Serial flings are not for everyone, but we need a more flexible view of coupledom than one just based on everlasting love.
With her latest book, The New Rules: Internet Dating, Playfairs and Erotic Power, Catherine Hakim has joined a growing posse of high profile monogamy-bashers.
It's one of a clutch of recent big-splash books defending infidelity – and all of them were written by happily married authors. Alain de Botton sang the praises of adultery in How to Think More about Sex and Christopher Ryan co-wrote Sex at Dawn with his wife, in which they both challenged the myth that monogamy is innate in humans.
They don't argue from embittered experience, haranguing from the cesspit of heartbreak, but with factual objectivity. Hakim, with whom I've had the pleasure of personally sharing research and anecdotes, uses sociological studies to demonstrate the benefits of the so-called playfair and increasing use of marital affair websites. The others are equally academic. Ryan and his wife flood their pages with colourful evolutionary theories highlighting how everything – from human penis size to porn preferences – prove that monogamy just isn't the way we were meant to be.
I too am questioning our obsession in finding and sticking with one lifelong partner. As much as we love to feast on the Hollywood-inspired fairytales (there is a soulmate out there who can make our dreams come true, and still make us quiver between the sheets every night), I'm afraid my research finds more evidence of boredom, bickering and monosyllabic TV dinners than passion, princes and someone who massages your feet every night.
We all desperately want to believe in a never-ending happy ending. We only have to see the vitriol stirred up at the mere suggestion that Katherine Jenkins was involved with David Beckham to get a taste of how defensive we are of this nice, but unrealistic, ideal. After all, I'd rather not rain on the fairytale parade myself; like the writers above, I too am in a monogamous relationship. But I believe only in monogamy from the heart, not from a pact. Perhaps I'm biased; it's a new relationship and I've still got the butterflies.
As much as I would like the champagne fuzz and fascination of a fresh lover to last forever, the occupational hazard of researching relationships has left me startlingly aware that romantic lustiness and long-term familiarity don't marry up well. Passion fades to friendship. Elation and mutual fascination gives way to conversations about who's taking the bins out. And it's scientifically proven.
Anthropologists have studied brain scans of couples in love. The ones in the early throes of romantic love virtually dribble dopamine. Their brains, according to Dr Helen Fisher, behave exactly like someone on crack cocaine. They are obsessed and infatuated. Thankfully – for the sanity of society – couples who've been together for a bit calm down. Their brains bathe in oxytocin: they feel attached and secure and want to pack each other's lunch boxes but alas, they're unlikely to want to snog in the back of a taxi.
People only started to marry for love in the late 18th century. Marriage was a strategy to form business partnerships, expand family networks, craft political ties, strengthen a labour force or pass on wealth. In aristocratic societies of the 12th century, adultery was considered a higher form of love. True love was thought impossible with a spouse. In the 16th century, the essayist Montaigne wrote that any man in love with his wife was "a man so dull no one else could love him". It's therefore ironic that people moralise about the demise of "old-fashioned family values" or "traditional marriage". The true "traditional" approach to marital commitment had nothing to do with either everlasting love or exclusivity.
Throughout history and across cultures, societies have provided a system for paramours. In imperial China, noblemen housed harems of courtesans. In the Ottoman empire, there were seraglios of beautiful courtesans. In the east, any man of means had at least one concubine as well as a wife. In Japan, married men entertained themselves with geishas. In Europe, the royal courts officiated monarchs' mistresses and sometimes any resulting children.The modern world continues to make provisions, too. The French have the cinq à sept. Japan has "love hotels" designed for discretion, dispatching room keys from a vending machine and curtains in the car park to protect anonymity. Here, we have marital affair websites. Last week, maritalaffair.co.uk revealed that the number of active women on its site have doubled in the last three months.
Now more than ever, we need a more flexible approach to coupledom. As the world allows for increasingly autonomous lifestyles, we tighten the reins on our spouses. We give our partners rules, curfews and DIY lists. We expect them to be our exclusive lover, best friend, co-parent, holiday companion and to fix the car. The job description doesn't fit with modern mores.
Does this mean a life of serial flings will make us happier? I wouldn't personally choose that, but I find a one-size fits all framework for relationships equally unrewarding. What we do need is an adjustment to our rigid, moralised relationship settings and an admittance that as much as we don't like it, affairs won't go away.