Unlike what you may have been told, monogamy isn’t inherent to human biology. Moreover, it’s not inherent to many animals in nature: Less than three percent of mammals in the animal kingdom is reported to be monogamous. 

This is just one fascinating fact of many in Luke Brunning’s Does Monogamy Work?, publishing in the U.S. on Oct. 20. Brunning, a philosopher, and lecturer of ethics at the University of Birmingham told Mashable he was recommended to write the book for Thames & Hudson’s Big Ideas series, as his research focuses on relationships, sexuality, and emotions like jealousy — all topics that are relevant when discussing (non-)monogamy. 

The book’s format is similar to that of a textbook, complete with color images on nearly every page, annotations on the sides, and paragraphs in varying sized-fonts. Does Monogamy Work? is like a syllabus reading for a class I wish existed in college. Even better, perhaps, that it’s not: You can enjoy the subject, writing, and images at your leisure without worrying about a grade. 

In Does Monogamy Work?, Brunning provides a primer on the history of monogamy; challenges to monogamy; what monogamy currently looks like and can look like; and the problems and possibilities for non-monogamous relationships. It’s publishing at a fitting time, where more people may be considering non-monogamy post-pandemic (whenever that maybe).

Read our interview with Brunning below.

The book's cover
The book’s cover
The author
The author

Mashable: How did you decide to introduce the book with the history of monogamy, then go into its challenges and that of non-monogamy?

Brunning: It was a discussion between me and Thames & Hudson. My disciplinary background is philosophy, so I’m interested in a lot more normative questions about how we ought to treat each other [and] whether there is any kind of ethical problems with monogamy and non-monogamy. The publisher wanted a bit of context to that — why is monogamy so dominant? Has it always been that way? So between us, we settled on the structure so it has a mixture of both those things. 

I think you did a great job of distilling the history of monogamy. I can’t imagine how difficult it was to do in just a few pages [the chapter, “The Origins of Monogamy,” is 29 pages] but you did it. 

It was quite a painful process for me because in a sense, you’re leaving so much out and you know there’s so many interesting things you can’t say and a lot of complexity that’s off the page. Hopefully [the chapter] has done a reasonable job of showing that there’s a lot more to think about monogamy than people commonly suppose. 

That was certainly the case for me. One of the most shocking details for me was the role that slavery played in monogamy in the ancient world.

I think people don’t think about it [monogamy] in that context anymore. Societies that often developed quite elaborate ideals of marriage or monogamy or conduct between men and women were often societies that had huge numbers of people working as slaves or indentured servants. A lot of that labor was being done by the people, which created a kind of public space where people could think about equality and how to treat women and so on. 

I read this book shortly after reading Ace. The author, Angela Chen, discusses the social hierarchy we’ve placed on romantic love over friendship, and you touch on this a little bit in Does Monogamy Work? Do you think this hierarchy happened for the same reasons monogamy became the western ideal?

Definitely in the sense that the encompassing modern, post-Romantic ideals of monogamy where it’s not simply that you form a partnership with one other person, or that you look to secure a way to make sure your property is inherited by one other family, right? It’s now a much more demanding emotional and social and kind of political ideal, but I think that’s a relatively modern development. It has historical antecedents, but it’s relatively modern. 

It was kind of catalyzed after the Romantic period, the 18th century, and I think it is related. This idea of “love” as something that offers a real important, central source of value to life that is better than — or more intense than — other kinds of value is relatively modern in that sense. I think it’s problematic because I just don’t think it’s true, to be honest. But it’s something we’re still kind of coming to terms with. I think a lot of people that are pushing back against the dominance of modern monogamy are also doing that because they think that we’re neglecting other kinds of relationships.

Does Monogamy Work? is publishing during a pandemic, and I’m fascinated as to how this is going to change everything. You mentioned the first and second demographic transitions [historical shifts in birth and mortality rates] in the book — do you think this could possibly be a third? A non-monogamous relationship coach I talked to said she thought more people are going to be non-monogamous when the pandemic is “over” — do you think the pandemic will impact marriage and monogamy?

I don’t really know, is the honest answer. It’s interesting when you look at big social upheavals, [they] often have an impact in the decade after on people’s behavior. The Second World War, for example, seemed to really catalyze this image of “the home,” this domestic refuge away from the chaos of war. People came back from war, wanted to have families and children, and embraced this consumer capitalist lifestyle. Being at their home with all their appliances and raising a family.

“It’s interesting when you look at big social upheavals, [they] often have an impact in the decade after on people’s behavior.”

I’m wondering, will this period of upheaval make people rethink their personal relationships in some way? I don’t know, it’s hard to say. One thing that seems to be going on, at least in the UK, is a resurging interest or appreciation of community in a broader sense. People are interacting with their neighbors and they’re starting to realize those social interactions are really significant. I’m wondering whether the kind of isolated nuclear family ideal will get a little bit weaker because people are realizing there are many sources of social interaction — and when we don’t have access to those wider networks of community, our wellbeing suffers. 

