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Bering in Mind


A research psychologist's curious look at human behavior
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Polyamory chic, gay jealousy and the evolution of a broken heart

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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There’s a strange whiff in the media air, a sort of polyamory chic in which liberally minded journalists, an aggregate mass of antireligious pundits, and even scientists themselves have begun encouraging readers and viewers to use evolutionary theory to revisit and revise their sexual attitudes and, more importantly, their behaviors in ways that fit their animal libidos more happily.

Much of this discussion is being fueled by Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jethá’s scintillating new book Sex at Dawn , which explores how our modern, God-ridden, puritanical society conflicts with our species’ evolutionary design, a tension making us pathologically ashamed of sex. There are of course many important caveats, but the basic logic is that, because human beings are not naturally monogamous but rather have been explicitly designed by natural selection to seek out ‘extra-pair copulatory partners’—having sex with someone other than your partner or spouse for the replicating sake of one’s mindless genes—then suppressing these deep mammalian instincts is futile and, worse, is an inevitable death knell for an otherwise honest and healthy relationship.

Intellectually, I can get on board with this. If you believe, as I do, that we live in a natural rather than a supernatural world, then there is no inherent, divinely inspired reason to be sexually exclusive to one’s partner. If you and your partner want to screw your neighbors on Wednesday nights after tacos, participate in beachside orgies lit by bonfire, or pull on your eyeless, kidskin discipline helmet and be led along by bridle and bit down the road to your local bondage society’s weekly sex fest, then by all means do so (and take pictures). But the amoralistic beauty of Darwinian thinking is that it does not—or at least, should not and cannot—prescribe any social behavior, sexual or otherwise, as being the “right” thing to do. Right is irrelevant. There is only what works and what doesn’t work, within context, in biologically adaptive terms. And so even though any good and proper citizen is an evolutionarily informed sexual libertarian, Darwin provides no more insight into a moral reality than, say, Dr. Laura Schlessinger.

(On a related tangent, why do we look for moral guidance about human sexuality in the rest of the animal kingdom, a logical fallacy in which what is “natural”—such as homosexual behavior in other species—is regarded as “acceptable”? As if the fact that bonobos, desert toads, and emus have occasional same-sex liaisons has any moral bearing whatsoever on gay rights in human beings—even if we were the lone queer species in this godless galaxy, even if it were entirely a “choice” between two consenting adults, why would that make it more reasonable to discriminate against people in homosexual relationships?)

Beyond these philosophical problems with seeking out social prescriptions from a nature that is completely mute as to what we should do with our penises and vaginas, however, there’s an even bigger hurdle to taking polyamory chic beyond the tabloids, talk shows, and message boards and into standard bedroom practice. And that is simply the fact that we’ve evolved to empathize with other people’s suffering, including the suffering of the people we’d betray by putting our affable genitals to their evolved promiscuous use.

Heartbreak is every bit as much a psychological adaptation as is the compulsion to have sex with those other than our partners, and it throws a monster of a monkey wrench into the evolutionists’ otherwise practical polyamory. It’s indeed natural for people—especially men—to seek sexual variety. My partner once likened this to having the same old meal over and over again, for years on end; eventually you’re going to get some serious cravings for a different dish. But I reminded him that people aren’t the equivalent of a plate of spaghetti. Unfortunately, we have feelings.

Unless you have the unfortunate luck of being coupled with a psychopath, or have the good fortune of being one yourself, broken hearts are not easily experienced at either end, nor are they easily mended by reason or waved off by all the evolutionary logic in the world. And because we’re designed by nature to be not only moderately promiscuous but also to become selfish when that natural promiscuity rears its head—again, naturally—in our partners, “reasonable people” are far from immune to getting hurt by their partner’s open and agreed-upon sex with other parties. Monogamy may not be natural, but neither is indifference to our partners’ sex lives or tolerance for polyamory. In fact, for many people, especially those naively taking guidance from evolutionary theorists without thinking deeply enough about these issues, polyamory can lead to devastating effects.

One of the better evolutionary-based accounts of the human heartbreak experience is a 2006 summary by Rutgers University anthropologist Helen Fisher. Drawing largely from work by psychiatrists, Fisher surmises that there are two main stages associated with a dead and dying romantic relationship, which is of course often preceded by a partner’s infidelities. During the “protest” stage that occurs in the immediate aftermath of rejection:  

Abandoned lovers are generally dedicated to winning their sweetheart back. They obsessively dissect the relationship, trying to establish what went wrong; and they doggedly strategize about how to rekindle the romance. Disappointed lovers often make dramatic, humiliating, or even dangerous entrances into a beloved’s home or place of work, then storm out, only to return and plead anew. They visit mutual haunts and shared friends. And they phone, e-mail and write letters, pleading, accusing and/or trying to seduce their abandoner.

At the neurobiological level, the protest stage is characterized by unusually heightened, even frantic activity of dopamine and norepinephrine receptors in the brain, which has the effect of pronounced alertness similar to what is found in young animals abandoned by their mothers. This impassioned protest stage—if it proves unsuccessful in re-establishing the romantic relationship—slowly disintegrates into the second stage of heartbreak, what Fisher refers to as “resignation/despair”: 

With time the spurned individual gives up pursuit of the abandoning partner. Then he or she must deal with intensified feelings of helplessness, resignation and despair. Drugged by sorrow, most cry, lie in bed, stare into space, drink too much, or hole up and watch TV. Feelings of protest and anger resurface intermittently, but rejected lovers mostly just feel profound melancholy … Some people in the despair phase of rejection kill themselves. Some die of a broken heart. Broken-hearted lovers expire from heart attacks or strokes caused by their depression … As the abandoned partner realizes that [reunion] will never come, dopamine-making cells in the midbrain decrease their activity [causing] lethargy, despondency and depression.

