In an age when many people believe that being married to one person forever is the stuff of fairy tales, the claim that we are scientifically made for monogamy appears outlandish. Additionally, the myth of 50% of marriages ending in divorce (the precise number of marriages ending in divorce is much more complicated) leads many to believe that a lifelong, monogamous marriage is an ideal that is unattainable for most. Is this true? Is monogamy an ideal beyond our reach, or, even worse, something that harms the human psyche? Or are we made for monogamy?
Hardwired for Each Other
Monogamy isn’t just the ideal of religious belief, or a structure designed by society to keep people well-behaved.
Research from psychologists such as Dr. Susan Johnson strongly indicates that we are scientifically designed for monogamy. Monogamy isn’t just the ideal of religious belief, or a structure designed by society to keep people well-behaved. It is hardwired into who we are. Dr. Johnson argues that the chemical oxytocin is the main evidence for her claim that we are made for monogamy. When we experience intense bonding moments within relationships (e.g. breastfeeding an infant or experiencing orgasm during sexual intercourse), our brain releases oxytocin. This, in turn, helps us to bond to the individual who was directly responsible for the chemical release. Interestingly enough, oxytocin does not need such an intensely physical encounter to be released; research suggests that when we begin to think about our significant other, our brains release oxytocin. Finally, with the release of oxytocin, we begin to feel pain and stress less intensely. Therefore, the desire that spouses can weather any storm as long as they are together is not just true for literature. It is also true for science.
Marriage of Faith and Reason
Marriage is also written in the very heart of man – we were made for marriage.
What does this mean for those who subscribe to Christianity? Simply put, it supports the idea that faith and reason truly never can contradict each other. The Christian martial theology written by both Pope Pius XI and Pope St. John Paul II is clear that man is naturally designed for monogamy. Monogamy helps a couple flourish, for they are no longer two but one flesh. Pius XI beautifully describes the unique bonding nature of Holy Matrimony:
By matrimony, therefore, the souls of the contracting parties are joined and knit together more directly and more intimately than are their bodies, and that not by any passing affection of sense of spirit, but by a deliberate and firm act of the will; and from this union of souls by God’s decree, a sacred and inviolable bond arises. Hence the nature of this contract, which is proper and peculiar to it alone, makes it entirely different both from the union of animals entered into by the blind instinct of nature alone in which neither reason nor free will plays a part, and also from the haphazard unions of men, which are far removed from all true and honorable unions of will and enjoy none of the rights of family life (Casti Connubii, n. 7)
While contracting marriage is a volitional act, marriage is more precisely an action of the spouses’ entire selves. Through this giving and acting of the whole self, the spouses bond together in a unique and special way – one which no other relationship can replicate in all of existence. Marriage is also written in the very heart of man – we were made for marriage, whether that is a physical marriage between male and female, or a spiritual marriage between God and the believer.
Christianity additionally claims that spouses are meant to live in a communion of persons. This communion is designed to help them bear each other’s burdens as well as share in each other’s joys. John Paul II in his Theology of the Body Catechesis states the following regarding marriage as a communion of persons: “‘Communio’ says more and with greater precision, because it indicates precisely the ‘help’ that derives in some way from the very fact of existing as a person ‘beside’ a person.” In other words, marriage as a communion of persons is about the two spouses intentionally existing for each other. Such a living for each other has a specific end. The Catholic Church teaches that as we live in this communion by giving of ourselves, we begin to discover our true selves, which helps us to flourish and thus to hopefully reach salvation. Scientifically, the more we live within a loving monogamous relationship, the more we healthily bond to another who will help us to become the best version of ourselves. In all, the psychological research clearly supports the Church’s long-held positions, and thus our beliefs regarding marriage are more than just leaps of faith. Instead, they are scientifically our natural relational state, a state which is designed by God to help us flourish in this world, and enjoy eternity with Him in the next.
Made to Flourish
Both the science and teleology is clear: man (male and female) is created for lasting unions.
Nonetheless, the fact that we as human beings are hardwired for monogamy does not remove us from the temptation to violate such a natural norm. Simply put, chemicals do not remove our fallen nature. We are still susceptible to temptations and to creating minor breaks within our marital attachment bond. Therefore, we also need to rely on God’s grace and sound communication skills to help us to thrive within our vocation. Both grace and proficiency in proper marital communication is what helps us to decide to apologize for our cutting comment, and compels us to accept our spouse’s apology. Oxytocin is merely the biological explanation for the theological reality of finding peace in marriage which surpasses all understanding.
In all, society appears to have lost its way in understanding not just human relationships, but also the human person. Our culture now believes that we are made for such things as conflict, mere survival, and destined for oblivion. When we focus on such ideas, it becomes easy for us to understand why so many people have become pessimistic about the permanence of a marriage. Nevertheless, both the science and teleology is clear: man (male and female) is created for lasting unions, and is made for flourishing, not simply survival.