I’m a bit skeptical about whether there’ll be a straightforward relationship between these kinds of pandemics and non-monogamy. I know that government restrictions on movement and people contacting each other have affected non-monogamous people because often they’re not able to see partners in the way that families are. Maybe that will have some kind of consequence where people start to become more vocal about being able to have parity; they won’t be able to access their partners the same way that married people can.

At the same time, I think those changes are happening anyway, they were already happening. People were rethinking family life. Even people with monogamous romantic aspirations have complicated families, they were making more time for friends and colleagues. 

This is a period of flux but I think these times of stress often reinforce or bring to light tensions that are already there rather than necessarily generating new ones. 

Living in New York City, non-monogamous relationships aren’t really a novelty for me; I’ve dated people in them, and see “ethically non-monogamous” in a lot of Tinder bios — but some triads have been on TV as if this is a novelty. I wonder if perspectives on non-monogamy, on the whole, will shift after this.

We hope so. Maybe as people will become more familiar, it’ll become less interesting and less extraordinary — a bit like what happened with same-sex relationships to some extent. As people become familiar with this, they become more used to it. 

I think, actually, that the majority of people are relatively indifferent to the kind of romantic lives of others; they’re tolerant by and large. The interesting thing for me is not whether people get used to seeing these representations, but what that means with respect to how people are treated in society. People might think, ‘Oh okay, some small minority people live this way but we don’t need to change anything, we don’t need to make any kind of practical social, legal changes to accommodate them.’ But for me, the interesting question is, over time there’s going to be increasing pressure on existing marriage laws or other kinds of legal protections — employment, immigration, and so on — [that] non-monogamous people are going to start agitating for. They’re going to be able to access those things. I think that maybe the potential flashpoints in the future.

Does monogamy work? This new book explores the controversial question.

Going back to what you said about community, I wonder if western society will shift towards being community-based over being individualistic, which also goes into monogamy and marriage.

There are many different ways people might want to be non-monogamous. For some people, it’s a way of being an individual right? It’s a way of seeking personal fulfillment, emotional or sexual fulfillment, personal challenge, whatever. But for other people, it is very much entered into as a communal emphasis. 

There are two broad ways of approaching it. They’re existing now and they’ve always existed in some sense, people’s kind of romantic inclinations tend to one or the other of those views. But I think that different groups of non-monogamous people may emphasize the communal aspect of the individual or whatever, but they’re both there. 

It’s unclear to me whether one will become more predominant than the other, or whether the pandemic will really impact it. I’m a bit skeptical just because I think it impacts different people in different ways depending on what they already value. Maybe for the individualists, they’re just waiting for [the pandemic] to get over with so they can get back to normal whereas other people are more likely to think, ‘Actually, maybe I really do appreciate my neighbors much more than I used to. I want to be more involved with my community.’ But maybe if it lasts much longer, it would have more lingering effects.

In the book and in your work, you discuss the concept of jealousy and compersion [the “opposite” of jealousy, being happy for your partner being with someone else]. Is jealousy an inevitable part of non-monogamy, or if it’s possible to get to a place of full compersion?

I’ve written about this recently and tried to think about it in more detail. What I’ve put in the book [is] based on this academic article I published on compersion, where I’m thinking through those questions. 

It’s interesting because [some] people think jealousy is inevitable and you can never get rid of it. Other people take a completely different view and think it’s easy. The emotion is linked to two things. One is our sense of personal vulnerability. The other is our beliefs about what we’re entitled to, what we expect from other people, what we deserve — a cognitive understanding of what relationships are, and how they should work. 

It’s relatively easy — though maybe not as easy as people wish — to change your beliefs about relationships. You might think, ‘Well, I’ve had all these dodgy beliefs about what I can expect from a partner or what I’m entitled to or how they should behave.’ And so, change your kind of attitudes in that way. 

“Emotions that are comparative like jealousy are deeply rooted in processes and traits that aren’t always very easy to change.”

At the same time, the fact that you’ve changed those beliefs — you feel less entitled, you don’t think that you possess your partner, you don’t think can claim their attention — doesn’t necessarily mean that you can alter — or alter quickly — your personal vulnerability, the way those beliefs have been functioning, [or] the way you get attached to people. A lot of these other aspects of our psychology are quite resistant to rational change, and they take a lot longer to change. 

I know lots of people who’ve thought about this a lot, and they’ve got a clear sense of what they think is justified or not justified, and they think jealousy is not justified, that they’re not possessive, that other people aren’t rivals that they should be afraid of — but nonetheless they feel horrifically insecure and vulnerable. 

Emotions that are comparative like jealousy are deeply rooted in processes and traits that aren’t always very easy to change. So it may be the case that it’s actually quite hard for people to experience compersion. I don’t think that’s a problem, necessarily. So much depends on the individual. There’s no one-size-fits-all approach to it. 

Does Monogamy Work? is on sale in the U.S. starting on Oct. 20.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

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