It’s depressing to even read about, I know, but for most people, those all-important chemicals eventually begin pulsating again when a new love affair begins. Let me note, however, that one of the more fascinating things about the resignation/despair stage, and one that Fisher doesn’t really touch on, is the possibility that it actually serves an adaptive signalling function that may help salvage the doomed relationship, especially for an empathetic species such as our own. As I mentioned earlier, heartbreak is not easily experienced at either end, and when your actions have produced such a sad and lamentable reaction in another person, when you watch someone you care about (but no longer feel any real long-term or sexual desire to be with) suffer in such ways, it can be difficult to fully extricate yourself from a withered romance. If I had to guess—and this is just a hunch, in the absence of any studies that I’m aware of to support this claim—I’d say that a considerable amount of genes have replicated in our species solely because, with our damnable social cognitive abilities, we just don’t have the heart to break other people’s hearts.

In any event, we may not be a sexually exclusive species, but we do form deep romantic attachments, and the emotional scaffolding on which these attachments are built is extraordinarily sensitive to our partners’ sexual indiscretions. I also say this as a gay man who, according to mainstream evolutionary thinking, shouldn’t be terribly concerned about his partner having sex with strangers. After all, it isn’t as though he’s going to get pregnant and cuckold me into raising another man’s offspring. But if you’d explained that to me as I was screaming invectives at one of my partners following my discovery that he was cheating on me, curled up in the fetal position in the corner of my kitchen and rocking myself into self-pitying oblivion, or as I was vomiting my guts out over the toilet for much of the next two weeks, I would have nodded in rational Darwinian ascension while still trembling like a wounded animal.

Jealousy in homosexual couples is an interesting thing. One of the most frequently cited findings in evolutionary psychology is the fact that men tend to become more jealous when their female partners have sex with other men, whereas women are more jealous when their male partners show signs of “emotional infidelity” with other women. This makes good sense from an evolutionary perspective, because prior to the era of DNA testing, men were extremely vulnerable to being cuckolded and investing their limited resources in some other guys’ genes (conveniently packaged in the form of children), whereas women, who evolved to rely on their male partner to help them raise their offspring to reproductive age, were at risk of having his attention—and hence his resources—diverted to another woman and her kids.

So when it comes to homosexual affairs, writes Northern Illinois University psychologist Brad Sagarin and his colleagues in a 2003 report in Evolution & Human Behavior , “a same-sex infidelity does not entail the asymmetrical threats of mistaken paternity and of resources being diverted to another woman’s children, suggesting both that the sexes may be similar in their jealous responses and that such responses may be less intense than in the case of opposite-sex infidelities.” In fact, in studies designed to test this basic hypothesis, the researchers indeed found that jealousy was less intense when straight participants were asked how they would feel, hypothetically, if their partners had a homosexual fling than if they were to become involved with someone from the opposite sex. Personally, I think the participants would have other things to worry about besides jealousy if their partners were on the down-low, but these data do clearly show that reproductive-related concerns indeed moderate jealousy feelings in human romantic relationships.

But bisexuality aside, as any gay person with a past knows, homosexual relationships certainly aren’t without their fair share of jealousy. Although as a general rule gay men are indeed less distressed by sexual infidelity than are straight men, there are meaningful individual differences in this regard—and, I’m willing to go out on a limb and say this, most of us gay men certainly aren’t completely okay with the idea of our partners having sex with whomever they please, nor are most lesbians comfortable with their partners committing emotional infidelity with other women. Now perhaps I’m in a minority in caring so much about my partner’s same-sex behaviors—at least, the ones not including me. Dan Savage, for example, said recently that [gay men] are “not psycho like straight people are about [sexual infidelity in their partners].” But I’m not so sure. Often we’re just as psycho. In my case, when back then I informed the sexual interloper that I would gladly emasculate him with a crisp pair of scissors if ever he made contact again with my long-term partner, this was classically aggressive “mate-guarding” behavior as seen in straight men threatening their sexual rivals.

So to me, and because fatal sexually transmitted infections for which gay men are unusually vulnerable, such as HIV, were not present in the ancestral past and could not have produced any special adaptive psychological defenses, sexual jealousy in gay men can only be explained by some sort of pseudo-heterosexuality mindset simulating straight men’s hypervigilance to being cuckolded by their female partners. All this is to say that I reacted the way I did because, at an unconscious level, I didn’t want my testiculared partner getting impregnated by another man. I don’t consciously think of him as a woman, mind you; in fact, if I did, I assure you I wouldn’t be with him. But tell that to my gonads and amygdalae. I would imagine the same is largely true for lesbian relationships; at an unconscious level, a lesbian’s bonding with another woman may trigger concerns in her partner about her “male” spouse’s disinvestment in real or prospective offspring.

And that’s this once-heartbroken gay evolutionary psychologist’s musings for the day.

 

 

In this column presented by Scientific American Mind magazine, research psychologist Jesse Bering of Queen’s University Belfast ponders some of the more obscure aspects of everyday human behavior. Sign up for the RSS feed, visit www.JesseBering.com, friend Dr. Bering on Facebook or follow @JesseBering on Twitter and never miss an installment again. For articles published prior to September 29, 2009, click here: older Bering in Mind columns. Jesse’s first book, The Belief Instinct (Norton) [The God Instinct (Nicholas Brealey) in the U.K.], will be published early February, 2011.

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  1. 1. logistikon 5:37 pm 08/25/2010

    This is a really interesting post Jesse. Affairs of the heart, such as its uncontrollably irrational breaking, are always an extraordinarily difficult thing to master as a philosopher – "Why can’t I be a cold calculating logic machine?" one might say in such situations. Thinking of it (heart break) as an evolved mechanism that contributes to selfish genetics is illuminating, but nevertheless, fails to make it any better, even years after the event. I wonder too, why some lean more to the promiscuous side, and less so to the concern for the consequences of betrayal, and others more to deep and prolongued heartbreak, and less so, to promiscuity. Why should it also hurt, that another doesn’t hurt too over a break up? And why would we secretly gain satisfaction in knowing that another was heartbroken over their losing you? And isn’t it funny, that ‘shagging someone else’, so to speak, is quick to make heartbreak go away in a good many cases, countered equally, by a deepening nausea in the knowledge that given lost lover might do the same. It seems to me, that there is either possible and attainable monogamy – some kind of voluntary arrangement – or the only other alternative, save for abstinence, that there is a real race to hurt first, hurt more, and carry on regardless.

