Is Serial Monogamy the New Monogamy?
In 2019, the marriage rate in the United States reached a record low. For every 1,000 Americans, there was a rate of just 6.1 marriages, according to a survey by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). This isn't a new trend; marriage rates have been in steady decline since the 1980s.
Experts attribute the decline to various factors, such as people putting off marriage until later in life, higher expectations from partners and societal and economic status. Among the people who are simply waiting for the "right time" to settle down, there are those choosing not one but multiple partners—not at once but over the course of years. These are the serial monogamists.
What is serial monogamy?
The concept of serial monogamy is simple: It demands we live outside of "happily ever after" and make amends with the fact we may outgrow a partner or two (or three) over time. Serial monogamy is an acceptance that breakups happen, and we ought to enjoy the time we have with someone and amicably go our separate ways when it seems right. When you consider the high rate of divorce, 2.7 divorces per 1,000 Americans, the concept of serial monogamy versus traditional monogamy can feel like a natural point of growth. One way isn't more natural than the other, but every relationship should be as unique as the individuals involved.
I spoke to two people who have experienced relationships in different forms to get their perspective on monogamy.
Julie, 29, is in a long-distance monogamous relationship. She does not want to live with a partner until she is married, and her boyfriend shares the sentiment.
“Exclusivity, regular communication, agreement on spiritual matters, respect of each other's time and our own personal pursuit and being able to engage with each other's friends and family in a meaningful way are important qualities in a relationship,” she said.
Although these desires seem reasonable, one of the factors experts attribute to the declining marriage rates is higher expectations.
In the 1940s, if Julie found someone with the same spiritual beliefs but a lack of support for her personal pursuits, she would have been more likely to "settle" for the person as a life partner. In 2021, Julie is more likely to move on, delaying the prospect of marriage months or years every time she ends a relationship that doesn't meet her expectations.
When describing her marriage, Emma, 40, said: "We were acquaintances for 10 years, then friends for another 10 and got married a few years ago." Emma previously lived a polyamorous lifestyle for the most part.
"I've had several polyamorous relationships that lasted anywhere from four to eight to 14 years," she said. "We got married as we started to plan for a family."
Emma said her husband is more conservative, and while she doesn't plan to leave him or make their marriage open, she accepts the unforeseeable could happen and she may not be with him forever. In this case, Emma said she wouldn't go back to monogamy unless she wanted to be married again.
Actress Gwyneth Paltrow and musician Chris Martin made the term "conscious uncoupling" commonplace when they split in 2014 (the two divorced in 2016). The process is separate from a divorce proceeding, which legally divides material items and child care between former spouses. Conscious uncoupling makes the split an amicable and loving parting of friends who no longer wish to be lovers. This concept is universal when living a serially monogamous lifestyle, recognizing we are ever-changing, ever-growing creatures and it's natural to grow in ways our partner doesn't. Conscious uncoupling offers a mutually beneficial closure and works to keep a friendship in place of a romantic relationship.
Serial monogamy is not always a choice; it's often a natural flow of life. Given divorce rates maintain a steady 40 to 50 percent, the alternative of creating lives with various partners while being open to moving on hardly seems radical. As such, serial monogamy should be respected, normalized and enjoyed.