essay / research

The unbearable lightness of monogamy

An easy way to sex up a neuroscience class: talk about prairie voles.

At least, that’s what happened during a handful of neuroscience/cognitive science courses I took in college. Prairie voles came up a lot because their monogamous leanings have made them a popular research model for pair bonding and social attachment. The related neuroscience research gives professors a great segue into the topic of sex. No, more than that — it gives professors a means of discussing sexual behavior while students coo over images of furry animals.

But it’s substantive cooing, since the research on monogamy among prairie voles is full of interesting nuggets. Compared to their more promiscuous counterparts, monogamous voles tend to have a denser concentration of receptors for the neurohormones oxytocin and vasopressin, which are also associated with behaviors for maternal care, aggression and social recognition. The neurotransmitter dopamine adds to the picture, as it helps facilitate bonding in natural reward activities like mating. And in a study published just last month, researchers found evidence that mating in voles leads to epigenetic changes — chemical effects on chromosomes that influence gene expression. This finding suggests that vole fidelity results from genetic changes triggered by new social experiences, like first sexual encounters.

Now clearly, the sex lives of human beings and voles are not the same (for example, I doubt there’s a prairie vole equivalent to the condom). Even so, this research is chipping away at behaviors that some of us do share with the voles, like trying to raise a family with one partner. And at a more conceptual level, the neuroscience research highlights how intricate the idea of monogamy can be. When we’re looking at the brain, monogamy doesn’t just mean sexual and/or emotional loyalty, the romantic ideal revered in many — though not all — cultures. It means the culminating effects of a bunch of chemicals whose workings hinge on the behaviors we encounter out in the world. Though monogamy may start with sex, in both humans and voles it may fizzle to, well, none. It’s complicated business.

In bringing out monogamy’s many sides, the vole research reminds me of a novel that made a big impact on my adolescent self: The Unbearable Lightness of Being by Milan Kundera. In theory, I should have read this book as a philosophical meditation on the nature of existence, using romantic relationships as a conceptual framework. In reality, I read it as an accurate portrayal of lots of people sleeping with each other. Given that reading, I consider it to be full of wisdom on monogamy, in ways that may even raise questions for social psychology.

Here’s the deal with Unbearable Lightness: though all the main characters have affairs, they fit into two basic camps. There are the pro-monogamy folks, and then the anti-monogamy folks. The monogamists believe in one true love but violate their principles by giving their hearts to people whose loyalty they can never have. As for the anti-monogamists, one believes in loving a single person but insists on multiple sexual partners. Another finds the whole notion of love way too serious. In a great artistic triumph, Kundera screws over individuals on both sides. (You can read this outcome as pessimistically concluding that life is bleak for everyone, or as optimistically pointing out that all lives have a sad beauty, despite our character differences. Or maybe both. I’m not taking sides.)

Revisiting this novel, the question I’m left with is, how would the characters describe their own attitudes toward monogamy? The neuroscience research addresses underlying mechanisms, while many fields are hard at work figuring out humans’ evolutionary route to pair bonding. And psychologists have built up decades of research describing our sexual and social behavior. But in my (admittedly casual) research, it’s harder to find work addressing the reasons people provide firsthand to explain their relationship choices. Introspection is a messy thing to study, fine. But especially for this topic, it matters. The reasons we give — or fail to give — to explain our relationships deeply inform our narratives about our lives.

I would love to read a study on, say, how individual and cultural fears of death/dying alone influence relationship choices. And then a follow-up study gauging subjects’ awareness of those factors. If that research already exists, somebody please point me to it! If not, anyone want to get cracking?

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