    Not a game for the faint of heart, ironically…

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  2. 2. OCR2003 6:05 pm 08/25/2010

    Hi there,

    I am currently in the middle of reading Sex at Dawn, and so far it has been extremely interesting. But I worry that this book will be used in a way that says "SEE!!! We’re supposed to cheat! It’s NATURAL!", which is just so off base. To me, this is a book that highlights why we may struggle with the social construction of monogamy. Really, nothing more, and nothing less.

    I am a straight, poly man. I’ve been married for 8 years and my wife and I opened things up a while back. Previous to this, I was extremely jealous, controlling at times. For me (and I think for a lot of people), jealousy wasn’t about worrying if my seed will be planted in the right plot of land, but it was fear. Fear of losing someone I love to someone who is better than myself. And within the dichotomy of monogamy, those are the choices. One or the other. In a poly situation, that dichotomy doesn’t exist, and the fear of someone better coming along and sweeping your partner of their feet, also goes away. At least for me, anyway.

    It’s not an "indifference to our partner’s sex lives". Poly people chose this way of constructing meaningful relationships.

    But I will totally agree with you that people should not just jump head first into polyamory without doing some serious contemplating. That would be scary.

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  3. 3. Carlton Van Nostrand 6:56 pm 08/25/2010

    Jesse,

    This currently heartbroken gay non-psychologist thanks you for your post.

    Link to this
  4. 4. logistikon 7:21 pm 08/25/2010

    Experience tells you to forget it, eventually (as I’m sure you know), so, only time can carry you to that point. A logical inescapable. You may as well just chill and do things you enjoy really …

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  5. 5. FrecklesNZ 8:11 pm 08/25/2010

    I haven’t read ‘Sex at Dawn’ yet (but have just ordered it) but think people do need to keep in mind the differences between cheating and polyamory. Cheating is about running around behind your partner’s back, lying to them. Polyamory is about treating your partners (including their partners) with respect and being honest and open in your communications with them. This applies to every relationship, regardless of whether your partner is the same sex as you or not.

    I am like OCR2003 – in a poly relationship and I truly believe polyamory can be a vehicle for growth. Once you get past society’s expectations that you will be monogamous, that you will treat your partner like a possession, that you really need to be jealous and that you should hide your private/forbidden fears, dreams and fantasies from your partner, a whole world opens up for you – you (and your partners) realise you are together because you WANT to be, not because society says it’s a good idea. You realise your own value and accept your partners for who they are, not what they can give you in terms of a ‘whole package’.

    (Of course, monogamy can give you the same growth and polyamory is not for everyone but that’s another subject) :-)

    This is definitely not the same as cheating, which Jesse has experienced. When you are cheated on, you are lied to – your partner disrespects who you are as a person and as a partner. Your self-worth is eroded. You no longer feel safe, loved, wanted. And that hurts like hell.

    There will be some out there that use ‘Sex at Dawn’ as a reason to cheat. But maybe those people should use it as a tool to do some self-evaluation and growth – to ask why society idealises monogamy, why we ashamed of talking about sex, why they feel the need to be with others, why they feel possessive/jealous (hint: try looking at how secure you feel)…to think about the heartbreak it causes when they cheat on their partners and how they can prevent this (and maybe, just maybe, being polyamorous is the way). But like OCR2003 says, a lot of serious contemplating is needed…unfortunately there will be many that take the ‘easy’ way out and just stick to cheating – for some reason society seems to accept it a lot easier than polyamory.

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  6. 6. sjd0218 8:14 pm 08/25/2010

    Its interesting to note the different evolutionary motivations in how men/women react in jealousy. That women are more jealous of a real emotional tie with a sexual infidelity than a random quickie with no ongoing ties makes sense to my personal viewpoint. But I know many women who would be just as jealous and willing to end a relationship over the random quickie.

    I wonder if that reaction is more of our current social construct than any evolutionary action. So how are we able to legitimately tell what is an evolutionary drive and what is just socialization. I’m not a scientist, so I don’t really have an answer, but it does makes me wonder.

    PS – Thank you for your tangent on the logical fallacy of using "natural" way parallels to the animal kingdom. I have done that and can see your point. It makes no sense.

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  7. 7. JamesDavis 8:21 pm 08/25/2010

    Yelp, my boy (son) is going to read this. His young heart was broken at seven and he said that he will never forget Billy. I didn’t hear about that until he was twelve and it broke my heart. I’m still looking for that Billy, and when I find that boy, he is going to get a ‘what-for’. I think we boys are more sensitive than girls – girls are just more vocal about.

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  8. 8. JamesDavis 8:57 pm 08/25/2010

    I just read on Science, "Using a $225,000 microscope, researchers have identified the key components of a protein called TRIM5a that destroys HIV in rhesus monkeys. http://www.geojunk.com/geographic-topics/other-sciences/138-life-science/11258-protein-identified-that-destroys-hiv "

    Hay, Jesse! Good times are coming again boy.

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  9. 9. subWOW 9:29 pm 08/25/2010

    Apology in advance for a comment that is not intelligent at all… "I informed the sexual interloper that I would gladly emasculate him with a crisp pair of scissors if ever he made contact again with my long-term partner…" Good for you! That is all.

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  10. 10. sacrednature 10:30 pm 08/25/2010

    Thank you, Jesse, this is one of the most thoughtful articles on the topic I have read – and as a student of evolutionary psychology – that’s saying a lot. One thing I found missing was the potential role of oxytocin. The love hormone is also responsible for feelings of jealousy, it turns out.

