Let’s take a moment, dear reader, to talk about red-winged blackbirds. I assume you rarely have discussions about these tiny creatures native to the Americas, but there’s always a first time for everything.
Red-winged blackbirds are known to be socially monogamous during mating season, which is unlike most other wildlife, but similar to many other birds. So, scientists being the lovesick skeptics they are decided to put their fidelity to the test. Just before mating season—where they establish a territory, find a mate and make cute baby birds—scientists gave a handful of these male blackbirds vasectomies. What happened was that their female counterparts still came back pregnant, and their babies were cared for by their oblivious sterile fathers.
Like these blackbirds, humans too are thought of as monogamous. But also like these blackbirds, humans often let biology take over social norms.
For centuries, cultures across the globe—from classical China to the Native Americans—have understood that having more than one partner is reproductively advantageous. Especially for men, who often have more than one partner, but even women would rather be the co-wife of an impressive man than the sole wife of an inferior one. The nuclear family we know today is the result of evolution, to ensure our offspring’s mortality. But enforcing monogamy in a marriage on the basis of love, that’s a relatively recent occurrence.
The Greeks and Romans prohibited polygyny in the first century, not because they deemed it as morally wrong, but because they wanted to maintain their armies. And well, if they gave every soldier a woman, there was no reason why they would roam about in search of a mate. Satisfied men led to a solid army, and so the anti-polygyny law was formed. Not long after, Christianity started to spread in the west. Men wielding ancient manuscripts began drilling the idea of marriage and adultery—even though in the old testament, Abraham had two wives and Solomon had 700 (including 300 concubines).
Humans are able to pair bond with more than one person, so the restriction of instinct and demand for monogamy can often lead us to break the rules. There is a social pressure to find The One (a concept as far back as Plato’s work in 370 B.C.), or as 18th-century poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge put it, a soulmate. But this unnatural romantic and sexual exclusivity deny millennia of having multiple partners, leading to frustration and clandestine affairs.
Today, we have a plethora of names we call disloyal spouses. Promiscuous, immoral, harlot, cuckold, whore, slut, loose, corrupt. We have these words in our lexicon to shame people for having an impulse to stray from monogamous relationships. Those who cheat will have an arsenal of reasons why—because they were lonely or angry or drunk—but never do we admit that perhaps it’s part of our psychology to want multiple partners. If up to 60% of every married spouse has admitted to cheating at one point or another, it’s no longer a mistake, it’s nature.
All this said, I am still all for marriage between two people, just as I am supportive of polygamous and polyamorous relationships. But I have learned to see infidelity, not as a relationship gone awry, but a long-overdue human desire stifled under decades of social normativity. And although this is not the case for everyone, it’s still an issue that requires much more understanding than blame.
So before we point our fingers and throw expletives at the people who hurt us, maybe we should look at how much modern society has suppressed our biological need to wander. Because just like the red-winged blackbirds, some people aren’t meant to stay in just one nest forever.