Why monogamy is ridiculous
The idea that one instance of infidelity should ruin a relationship is a new—and misguided—notion.
Dan Savage writes the internationally syndicated relationship and sex advice column "Savage Love." Savage has been outspoken in his support for gay rights and his hostility for social conservatives. In 2010 he and his husband Terry launched the "It Get Better Project" in response to a rash of suicides among LGBT teenagers. The project encourages gay LGBT adults to record videos for victims of bullying with the simple message that life gets better after high school. Savage is also the author of several books including "The Commitment: Love, Sex, Marriage, and My Family."
Question: Does society need to rethink its view on love and monogamy?
Dan Savage: Yeah, absolutely we need to rethink love and commitment. You know 60 years ago was when we decided that men had to be monogamous too. Men were not monogamous. For all of recorded human history men had concubines and whores, and 60 years ago straight relationships began to become more egalitarian and it was less of a property transaction—a marriage had been a property transaction for most of recorded human history—and it became a union of two equals. And at that moment instead of deciding to allow women to have the same sort of freedom and leeway that men did we decided to let men have the same limitations, impose the same limitations what women had and we put monogamous sexual commitment at the heart of all relationships, all long-term commitments, all marriages and we have watched.
We should now be able to recognize the consequences of that, which are a lot of short-term relationships, a lot of divorce. Because monogamy is ridiculous and people aren’t any good at it. We’re not wired for it. We didn’t evolve to be. It’s unnatural and it places a tremendous strain on our marriages and our long-term commitments to expect them to be effortlessly monogamous. Because what we said is "If you’re in love you shouldn’t... you won’t want to have sex with anybody else and what we need to tell people is that if you’re in love you can make a monogamous commitment and you will refrain from having sex with other people, but you will still desperately want to fuck the shit out of other people." But people understand love means I don’t want to fuck other people because of these misconceptions pumped into people’s heads about romance, love and what it means. And so they meet somebody else that they’re attracted to and they’re attracted to this other person. They go "Well, I must not be in love with my partner anymore otherwise I wouldn’t be attracted to this person." Or they feel threatened when their partners are attracted to other people because it makes them feel insecure and we just need to get passed that and we talk about monogamy the way we talk about virginity, that you’re monogamous until you fuck somebody else and they’re you’re not. You’ve ruined it. You popped your monogamy hymen and destroyed your monogamous relationship.
We need to talk about monogamy the way we talk about sobriety, which you can be monogamous and fall off the wagon and then sober back up. You can monogamous back up and get back on the wagon. And the truth of the matter is that if you’re with somebody for 40, 50 years and they only cheated on you a few times they were good at being monogamous, not bad at being monogamous. They were good at it. So I do think there needs to be some leeway. And a lot of really good loving relationships are destroyed because somebody wants a little variety or isn’t getting a need met and feels they have to step out and it explodes the relationship. I'm conservative. I think that we should do what we can to preserve marriages and long-term relationships, and one way to do that is to encourage people to have more realistic attitudes about sexual exclusivity.
Recorded on October 18, 2010
Interviewed by Max Miller
Dan Savage: the idea that one instance of infidelity should ruin a relationship is a new—and misguided—notion.
Political activism may get people invested in politics, and affect urgently needed change, but it comes at the expense of tolerance and healthy democratic norms.
- Polarization and extreme partisanships have been on the rise in the United States.
- Political psychologist Diana Mutz argues that we need more deliberation, not political activism, to keep our democracy robust.
- Despite increased polarization, Americans still have more in common than we appear to.
Most elderly individuals' brains degrade over time, but some match — or even outperform — younger individuals on cognitive tests.
- "Super-agers" seem to escape the decline in cognitive function that affects most of the elderly population.
- New research suggests this is because of higher functional connectivity in key brain networks.
- It's not clear what the specific reason for this is, but research has uncovered several activities that encourage greater brain health in old age.