    I have never engaged in a poly relationship myself, but several of my friends are polyamorous. I sometimes wonder if some of them are confusing the intensity of their jealousy with feelings of passion or infatuation. Certainly there must be happy and healthy polyamorous relationships out there, but I have yet to see one with my own eyes. Definitely not something to jump into head-first or explain away with a branch of science that admittedly involves a tremendous amount of guesswork.

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  11. 11. balinor 2:02 am 08/26/2010

    Couldn’t there be other instincts besides the reproductive one at work here? Mr. Bering asserts that "sexual jealousy in gay men can ONLY be explained by some sort of pseudo-heterosexuality mindset simulating straight mens hypervigilance to being cuckolded by their female partners" (emphasis mine). I wonder if there aren’t survival or "thrival" instincts that are independent of the reproductive instinct and that may account both for homosexual jealousy and partially for heterosexual jealousy. After all, the loss of the time/effort/emotion investment in a sexual partner is a more or less devastating blow to one’s personal well-being, regardless of its impact on reproductive success, isn’t it? Might there not be genetic instincts that guard against non-reproductive negative outcomes too? I realize such instincts might be harder to explain on a pure Darwinian model. But "thrival" instincts do seem to exist, as evidenced by the striving of some childless post-sexual individuals to have satisfying lives.

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  12. 12. balinor 2:04 am 08/26/2010

    Couldn’t there be other instincts besides the reproductive one at work here? Mr. Bering asserts that "sexual jealousy in gay men can ONLY be explained by some sort of pseudo-heterosexuality mindset simulating straight men’s hypervigilance to being cuckolded by their female partners" (emphasis mine). I wonder if there aren’t survival or "thrival" instincts that are independent of the reproductive instinct and that may account both for homosexual jealousy and partially for heterosexual jealousy. After all, the loss of the time/effort/emotion investment in a sexual partner is a more or less devastating blow to one’s personal well-being, regardless of its impact on reproductive success, isn’t it? Might there not be genetic instincts that guard against non-reproductive negative outcomes too? I realize such instincts might be harder to explain on a pure Darwinian model. But "thrival" instincts do seem to exist, as evidenced by the striving of some childless post-sexual individuals to have satisfying lives.

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  13. 13. Squish 2:16 am 08/26/2010

    One criticism of polyamorous relationships, from an evolutionary psychological perspective, is that they are much more difficult than monogamous ones. I think it may be easier to be monogamous with the occasional cheating and then forget that the cheating ever happened (by way of avoiding cognitive dissonance through rationalization, etc.: "I am generally a good guy, that never would have happened unless…"). The guilt associated with such discretions may serve to avoid the behaviour (infidelity) that led to the negative mental state ("I am a good guy yet I cheat"). These melodious feelings may countervail even the supreme strength of our gonads. And, as you say, feelings are real and consequential; amphibians can show emotions (increased heart rate, greater hopping tendency, etc.).

    I know proponents say polyamory can be simple. I contest this because we know humans and other primates are extremely sensitive to justice (especially liberal-minded ones). Chimps are happy to receive a few grapes, but if their neighbour begins to receive more, suddenly they are less appealing. Witnessing your partner receive more flesh-sugar on the side may trigger similar feelings of inequity (and for some iniquity!). Because philanderings are so difficult to judge compared to relatively discrete grapes, I think there may be a whole world of pain there. We are jealous creatures.

    As an aside, I think it could be possible that gay or straight, we may have evolved a fundamental monogamous tendency (through whatever genes) to not just secure our own genetic legacy but also to prevent the spread of disease. It is often said that men chose mates on their appearance which correlates to health. Why would it seem strange that they keep up this vigilant attentions to their partner’s health by minimizing the pool that their partner shares their precious bodily fluids? After all, most people are reticent to play around with strange people’s fluids, so I imagine this reticence could be expressed by proxy – my partner not cheating equals the purity of my essence since we share precious bodily fluids (this is a Dr. Strangelove reference by the way – another piece of evidence!).

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  14. 14. Chester Graham 5:33 am 08/26/2010

    When I have been sharing my life with a woman, I have lived monogamously, by instinct.
    The pain of breaking up a life shared with a woman has always been so great that I am sure that a repeat would leave me only immediate suicide.
    The gay life is free from those social pressures that trammel heterosexual pairing, and leaves me, in my old age, free to hobble from bloom to bloom, with no pressure, no instinctual fidelity, and no ties. Should a partner chance along, I shall seize him with both hands, but I neither hope nor pray for one.
    There must be many like me.

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  15. 15. MH 10:58 am 08/26/2010

    We need to seriously reconsider the view that men are more interested in sexual variety that women: thus, I take issue with the author’s presentation of these ideas as settled facts. From a strictly biological standpoint (were such a thing even possible re: human sexuality), a good competing hypothesis is that women’s interest in variety and sex fluctuates with stages of the menstrual cycle. Sometimes, women’s interest in variety will in general be lower than men’s; at other times, such as during ovulation, their interest in variety may be much greater. This hypothesis deserves attention. Ditto for claims that women are more concerned with emotional infidelity than sexual infidelity: I have serious doubts about this claim. Research in this area is affected by widespread social and cultural biases (held by both women and men). Lamentably, evolutionary psychologists are well known for replicating such biases in their research and public writing. EPs: can stop this with better experimental design, and more creative hypothesis generation!

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  16. 16. MH 11:05 am 08/26/2010

    Jealousy comes in two forms: sexual jealousy, and relationship jealousy. These forms are related to one another, and hard to disentangle, given that sex often leads to intimate emotional connections. With orgasm, the oxytocin flows, and people feel more connected. Given this, it is no surprise from an evolutionary standpoint that gay people feel jealousy in response to sexual infidelity, etc. Jealousy draws our attention to our significant relationships–and in so doing may save them if they are suffering from neglect. Thus, there is no need to contort explanations of gay jealousy to conform to reproductive model. Social relationships of all kinds are crucial (or at least were!) to our very physical survival–thus it makes sense we would have an emotional landscape devoted to maintaining their health.

