periods of happiness with partners. Love can be very rewarding work. Experience has taught me a few things, but to fix those into a dogmatic approach seems like adding cement to the sand in one's baggage! Luck and being open are definitely part of meeting someone. I try to be optimistic."
On the flipside of the coin, Dr David Nias, a relationships psychologist at the Royal London Hospital, has noticed a personality profile among serial monogamists. According to him, serial monogamy suits outgoing, social people who are 'high consumers' of other experiences like work, pastimes and holidays.
"It's the person who is very extroverted, charming, friendly, impulsive, and skilled at making friends," he says. "Their skill is that they can make relationships work. They're the people always in the middle of things, not looking on from the outside."
As to the idea that serial monogamists can't function on their own, he adds: "They'll certainly feel uncomfortable on their own, but mainly because that's not their natural way of living. Because of their experience in making friends and drawing people in, they can afford to choose partners that they know they'll get on well with, and will compliment them. Ultimately, they can afford to be choosy."
Still, one theory holds firm: rather than settle for second best, many serial monogamists are chasing an elusive, intangible romantic ideal. And, as happens when people look for things that don't necessarily exist, it may be an ongoing, ultimately fruitless search.
"It's true that serial monogamists are often looking for something that isn't there," concedes Nias. "We like the idea of it, but there's no such thing as perfect love. In fact, Freud points out that the more we love someone, the more sacrifices we end up making for them, and the more we end up not liking them because of that."
There is plenty of data to support the idea that men, in electing to leave a long-term relationship, often have another relationship to walk into. Meanwhile, women face extra cultural pressure to be part of a couple. "If as a woman you are on your own, you need to be a very strong character to carry off that 'single and proud of it' stance. That can be very hard to deal with for some women."
In today's chop-change society, serial monogamy is becoming less the exception and more the rule. Moving from one relationship to the next is all very well, but the trick to surviving the heady carousel is to take time out to regroup and be single, if only for a while. After all, there's a certain fortitude of spirit that only singledom can bring.
"If you've never been on your own, there's a huge level of life skills that you just don't have," surmises Moore. "People who move from their parents' house into their first live-in relationship don't understand what it's like to live on their own.
"I remember one female client of mine wanted to go on holidays on her own, but was too frightened to do it," he recalls. "She was so used to worrying about whether her husband would be okay whenever they went somewhere. She ended up travelling on her own and marveled about all the things she could do when she wanted to. More often than not, these people who experience their first few months of life on their own come back to me and say, 'well, isn't this just great?'"
First published in INSIDER Magazine, exclusive to Thursday's Irish Independent