The M Word: Talking Marriage and Monogamy in the Time of Tiger Woods

Are we inherently monogamous? Or hard-wired to cheat? It’s time to put a stop to the lies and irresponsibility and start being honest with each other. No matter what we’re really up to.

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"Monogamy is inherently unnatural in our species," Dr. Julie Holland says without equivocation. She's a clinical assistant professor of psychiatry at the New York University School of Medicine, and author of the recent memoir Weekends at Bellevue. Metaphors like being "sex-crazed," "crazy about you" or even "crazy in love" don't seem so nutty when you consider the call of the wild may have followed us into the present day from our evolutionary past.

"We are social creatures," says Dr. Holland. "It takes an inordinate amount of self-control to resist our natural urges to mate with multiple others. Serial monogamy is about the best most of us can pull off, but we would probably be more true to ourselves, and our human nature, if we were more like the bonobos."

Bonobos, by the way, are what some scientists call our "closest cousins"—chimpanzees who share 98 percent of DNA with humans and who mate with the frequency and partner-swapping frenzy of certain golfers.

And speaking of certain golfers ... the conversation about Tiger Woods may be largely tabloid titillation, but it's also opened up an opportunity to have a critical conversation about love, success, marriage and monogamy. That conversation could help break a silence that is literally killing us. I'm thinking of a forum I moderated at the National Association of Black Journalists conference this summer, sponsored by the Centers for Disease Control, about AIDS. We talked about urban and rural black America, hetero and same-sex relationships, and about silence and lies. According to the CDC, while only 12 percent of this nation is African-American, a staggering 46 percent of Americans living with AIDS are black. But it's too easy just to point to disease statistics alone. Divorces, the low black marriage rate, financial and emotional distress (on adults and children) are everyday realities of modern relationship wars. So as we're having our national conversation about cheating, we need to acknowledge that whether or not humans are inherently monogamous, we live in a sexual culture of lies and irresponsibility that we cannot afford to continue.

One of the major lines of conversation post-Tiger has been whether people who choose high-profile, famous or wealthy partners have to expect that those partners will cheat. Tai Beauchamp is a style and lifestyle expert and social entrepreneur who also appeared on SOAPnet’s reality TV dating show, Holidate. She says, "In conversations with girlfriends, both married, single and otherwise committed, we've spoken frankly about how for men, in most cases, wealth, fame and status is an avenue of greater ‘access’ [to sexual encounters]. Whether he chooses that lane of ‘access’ has nothing to do with how rich or famous he is." In other words, says Beauchamp, "A person's infidelity and disloyalty has to do with his value systems."