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  17. 17. MH 11:28 am 08/26/2010

    Here’s a fun article challenging the "neurosexism" trend in biology:

    http://www.springerlink.com/content/ch8k8085pv61v361/fulltext.pdf

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  18. 18. GoTeamVenture 12:37 pm 08/26/2010

    Polyamory is not about promiscuity, it is about non-exclusive love. Believe it or not, many people have been living like this for decades, like myself.

    I love all of my children. I love my parents. I love my siblings. I love my friends. Why is romantic love the only exclusive thing? I still stay with my partner and kids, because that commitment is part of my moral value system.

    In my primary relationship, we’re allowed to discuss who we are attracted to and actually share those feelings, rather than struggle with temptation. Acting on those feelings, when and if we choose, is something we deliberate openly, rather than do in secret. Lying, sneaking around, betrayal, neglect–these are things truly poly people don’t face. Those are the hurtful things that destroy a relationship. Cheating doesn’t factor in poly relationships. Most truly poly people won’t get involved with those who are lying or hiding. And they certainly are not hiding anything they do from their partners.

    Chemical love fades over time. Healthy poly couples don’t break up their families when they discover their new chemical romance. Typically the love they share becomes a deep, familial bond that can survive damn near anything. After 20 plus years, I can assure you this is the case.

    Another note: A lot of swinger types are taking up the name poly, and I believe that is the "chic" environment you speak of. While there is much cross over, the successful poly friends I have are not swingers, and their relationships are from from casual.

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  19. 19. HannahCromarty 1:33 pm 08/26/2010

    Jesse,
    This post is particularly resonant with me (a recently heart-broken gay psychology student), and I wanted to say how much I appreciate such a thoughtful and considered post.

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  20. 20. uriahz 4:03 pm 08/26/2010

    What makes you think that fear of cuckolding is an evolved trait? Are you attempting to dispute the book you’re talking about? Did you actually read the book? It’s well known that early man lived in small groups, not in our current family units. With neither understanding of parentage nor private property, and all children raised communally, how would early man have evolved this fear of cuckoldry? Seems to me that our understanding of jealousy is a cultural thing, not a biological thing. Doesn’t mean it’s any less potent just because we didn’t actually evolve to be monogamous. Seems more likely that jealousy as we experience it is a cultural response derived from the quite recent institution of monogamy and property rights, reflecting our actual evolved fear of social rejection from the tribe. It’s taking an old fear and adapting it to our newer understanding of the core social unit and its related sexual codes, not a discrete fear of its own. Which is why gay men can still have big jealousy issues without it necessarily making evolutionary sense.

    Just because you’re an evolutionary biologist doesn’t mean that every detail or even most details in our culture should be explained as being rooted in evolutionary changes.

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  21. 21. Wayne Shaynx 4:53 pm 08/26/2010

    Having read Sex at Dawn I think you missed a few points. Jealosy is very real, but very cultural. It only makes sense as a reaction to cheating as a result of expectations of monogamy. That may have only existed for 10,000 years. But we have been a species for 200,000 years. Over the last 200,000 years most men probably did not know who their offspring really were. Your point about the mate gauarding behavior you exhibited is completly cultural, not biological. The problem is that our biology might be driving us to make choices that hurt those we love. We have to know who we are before we can be true to our lovers. Sex at Dawn helps me know why I feel the way I do. what I do about it makes me human.

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  22. 22. hees 5:32 pm 08/26/2010

    Jesse great post:

    ‘Monogamy may not be natural, but neither is indifference to our partner ‘ PERIOD, I’d say.
    OK? so let’s cut the crap of ‘darwinian reasoning’.

    hp

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  23. 23. hees 5:33 pm 08/26/2010

    Jesse great post,

    ‘Monogamy may not be natural, but neither is indifference to our partner ‘
    PERIOD, I’d say. OK?
    so let’s cut the crap of this ‘darwinian reasoning’.

    hp

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  24. 24. elision 3:24 am 08/27/2010

    First: I agree that looking at biology and evolution is a waste of time when trying to figure out what’s right. I also agree that "for many people … polyamory can lead to devastating effects." (But, well, so can monogamy.)

    That being said, the rest of the article is problematic, and it evidences a deep misunderstanding of what polyamory (and more generally ethical non-monogamy) actually is.

    The first part of the article that really starts talking about polyamory outside of biology is: "[T]heres an even bigger hurdle to taking polyamory chic beyond the tabloids, talk shows, and message boards and into standard bedroom practice. And that is simply the fact that weve evolved to empathize with other peoples suffering, including the suffering of the people wed betray by putting our affable genitals to their evolved promiscuous use."

    There are a couple of assumptions and misunderstandings here. First: polyamory is specifically not just about "standard bedroom practice." (This is not true of some other forms of ethical monogamy, e.g. swinging.) It’s often about "deep romantic attachments." (Though sometimes it’s about deep romantic attachments coupled with shallow romantic attachments — which we as humans are pretty good at forming, too.)

    Second, and most important: it assumes that there’s betrayal inherent in sleeping with / lusting after / falling in love with / etc. more than one person. But that’s the entire point: ethical non-monogamists do not by default consider that a "betrayal." (According to whatever agreement the individuals involved have worked out — there’s no standard. And that’s a good thing.) Jesse was betrayed, and being betrayed is deeply painful whether you’re monogamous or not. The real difference is how ‘betrayal’ is defined.

    Can there be suffering attached to even well-done ethical non-monogamy? There sure can. But just as we empathize with other people’s suffering, we also empathize with their joy. Most of the time, it makes me genuinely happy to see my partners happy, and it makes them happy to see me happy. For me, at least, the hardest part of polyamory isn’t the jealousy, but the scheduling.

