It's been clear for generations that the classic "nuclear family" made up of a mom, dad, and two or three children doesn't reflect a lot of people's realty, and that families come in all shapes and sizes.
But is the nuclear family actually unhealthy and bad for people? Is monogamy a poor fit for our basic human natures?
A new book by husband and wife team Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jetha (he's a research psychologist, she's a psychiatrist) says yes. Sex at Dawn: The Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality claims that because early humans lived in tribes or "bands" of loosely connected people, that's the optimal way to live life now. People did not "pair bond" like we do now to facilitate raising children and certainly not into old age; instead, people lived communal lives where all the children belonged to each mother and no male-female pair was sexually exclusive.
There are arguments to be made for the communal lifestyle; our modern way of life with everyone retreating into our own little houses and shutting the door can be very isolating. But Ryan calls the nuclear family damaging in an interview with Time magazine:
The nuclear family is detrimental to both child development and parental mental health. It's too much. It's like wearing shoes that don't fit. Society can force you into [them] or you can force yourself and you're going to suffer.
Detrimental? Um, no. Saying so is as damaging as saying the traditional nuclear family model is the only way that people should live. Some people feel most fulfilled single, some child-free, some married with children, and some in a multi-partnered polyamorous situation (which is probably closest to what Ryan says we did as early humans). They all have their drawbacks and benefits, but what Ryan seems to be advocating for is an end to monogamy without acknowledging that for some people it does feel right.
He makes absolutely no argument to bolster his contention that living with monogamous parents is detrimental to children's health; as a matter of fact, study after study has shown that's when kids do best.
And also, yes, humans may have evolved to have multiple sexual partners. We do a lot of things we didn't evolve to do that tame our animal instincts, and not all of them are bad. We cultivate and cook our food, wear clothes, and poop in toilets, just for starters. It's called civilization. Unless Ryan's living in a cave in the woods with his commune, I don't think he can shrug off monogamy as some binding societal construct.
Overall, this comes across as a book cheating spouses will point to as an excuse for tearing up their families and hurting their partners: "It's not that I am a lying dog, it's that monogamy itself is the problem." If for whatever reason, sexual exclusivity is not a big thing in your relationship, fine. But don't use our animal roots as an excuse to do what you want.
Image via sexatdawn.com