At some point in our 20s or 30s, something starts to change in our brains. They begin to shrink a little bit. The myelin that insulates our nerves begins to lose some of its integrity. Fewer and fewer chemical messages get sent as our brains make fewer neurotransmitters.
As we get older, these processes increase. Brain weight decreases by about 5 percent per decade after 40. The frontal lobe and hippocampus — areas related to memory encoding — begin to shrink mainly around 60 or 70. But this is just an unfortunate reality; you can't always be young, and things will begin to break down eventually. That's part of the reason why some individuals think that we should all hope for a life that ends by 75, before the worst effects of time sink in.
But this might be a touch premature. Some lucky individuals seem to resist these destructive forces working on our brains. In cognitive tests, these 80-year-old "super-agers" perform just as well as individuals in their 20s.
Just as sharp as the whippersnappers
To find out what's behind the phenomenon of super-agers, researchers conducted a study examining the brains and cognitive performances of two groups: 41 young adults between the ages of 18 and 35 and 40 older adults between the ages of 60 and 80.
First, the researchers administered a series of cognitive tests, like the California Verbal Learning Test (CVLT) and the Trail Making Test (TMT). Seventeen members of the older group scored at or above the mean scores of the younger group. That is, these 17 could be considered super-agers, performing at the same level as the younger study participants. Aside from these individuals, members of the older group tended to perform less well on the cognitive tests. Then, the researchers scanned all participants' brains in an fMRI, paying special attention to two portions of the brain: the default mode network and the salience network.
The default mode network is, as its name might suggest, a series of brain regions that are active by default — when we're not engaged in a task, they tend to show higher levels of activity. It also appears to be very related to thinking about one's self, thinking about others, as well as aspects of memory and thinking about the future.
The salience network is another network of brain regions, so named because it appears deeply linked to detecting and integrating salient emotional and sensory stimuli. (In neuroscience, saliency refers to how much an item "sticks out"). Both of these networks are also extremely important to overall cognitive function, and in super-agers, the activity in these networks was more coordinated than in their peers.
An image of the brain highlighting the regions associated with the default mode network.
How to ensure brain health in old age
While prior research has identified some genetic influences on how "gracefully" the brain ages, there are likely activities that can encourage brain health. "We hope to identify things we can prescribe for people that would help them be more like a superager," said Bradford Dickerson, one of the researchers in this study, in a statement. "It's not as likely to be a pill as more likely to be recommendations for lifestyle, diet, and exercise. That's one of the long-term goals of this study — to try to help people become superagers if they want to."
To date, there is some preliminary evidence of ways that you can keep your brain younger longer. For instance, more education and a cognitively demanding job predicts having higher cognitive abilities in old age. Generally speaking, the adage of "use it or lose it" appears to hold true; having a cognitively active lifestyle helps to protect your brain in old age. So, it might be tempting to fill your golden years with beer and reruns of CSI, but it's unlikely to help you keep your edge.
Aside from these intuitive ways to keep your brain healthy, regular exercise appears to boost cognitive health in old age, as Dickinson mentioned. Diet is also a protective factor, especially for diets delivering omega-3 fatty acids (which can be found in fish oil), polyphenols (found in dark chocolate!), vitamin D (egg yolks and sunlight), and the B vitamins (meat, eggs, and legumes). There's also evidence that having a healthy social life in old age can protect against cognitive decline.
For many, the physical decline associated with old age is an expected side effect of a life well-lived. But the idea that our intellect will also degrade can be a much scarier reality. Fortunately, the existence of super-agers shows that at the very least, we don't have to accept cognitive decline without a fight.
We have a new range of skills coming to Big Think Edge this week, including communication, critical thinking, and emotional intelligence.
- At Big Think Edge this week, we delve into ways you can make your conversations sing. So to speak.
- Learn a valuable lesson about psychopaths, from diagnosed psychopath (and neuroscientsit) James Fallon.
- If you're not a subscriber yet, join Big Think Edge today. Boost your skills with our 7-day free trial.