Let’s Understand Serial Monogamy

Karen Doll, Psy.D., L.P
December 23, 2018

Monogamy in and of itself is often considered a positive, desirable attribute of a relationship in western culture. It is when two people commit to date or marry each other, without having such a relationship with anyone else at the same time. Serial monogamy suggests commitment to the relationship, yet for a limited time.  It is described as someone going from one committed relationship to the next, without wait time in between.  We all know someone like this, who seemed to always have a serious boyfriend or girlfriend, even in high school.  The term serial captures the essence of the repeated, series of events.

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So, what is the harm in being in a series of committed relationships?

Serial monogamists seek safety in a committed relationship, yet can develop a need and become dependent upon being in such a relationship.  It is common for people who engage in serial monogamy to have an ideal, but unrealistic, expectation of love and the relationship. They are often very committed and “all in” while they are engaged. However, when there is a breakup, they are quick to go on the rebound and continue the same pattern in subsequent relationships.  They often fear being alone and engage in relationships as a way to avoid loneliness. The psychological undercurrent is often placing too much value on others needing or wanting to be in a relationship with them.

In describing serial monogamy, the term “love addiction” often comes up.  This description highlights the addictive element of the attachment and comfort of the relationship.  People experience a “high” at the beginning of a romantic relationship.  The rush of being in love produces an increase in dopamine, which stimulate our brains like drugs.  People can become dependent upon producing these feel-good hormones that come with new intimate relationships.  This reward system of the brain can produce an addictive cycle.

For serial monogamists, experiencing a breakup can produce symptoms of withdrawal, which can be emotionally distressing and uncomfortable. They can feel tempted to avoid the withdrawal by jumping into another relationship impulsively in the search for the dopamine “hit.” By doing so, this reinforces the cycle of dependency on relationships.  For individuals with these behavior patterns, moving quickly into the next relationship is often more about the rush of hormones than the individual. The influx of hormones in a honeymoon stage of a relationship can also contribute to impulsiveness and judgment impairment.

How it develops

Often people who are serial monogamists as adults had signs of these relationship patterns early in life.  In childhood, they often became attached to one best friend who they always wanted to spend time with. They may experience extreme jealousy if the friend pulls away or spends time with others.  Even in children, these emotional dependencies can create dysfunctional patterns.  This type of behavior pattern can be referred to as “co-dependent serial monogamy.”

What to do if you are a serial monogamist?

Start with building your own sense of self and well-being.  If you are not happy being alone, it is unlikely that you will be happy in a relationship over time.  Seeking well-being and happiness through others is not sustainable.

The good news is that behavior patterns can change with work and intention.  However, without self reflection, insight, and development, these relationship patterns are apt to continue.  Explore ways to break this cycle.  Experiment with being alone.  Avoid the rebound effect of quickly moving into another serious relationship post breakup.  Challenge yourself to sit with, process, and move through the emotional discomfort that comes with being alone. There are therapeutic interventions that can help people work through such fears.  Work on developing your own sense self-efficacy, by detach your worth from your partner.

Leverage the strengths of being committed and not likely to engage in infidelity as this is a highly valued and healthy element of being in relationships. However, consider adjusting the expectations of what a relationship brings. Try sticking it out past the infatuation stage to experience the next phase of the relationship.

In sum, in order to develop healthy relationships, start and end with fostering your own self worth.

Karen Doll, Psy.D., L.P

Karen Doll has been a Licensed Psychologist in the Twin Cities for 20 years, working in organizational consulting. She leverages her education in Clinical Psychology with her leadership assessment expertise in her practice. She is an executive coach focusing on helping people maximize their potential.

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