What Is Monogamy? - Definition & History

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  • 0:01 Definition of Monogamy
  • 0:16 Historical Development…
  • 3:30 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Tara DeLecce

Tara has taught Psychology and has a master's degree in evolutionary psychology.

If you're not familiar with the word monogamy, you're most likely familiar with what it is. The standard mating system in America is a relationship that involves only two spouses, and therefore it is considered monogamy. Read on to find out more about the history of one of the most common types of mating systems.


Monogamy is defined as marriage with only one person at a time or the practice of having only one mate. It is the only legal form of marriage in the United States, and we may take it for granted as the standard mating system. In other cultures, however, it is quite common to have multiple wives and/or husbands. Monogamy is also a rather historically recent development as well.

Historical Development of Monogamy

Back in ancestral times, when humans lived primarily as hunters and gatherers, they mainly practiced polygyny (having multiple wives). The best hunters in a given tribe would typically have two or three wives since the best hunters brought back the most meat and would have extra to support more than one wife. This practice of polygyny became even more exaggerated once agriculture became popular and men had access to significantly more food resources and actually owned land.

This occurred in ancient civilizations, such as those in Egypt, China, and the Middle East, and spread to other civilizations, which included Western Europe. During this time period, the men with the highest status or the most property and resources would typically have hundreds or even thousands of wives, while lower class men would commonly not reproduce at all.

In the Middle Ages, this polygynous trend began to decline. The Christian church gained more influence in Western European society and greatly encouraged monogamy. Although this made monogamous marriage more common, it didn't help decline the amount of polygynous mating outside of marriage.

The widespread acceptance of monogamy in a moral sense came later and is typically associated with democratic societies that strive for social equality. This gave lower-class men a fair chance at reproduction and to have heirs to pass down their trades and family name.

The switch to monogamy in Western society was also associated with a somewhat lower degree of child mortality. In polygynous societies, men would sire many children with different women but would not be directly involved in raising the children. Although they arranged for help for the mothers of the children, the offspring were typically not cared for as well as children with fathers involved in monogamous relationships. Therefore, the chance of child mortality was somewhat higher in polygynous societies.

In the modern world, legal monogamy is popular and is the standard mating system in Western society. It is spreading beyond Western society and is becoming more common especially in the Far East.

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