Serial monogamy is a pattern of moving from one committed partnership to another. The term can mean that this happens quickly, or it can also mean that there are substantial breaks taken between partners. In this pattern, the person has serious difficulty tolerating being single and wants relationships to move quickly into a deeper partnership.
What Is Serial Monogamy?
Serial monogamists are always in a relationship. Being single can be uncomfortable for them, and they may be hesitant to discuss their exes. They don’t often have long periods of time being single, and may not always have time to get over a previous relationship before starting a new long-term relationship.
Signs of a Serial Monogamist
You may be dating a serial monogamist if:
- There is barely daylight between the end of one relationship and the beginning of the next
- They recoil at your request that on date two you have more time to consider their demand of exclusivity
- They’ve been engaged three or more times without getting married
- They want you to move in on the second date and have a pattern of doing that with all of their partners
- Their friends or family tell you that they are never single
- They’ve been married more than a few times without losing any spouses through death
Will a Serial Monogamist Stay or Go?
What does your future hold if you are dating a serial monogamist? Of course, no one can know for sure, but these partners tend to be clingy, especially if their attachment style is anxious or preoccupied. If they don’t have a personality disorder (not to be confused with personality traits) then the relationship may last quite a while, but they are likely to be insecure and require a lot of reassurances from you.2,3
How Serial Monogamists Act When Dating
While researchers have been busy studying the advantages of serial monogamy on individuals, their offspring and the human species at large, pop culture has tended to bash the pattern, seeing these people as fearful of being alone or single. Some call it “a half-assed way to love.”1
Serially monogamous dating is not to be confused with hook-up culture. Friends-with-benefits or one-night-stands, where casual sexual encounters are normalized and mutually agreed upon, is not the pattern of a serial monogamist. This is serious monogamous dating, where a partner is taken home to meet the parents and discuss future plans, only to be dropped after a few months (or years) before moving on to the next person.
Why Do People Become Serial Monogamists?
Unfortunately, there has not been any research done yet on serial monogamy as a dating pattern. We do know a fair amount about the kind studied by social scientists as it relates to child-bearing.
Evolutionary psychologists tend to focus on how serial monogamy influences the survival of the species. Since many social scientists believe that lifetime monogamy is not natural for humans it makes sense that many cultures would have versions of serial monogamy.14 If, for example, a male partners with a female, produces an offspring and then after some period of time re-partners with a new female and produces another offspring he has accomplished several important evolutionary tasks. He has reproduced successfully, multiple times, and added genetic diversity to his offspring which increases the chances that one of them survives. This behavior also adds diversity to the overall human population, which increases the survival of the species as a whole. In many ways it’s a win-win, at least for the male and the species at large.5
Some cultural anthropologists theorize that women also benefit.6 “[T]here is now considerable evidence that females who mate with multiple males are more fertile and show higher offspring survival.”7 This may be, in part, because women can receive parenting support from more than one male which expands their resources.“[There] are indications from South American…cultures (where women have sexual relations with more than one man) that children born with ‘secondary’ fathers have higher survival rates than children born without.”8 In serial monogamy if women can have children with different fathers there are more adult males involved in her family system so the children can receive better care.
More Equality Between Genders
Women’s rise in social equality may have also contributed to the increase in serial monogamy in Western cultures that previously favored lifetime monogamy. Economists studying marriage patterns have noted that “serial monogamy follows from a… rise in…the proportion of rich females.”9 So as women have earned more they have had more freedom to leave relationships, making them available for re-partnering. This is also supported by the fact that most divorces in Western countries are instigated by women.10
The lifespan of humans may also be at play in the frequency of serial monogamy. We live longer now than ever before and therefore may survive spouses/partners or, through life changes, determine that our current spouse/partner is no longer suitable for us.11 This provides the opportunity to find another partner and start the process over again.
How Attachment Influences Serial Monogamy
Attachment theory provides insight into the pattern of serial monogamy. Ideally, children are raised in a physically and emotionally safe and secure environment, where they are made to feel loved unconditionally by their parents.14 This requires parents to have the time and emotional bandwidth to prioritize their children’s development.
However, many children may grow up to worry that their needs can’t or won’t be met consistently. They may be preoccupied with abandonment and have unconscious, implicit expectations that partners won’t be there for them. This type of attachment pattern is known as “anxious-resistant,” “angry-resistant” or “preoccupied” attachment and can create a fixation on keeping people close.15 Many scenarios lead to these attachment patterns: Kids raised in single-parent households where mom works two jobs, or those raised in homes with active alcoholism or drug addiction are just a couple of examples of what may lead to attachment issues.
These partners tend to be clingy and insecure about their relationship status. They have trouble tending to their own distressed emotions and reflexively seek comfort in others. Consequently, they have a strong preference to be in a relationship at all times. They are more prone to this kind of “serial monogamous dating” that is talked about in popular culture and have more lifetime partners than securely attached folks.16
Mental Health Concerns Associated With Serial Monogamy
Disturbed attachment is not the only route to a revolving-door love life. Other psychiatric problems like borderline personality disorder or narcissistic personality disorder can make a person vulnerable to chronically needing high levels of support and attention.17 People with borderline personality disorder also have fears of abandonment and tend to feel empty inside.18 They use interactions with others, especially the intense kind you can get from committed partnerships, to help them feel alive.12
People with narcissistic personality disorder also lack a deep sense of self, although they tend to be less aware of this. What they are acutely aware of is wanting to be surrounded by people who praise them and fawn over them. Much like people with borderline personality disorder, they tend to want to be in romantic relationships persistently.
Changing the Pattern of Serial Monogamy
If all of this has hit a bit too close to home, and you are wondering if you are a serial monogamist dater, there is hope. People can change. It won’t happen without effort, but if you can learn to slow down and develop the skills to emotionally comfort yourself and tolerate being alone for periods of time, you can change the pattern.
How Therapy Can Help
Psychotherapy is a great vehicle for this and has the added benefit that you don’t have to do it by yourself. Instead of jumping into a relationship with a dating partner, consider getting into a relationship with a therapist. Being single may be easier to tolerate if you have a therapist who can listen and provide support. Therapists can teach you self-regulation skills and work on the deeper reasons for your insecurity and feelings of loneliness or emptiness.
If you’re not quite sure if this concept of serial dating monogamist fits you then talking to a therapist could help answer that question. Humans aren’t that great at seeing ourselves clearly. We all have defense mechanisms that protect us from feeling too much pain, and sometimes those defenses keep us from realizing unhealthy patterns. Getting the perspective of a professional can be a great way to double check yourself and make sure that your dating patterns are going to lead to stable relationships.
If you identify with the serial monogamy dating pattern and therapy doesn’t appeal to you then you might consider an ancient tradition that can help with feelings of loneliness or isolation. These feelings can push us into relationships prematurely and can be especially hard to tolerate. Loving-kindness meditation (LKM) has been shown to help people feel less lonely and more connected to humanity at large.19 This deeper feeling of connectedness to community can help sustain a person until they are truly ready for another romantic relationship. Interestingly the practice of LKM works even if you don’t have a social support network and/or can’t spend time with actual people.
Final Thoughts on Serial Monogamy
Since relationships are the single most important factor in happiness and so integrally tied not only to our mental health but physical health, learning how to create and maintain more healthy relationships is of vital importance.20,21 If you’re experiencing attachment issues, it’s important to reach out for help, whether that’s through therapy, spiritual guidance like a pastor or minister, or through a trusted friend or family member. You don’t have to struggle alone, and getting support and even guidance from another person can be the first step towards a happier and more fulfilled life.