    The practical upshot of all of this is: polyamory isn’t for everyone, and monogamy isn’t for everyone. And Jesse has quite a knowledge gap to overcome in order to understand what polyamory is.

    Link to this
  25. 25. Tommy G 10:23 am 08/27/2010

    Jesse – you miss an important part of the spectrum of relationships in this article by assuming all polyamory is infidelity. People are always hurt by infidelity. But there is a spectrum of color in relationship determination which is made by the couple involved. Some couples (gay and straight) enjoy loving relationships in which they enjoy seeing or allowing their partners to be pleased by outside partners and/or even bring others home to satisfy this pleasure in a loving and COMMUNICATIVE way. Communication is key. Infidelity always hurts mainly because it is deceitful and breaks the established rules of the relationship. But when a couple spends 40-50 years together, communicates, and works through the difficult times (including the decades when they sexually bored with each other) they can remain lifelong partners. For some couples, there is something in between monogamy and infidelity which is just as loving and nurturing as monogamy can be (note, I said CAN BE) possessive and jealous.

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  26. 26. Raleigh77 10:27 am 08/27/2010

    The author makes a good case for why cheating is bad, which I hope we can all agree on. It’s a betrayal of trust and incredibly hurtful. But that has nothing to do with polyamory or consensual non-monogamy. When there is openness, honesty and clear, negotiated boundaries, non-monogamy can be great for many people that monogamy doesn’t really work for. (Which, judging from the number people who do cheat, is a pretty large group of people.) In fact, many people find joy in their partner’s experience of joy, even if its with other people. Relationships work better when the people in them talk about and agree on their own rules, even if they end up with monogamy being right for them, rather than just following the expected default standards society puts on them.

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  27. 27. dixitque 3:24 pm 08/27/2010

    Threats of physical violence against another person are not acceptable, whether or not anger – you specify that your anger is of the sub-type "jealousy" – triggers the threat. I’m surprised you thought it was appropriate to publish that.

    Anger and jealousy are valid feelings, but threatening to castrate someone in public is not well adjusted behaviour. It made it more easy to dismiss your already tenuous arguments. You’re just upset; maybe when you’ve calmed down, we can talk….

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  28. 28. elision 3:32 pm 08/27/2010

    @dixitque: Oh, come on. There are many valid things to criticize about this article, but that’s not one of them. Jesse calls the behavior "psycho," and there was no public threat made — he’s self-critically relaying the fact that in the past he made this threat in private.

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  29. 29. c.harvey 3:40 pm 08/27/2010

    Oh get over yourself dixitque. Bering was making a point about how the EP construct of "mate-guarding" extended to his own case and likely that of other gay males facing infidelity. Look elsewhere if you want a more unentertaining and staid writer.

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  30. 30. Texxas 10:36 pm 08/27/2010

    "Although as a general rule gay men are indeed less distressed by sexual infidelity than are straight men…" (sound of tires screeching to a sudden halt!!!)

    I re-read the article to see where the hell that came from. First of all "as a general rule," a general rule should tread very lightly over general rules. (High school English.)

    Is this general rule from the same "book of knowledge" in which, as a general rule, gay men are indeed more promiscuous? Often cited.

    Danger, Will Robinson. That book of knowledge is a homophobic text. For a gay man to recite either that gay men are less distressed by sexual infidelity or are more promiscuous is to reveal one’s deep, internalized homophobia.

    This is not so blameworthy or unusual, but it is something to be purged whenever we come across it. Our cultural homophobia is so deeply ingrained, we’re barely aware of its insidiousness.

    You want a general rule that may actually be true? Men tend to be more promiscuous than women. Gay men just happen to have men as their partners! I can guarantee that straight men, unfettered, are our equal in promiscuity.

    A mindset from the 70s was that we as gay people would like to be "accepted" by our fellow citizens. No. In the 2010s, I could care less if I’m "accepted." Let me put it to you straight. I am gay. I am a citizen. I am entitled to each and every right, privilege, and obligation of every other citizen. (Read it in the new millennium edition of the "book of knowledge.")

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  31. 31. Stuffed Animal 12:31 pm 08/28/2010

    Not to deviate from the main topic, but what is the justification for calling same-gender sexual relationships "queer", and doing so regardless of what species you’re talking about, strictly from a scientific point of view? Is this a case of casual ignorance creeping into scientific discourse? If so, then what should be done about it?

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  32. 32. Stuffed Animal 12:33 pm 08/28/2010

    Not to deviate from the main topic, but what is the justification for calling same-gender sexual relationships "queer", strictly from a scientific point of view, and doing so regardless of what species you’re talking about? Is this a case of casual ignorance creeping into scientific discourse?

    Link to this
  33. 33. Lindenflower 1:36 am 08/29/2010

    My husband never had sex with anyone outside our marriage, but every few years he would tell me he’s polyamorous, and coincidentally he’s in love with some new woman he’s just met, and couldn’t we open up our relationship so he can have guilt-free sex with her? I shouldn’t be hurt by this, because polyamory is all about love, right? And he’s being honest and faithful, right?

    This year I did decide to open the relationship — by filing divorce papers.

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  34. 34. Poly No More 3:19 am 08/30/2010

    I have been in a "polyamorous" relationship for almost 15 years. I entered the relationship because I was deeply in love and hopeful that I could defy the social, cultural, and human limitations of love, sex, and honesty. Well, I can’t. I’d say I gave it an honest shot. More so, I doubt that any human being with an average capacity to empathize with their lifemate(s) can either. My partner, soon to be ex is trying to convince me that I don’t have to feel the way that I do and that I’ll feel better if I read Sex at Dawn and get a more informed understanding of my humanity and sexual repression. Yeah, I’ll get right to that! Thank God for the Nook (not to be confused with "nookie"), right?

    To be polyamorous requires a serious self-interest, a selfishness and an arrogance that justifies the correctness of ones actions in the face of the loneliness, heartache, and destructive questioning and self-doubt that one must by necessity inflict on one’s lifemate. You can write it off to poor scheduling if you like.

