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If you’re not familiar with the word monogamy, you’re most likely familiar with what it is.

The standard mating system in America is a relationship that involves only two spouses, and therefore it is considered monogamy. Read on to find out more about the history of one of the most common types of mating systems.

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Monogamy is defined as marriage with only one person at a time or the practice of having only one mate. It is the only legal form of marriage in the United States, and we may take it for granted as the standard mating system. In other cultures, however, it is quite common to have multiple wives and/or husbands. Monogamy is also a rather historically recent development as well.

Historical Development of Monogamy

Back in ancestral times, when humans lived primarily as hunters and gatherers, they mainly practiced polygyny (having multiple wives).

The best hunters in a given tribe would typically have two or three wives since the best hunters brought back the most meat and would have extra to support more than one wife. This practice of polygyny became even more exaggerated once agriculture became popular and men had access to significantly more food resources and actually owned land.This occurred in ancient civilizations, such as those in Egypt, China, and the Middle East, and spread to other civilizations, which included Western Europe. During this time period, the men with the highest status or the most property and resources would typically have hundreds or even thousands of wives, while lower class men would commonly not reproduce at all.In the Middle Ages, this polygynous trend began to decline. The Christian church gained more influence in Western European society and greatly encouraged monogamy.

Although this made monogamous marriage more common, it didn’t help decline the amount of polygynous mating outside of marriage.The widespread acceptance of monogamy in a moral sense came later and is typically associated with democratic societies that strive for social equality. This gave lower-class men a fair chance at reproduction and to have heirs to pass down their trades and family name.The switch to monogamy in Western society was also associated with a somewhat lower degree of child mortality. In polygynous societies, men would sire many children with different women but would not be directly involved in raising the children. Although they arranged for help for the mothers of the children, the offspring were typically not cared for as well as children with fathers involved in monogamous relationships. Therefore, the chance of child mortality was somewhat higher in polygynous societies.

In the modern world, legal monogamy is popular and is the standard mating system in Western society. It is spreading beyond Western society and is becoming more common especially in the Far East.Although it is becoming more commonly the legal standard, only 16.7% of 186 cultures surveyed report actually practicing monogamy. The most typical deviation from monogamy comes in the form of men having mistresses, which happens in over 50% of cultures.

Of course, infidelity in supposedly exclusive relationships has always been an issue in virtually all societies and continues to occur today.Although we have been talking about monogamy in terms of legal marriage and how that became mainstream in society thus far, this term can be used to describe any sexual and intimate relationship exclusively between two people.With the increasingly powerful influence of the civil rights movement in America and other countries in Western Europe, there is no longer such a stigma attached to being openly homosexual or getting divorced from one’s mate, even when the marriage is abusive.

As a result, the United States has legalized same-sex marriage. In addition, many couples have made the alternative decision to cohabitate or live together in monogamous relationships without the legal union of marriage. In fact, 48% of women in America cohabitate with their significant other.

Lesson Summary

Monogamy is the practice of having only one mate, and is commonly a mating system involving one husband and one wife. It is the legal standard mating system in Western society but historically this was not the case.

In ancient times, high status men would typically have many wives, and this did not change to monogamy until the Christian church gained more power in society along with the gain in popularity of democracy. This increase in monogamy led to lower child mortality due to increased investment from fathers.Today, a good portion of the population admits to not strictly engaging in monogamy all the time and to having extramarital affairs. Modern society has also gained more freedoms with the civil rights movement and has made same-sex marriage legal in some states.

These freedoms have also led to increasing incidences of cohabitation without marriage.


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