As defined by Urban Dictionary, a serial monogamist is “someone who jumps from one relationship immediately into another one”.
We all know one. We might even be one. They’re people who’ve had several partners and spent a mysteriously small amount of time single. They go from one relationship to another with little time to breathe in between; breaking up with Tom one week and bringing James as their plus-one the next.
And we tend to think certain things of serial monogamists. Let's move further down Urban Dictionary’s list of definitions:
2: “A person who can't stand not being with someone and so goes headlong from one relationship to another without any break in between.”
3: “A descriptor for a person who has commitment issues but does not engage in cheating or infidelity.”
In other words, we don’t think much of serial monogamy. We think it’s emotionally unhealthy and that people who engage in it invest so much in short-lived relationships that they miss out on crucial self-development and are, in reality, just terrified of being alone.
A serial monogamist would rather this weren’t true; that it’s the work of armchair psychologists who should butt out because there’s more to it than poorly addressed emotional issues, surely?
“There are many reasons why someone might move from one romantic relationship to the next,” says counselling psychologist Dr. Mari Kovanen.
“They might be afraid of commitment; they may long to be in a deep and meaningful relationship but when the relationship hits a certain marker and depth, feel too uncomfortable, and break up the relationship and move on to another.
“Another reason could be that they’re afraid of being alone. But everyone’s different, and one can’t really make a global statement about whether it’s healthy or not – it depends on whether it’s causing distress and hurt.”
So if you were hoping there wasn’t an element of truth in the stereotypes, bad news.
“Every ending of a relationship is like a miniature death,” says psychologist Donna Dawson. “It has to be mourned, grieved for and thought through; it needs a bit of a post-mortem. Without a breather in between each relationship, a new one becomes a quick fix and all you’re doing is replacing a need in yourself to not be alone.
“Monogamy is great but monogamy without thinking – perhaps because you need control or 100% of your needs answered – isn’t a good way to experience it.”
The important thing here, Mari points out, is considering whether or not it’s causing you anguish.
In the past five years, Bea* (24) has been single for a “grand total” of five months. “I have a sneaky feeling I crave commitment and stability,” she says, “because it's been lacking in other areas of my life – I've lived a very nomadic lifestyle since I was 11 years old.
“I'm usually someone who goes from extreme to extreme – I went from serially dating and going out every night with a different person to moving in with someone within a year."
As Bea points out, if a feeling of reliability and safety isn’t provided in the form of a stable home and supportive family, it’s understandable to seek it elsewhere.
“I get a lot from relationships,” says 30-year-old Katrina*, who hasn’t been single for more than a few weeks since she was 15.
In this time, the length of Katrina’s relationships has varied from three months to three years and, similarly to Bea, where stability was lacking in other areas of her life, Katrina found it invaluable in relationships.
“I don’t have a very supportive family, I have no relationship with my mother for instance, so I guess I get that emotional support from relationships that I don’t have in the traditional places and for me, that has been a positive, sometimes even a lifeline.”
Lifeline or not, by failing to give themselves breathing space in between each relationship, serial monogamists risk, as Donna warns, using them as a “quick fix” for loneliness. So instead of filling that empty space as soon as possible, what if they played out the alternative?
Through trial and error, 26-year-old Lisa* has learned to do just this:
“I never used to leave a break between relationships, but then I realised that I need to have some time for myself to analyse what went wrong and how I can learn from my mistakes,” she says.
“For the last few years I’ve tended to wait about a year before I start something serious – I want to make sure I'm 100% over someone and ready for the next chapter.”
“I think it does make me stronger. When you've been in a relationship for a long time you forget how it is to be alone – it can be quite difficult to cope at first.
“Being single for a bit lets you appreciate your time alone and people around you.”
There’s no denying that a break is likely better for one’s emotional strength. But knowing this doesn’t make it any easier to put into practice. So it’s hardly surprising that serial monogamists often end up living by that famous saying: "The quickest way to get over someone is to get under someone else."
“I stay in bad relationships for months – if not years – after they should have ended because I'm not very good at identifying how I really feel, or trusting that feeling enough to act on it,” says Katrina.
“I just assume every relationship should last forever, even if it clearly should have been a fling!
“So then the thing that makes me move on, sadly, is meeting someone else while I'm in the bad relationship and then breaking up with the previous person for the new person.
“It sounds bad, it is bad, but we all have our reasons for acting the way we do.”
Heard from Bea and Katrina’s perspective, the stereotypical traits of a serial monogamist – jumping from one relationship to another in hope the next will be better, a fear of being alone – sound like a simple desire for support and love. And while they acknowledge the habit's hindrances, neither expresses regret over the relationships themselves. As Bea says: “How I feel about my current partner is how I feel – I don't feel like I have anything to regret by committing.”
After all, Donna reminds us, a happy relationship can provide emotional support, trust, love and a stable sex life. We just need to make sure we’re getting into (or out of) it for the right reasons.