    Communication surely has something to do with the issue. I imagine that true honestly is not occurring because one person or the other experiences: 1) a sense of obligation to the "path"; 2) a fear of loosing or upsetting the person that they are deeply committed to; or 3) a manipulative rather than empathetic response to their feelings and concerns.

    I agree with others that polyamory is a further complication of monogamy given our natural tendencies. But cheating monogamists deserve a little credit for having the sensitivity, albeit unintended, to hide their lack of full commitment from their loved one. Polyamorist are obligated by the high idea that you can love more than one kid or pet, so the same must be true for life mates, to justify and rationalize why they are right in their actions. And if a relationship lasts as long as mine somehow did (either due to some miracle of love or an unhealthy dependence), the justification and rationalization inevitably appear at times that evidence a clear disregard for the feelings, care, or health of the person(s) you so called "love".

    In 15 years, I seldom took a lover. I felt no need to for the most part. My partner on the other hand "needed" another committed partner, and I accepted it. It’s interesting what one feels when they are simultaneously experiencing a passion-high with one lover while aware of the longing, loneliness, and sorrow (be it masked or not) of the other lover. I have on occasion, and each time I was too happy to empathize with my partner.

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  35. 35. saram 11:00 am 08/30/2010

    I lived in a country where polygamy was the norm, in a very conservative culture. Sexual jealousy doesn’t go away in that situation. You think our TV soap operas are convoluted – their radio ones took it many steps beyond (three wives, who does he really love… plus girlfriends, old flames, etc). I’m personally very monagamous by temperament and don’t have to struggle to stay so, but I would say, it may be a question of picking your poison. And not lying to people you claim to love, whatever arrangement you have with them.

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  36. 36. BobNSF 6:14 pm 08/30/2010

    As to your tangent, what kind of a gay person are you that you would be unaware of how much damage has been done to us over the centuries because we are somehow "unnatural"? Proving homosexual behavior in other species isn’t an argument in our favor per se, it’s the demolition of an argument used against us, perhaps the most persistent, most prejudicial one.

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  37. 37. Fee Simple 11:10 pm 08/30/2010

    Sexual jealousy and the desire for multiple partners are probably both natural; that’s one of the tragedies of the human condition.

    What I don’t understand is why all this evolutionary psychology trades in characterizations of people generally as monogamous or polyamorous. Evolution produces multiple survival strategies in different members of the same species; that’s how adaptation works. If every individual had the same survival strategy, the species would be unable to adapt. That is why the idea that everyone is inherently polyamorous or monogamous doesn’t sound right to me from an evolutionary perspective. Why aren’t more people considering the possibility that a spectrum exists, with a predisposition toward pure monogamy preference on one end, and pure polyamory preference on the other, and that different individuals fall in different places along this spectrum? It’s not hard to see evolutionary advantages to both strategies – polyamory means more opportunities for more offspring with more sexual partners; monogamy creates a more stable environment for the offspring. I think it’s because this notion doesn’t fit conveniently into a pro-monogamy or a pro-polyamory agenda.

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  38. 38. Fee Simple 11:11 pm 08/30/2010

    Sexual jealousy and the desire for multiple partners are probably both natural; that’s one of the tragedies of the human condition.

    What I don’t understand is why all this evolutionary psychology trades in characterizations of people generally as monogamous or polyamorous. Evolution produces multiple survival strategies in different members of the same species; that’s how adaptation works. If every individual had the same survival strategy, the species would be unable to adapt. That is why the idea that everyone is inherently polyamorous or monogamous doesn’t sound right to me from an evolutionary perspective. Why aren’t more people considering the possibility that a spectrum exists, with a predisposition toward pure monogamy preference on one end, and pure polyamory preference on the other, and that different individuals fall in different places along this spectrum? It’s not hard to see evolutionary advantages to both strategies – polyamory means more opportunities for more offspring with more sexual partners; monogamy creates a more stable environment for the offspring. I think it’s because this notion doesn’t fit conveniently into a pro-monogamy or a pro-polyamory agenda.

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  39. 39. Fee Simple 11:39 pm 08/30/2010

    That’s weird, my post appeared twice…

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  40. 40. djeter 10:47 am 08/31/2010

    We have no right to happiness is the title of the last thing that C. S. Lewis wrote for publication and it appeared shortly after his death (he died the same day President Kennedy did) in The Saturday Evening Post of 21-28 December 1963. That such a unique moral voice was silenced at the time it was most needed has always struck me as a great sadness. He wrote this within 2-3 years of his beloved wifes death that ended a happy marriage lasting only slightly more than 3 years.

    You can find it here:

    http://payingattentiontothesky.com/2010/08/30/we-have-no-right-to-happiness-by-c-s-lewis/

    dj

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  41. 41. Jayhawk 5:16 am 09/2/2010

    Polymory chic is fine until left to their own reproductive needs. Their inability to reproduce, limits them to one generation. Breeders are needed for them to continue existense.

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  42. 42. Cappysay 6:15 pm 09/2/2010

    Jesse, sometimes you’re like a crisp pair of scissors, and sometimes you just blaze past a mountain of a point like it’s not there. Kudos on debunking the "natural" argument. The mountains include the culturally-embedded idea that being with more than one sexual partner is cheating and breaks someone’s heart, regardless of situation, and that we should proceed with our discussion as if heartbreak is more intrinsic to polyamorous relationships than monogamous ones. (You seem to be assuming that one person is sleeping around, but not the other – why?) The idea that people in polyamorous relationships are insensitive – and worse, fashionable – is naive.

    Think of it this way. Every relationship, regardless of structure, has its counterintuitive moments. This is what relationship structures are for – to get people through the moments when their gut tells them something else. A perfect situation would be a partner who’s completely loyal to you, while you’ve got straying rights. Obviously, that’s not fair. The two structures we’re discussing deal with that in opposite ways. In a monogamous structure, when you’re feeling the urge to stray from sexual fidelity, it’s your job to squash that urge in order to maintain the agreed-upon structure. In a polyamorous relationship, it’s a different tactic: partners agree that they can both have other relationships, but they have to deal with the idea of their partner sleeping with others. People need to figure out which counterintuitive moments they tolerate better. Both structures are successful and unsuccessful strategies, and neither is more natural than the other.

    I know lots of unhealthy poly relationships, and a good handful of healthy ones. I also know lots of unhealthy monogamous relationships, and a good handful of healthy ones. Much like the frustration of trying to explain to people that a homosexual relationship can be just as normal and healthy (or unhealthy) as a heterosexual one because it’s about the individuals and their commitment, hard work, and charater, you’re being unduly incredulous here. People do this, and it does work sometimes.

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  43. 43. Andira 8:30 pm 09/2/2010

    Very good article. Judging by the intensity of jealousy and the like, which are not purely social constructs, obviously, one is inclined to argue that we are designed by evolution so as to to be not strictly but rather monogamous, although tempted to have an affair now and then. The parents have to stick together to care for their children, and besides there are so many other factors involved, since sex is a major shaper of social bonds. We might all like to be perfectly free to have sex whenever, in our dreams, but the actual emotional and social problems indicate that it is not natural to use sex as an unproblematic pastime. Nothing moral here, just that nature has not in general shaped us this way. There is, however, here as in gender preferences, to be expected a fair amount of individual variation.

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  44. 44. nveis 10:18 pm 09/2/2010

    Fabulous! Science with heart – a wonderful combination

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  45. 45. talkingfigleaf 3:18 pm 09/4/2010

    Um. So we’re supposed to believe we’ve had enough differential offspring-survival rates to have evolved a) sex-specific forms of jealousy such that women are jealous of emotional infidelity and men of sexual, but also b) that there would have been sufficient further offspring-survival differences that we’d have also evolved controls on the expression of those gene complexes such that they’re turned on in heterosexual relationships where there’s confidence of reproduction but not turned on in infertile, menopausal hetero or in same-sex situations?

    If we were playing Call Your Bluff I’d be saying "I’ll call his bluff for $50, Bob" right around now.

    How about instead saying human beings have evolved general-purpose feelings of envy/jealousy/loss that, for most primates, have helped survival by ensuring concern about general social standing? Status is a far bigger predictor of reproductive success. Enough so to make local particulars less important in cognitively-adaptable species like humans.

    Human social structures are complex enough anyway (some monogamy, more polygyny, a little "polyamory," and plenty of cheating) that selective pressure would have to be working some seriously consistent overtime over relatively short durations to get the complex specificity pop EPs want to pin on evolved behaviors. Meanwhile general inclination towards anxiety about, assessment of, and strategizing to obtain status would account for the variety of behaviors we observe in humans. It would certainly account for the remarkable overlap in expression of anger, sorrow, and anxiety that both men and women, of all orientations and reproductive statuses exhibit in the face of both emotional and sexual betrayal.

    It would also account for the considerable overlap between jealousy and envy over sexual relationships on the one hand and jealousy and envy over work, social-sphere, sibling, and parental relationships.

    It’s not that behavior isn’t selected for in humans — it is. It’s that to believe claims of extraordinarily precise, differential adaptations we ought to demand extraordinary evidence. What we’re getting instead is scarcely discernible from background noise.

    figleaf

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  46. 46. SuperVinnie 12:56 pm 09/14/2010

    Statistically speaking, regardless of our worldview, infidelity is a reality that more than half of all couples will experience. The real heartbreak is in the betrayal, lies, and the pride that often leads the both parties to assume their relationship has failed, and end it. Only when it is not a zero sum proposition, and you can get past the traditional worldview, can you open up to the possibility that your relationship could actually grow and flourish. If the only reason you are together is sexual exclusivity, then you probably should end it. However, if there is more to it than that, and all parties want to work to make the realtionship grow, then I can tell you from personal experience that it is worth all the joy, and the pain.

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  47. 47. EricJohn 10:21 am 09/5/2011

    Having just seen this article, I hope it’s not too late to comment that, as a gay man who had a relationship for many decades, I never found simple sexual ‘infidelity’ a problem. Our relationship was open from the start, and we soon found restricting ourselves to threesomes a tiresome bind and went our own ways sexually. Sex was, to us, just a fun way of spending time with others and sometimes an intimate form of communicating with them.

    What was upsetting, however, was when my partner got emotionally involved with other men. It happened often enough for me to get used to it, and over the decades to (sort of) accept it as one of his innate characteristics which I didn’t share. But it still made me unhappy.

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  48. 48. franklinveaux 5:42 pm 09/25/2013

    There are several problems I see with this article, not the least of which is conflating “cheating” with “non-monogamy.”

    Being polyamorous isn’t the same thing as cheating. There’s no betrayal involved. For those of us who do it (and I’ve been polyamorous for 25 years), there is no heartbreak.

    There seem to be two unspoken assumptions lying in the foundation of this article but haven’t been explored: namely, that seeing a partner have sex with someone else will always cause pain, and that pain is the result of evolutionary development rather than cultural conditioning. I don’t accept either premise.

    For me, and for many people I know, non-monogamy is not associated with pain. It doesn’t hurt me that my partners have other lovers. Why? Because I am secure in my relationships. Because I believe that my partners love me, cherish me, and want to be with me. The place they choose to put their binkies doesn’t change that.

    It’s also my experience that, far from being an evolved response to sexual acts, feelings of hurt at a partner having another lover really say more about the degree to which we trust our partners and our own self-confidence. If you ask people WHY they feel the way they do, you’ll often hear answers like “because it means I’m not enough,” “because if my partner has other lovers why do they need me any more?” and “because I’m worried that other person might be better than me.” These aren’t responses to the sex per se; they’re responses to feelings of doubt, fear of loss, insecurity, and threat.

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