Serial Monogamy: the Fearful-Avoidant Do It Faster

Elizabeth Taylor, pioneering serial monogamist.

Elizabeth Taylor, pioneering serial monogamist.

[2007: Case of the rare fearful-avoidant, Nate.]

Nate’s operating mode is serial monogamy. He feels more secure with one other person and the underlying compulsion to find a source for sex and companionship compels him to try to find a monogamous LTR — over and over and over, with a breakup on average just a few months after committing.

Serial monogamy is now the dominant model for relationships in the West. Where true monogamy implies coupling for life, serial monogamy is exclusive only for a limited time, and implies that when an exclusive relationship stops working for the benefit of either partner, it should end and new partners be found. The old model of forever-after monogamy is honored mostly in the breach, still held up as an ideal though longer lives, urban surroundings, and increased wealth reduced the benefits and increased the opportunity cost of permanent commitments. Even politicians can’t conform to the permanent monogamy standard, it seems, though for the benefit of voters they continue to talk about it in glowing terms.

Younger people in the upper classes now mostly accept the more realistic expectation that they will have multiple partners in their lifetimes. An article from The Dartmouth Free Press expresses the modern view, excerpted here:

Serial monogamists are undoubtedly looking for love, admiration, and respect, but find themselves in mismatched relationships, until (they pray) one will end the series. If you are in such a situation, consider the compromises and sacrifices outlined in the tongue-in-cheek book “Does He Love Me or Am I Just Paranoid? The Serial Monogamist’s Guide to Love” by Carina Chocano: “Step 1: Lower Your Standards. Start by asking yourself the following: Does he really have to be attractive? Does he really have to be smart? Does he really have to be clean? Does he really have to be sane? Step 2: Question Your Instincts. Your gut is telling you to run far away. Pretend not to hear it….Step 3: Accentuate the Positive. Before dismissing someone as “ugly” or “crazy,” take the time to examine his positive qualities: Is he wonderfully weird? Is he thrillingly obsessive-compulsive? Is he expertly medicated?”

So Nate is not alone in this seemingly fruitless emphasis on an outcome that never happens for him over the acceptance and enjoyment of flawed partners as they are, while in the process of getting to know them. The unusual aspect of Nate’s relationship history is the number of partners he’s tried out and the speed of the breakups; otherwise he’s in the mainstream. Family and friends and society at large have told him he should try to achieve permanent partnership with someone respectable, and in pursuit of that goal he will break and leave behind any relationship that doesn’t seem to be heading in that direction, usually because he becomes aware that his prospective partner will end up boring him in time. This is a problem for all really smart people; finding someone who will be stimulating for a lifetime is very much harder than it is for more normal people.

Nate’s prospective partners have mostly been of the same mindset: seeking stability and permanence, and often devastated when such a seemingly perfect boyfriend dumps them. Nate has not helped them much by tending to go along with their plans at first; he has not learned the trick of reducing expectations and being forthcoming about the tentative nature of his interest, so until recently they have had good reason to feel let down when he exited abruptly under the pressure of their expectations. But they, too, only see one brass ring to try for, and reject a relationship that might be satisfying and worthwhile even if not leading to their ideal outcome. And so everyone who lives this dominant paradigm is set up for disappointment and loss while surrounded by interesting and attractive people who’d want to spend time with them….

More on Divorce, Marriage, and Mateseeking

Marriages Happening Late, Are Good for You
Monogamy and Relationship Failure; “Love Illuminated”
“Millionaire Matchmaker”
More reasons to find a good partner: lower heart disease!
“Princeton Mom” Susan Patton: “Marry Smart” not so smart
“Blue Valentine”
“All the Taken Men are Best” – why women poach married men….
“Marriage Rate Lowest in a Century”
Making Divorce Hard to Strengthen Marriages?
Student Loan Debt: Problems in Divorce
“The Upside of ‘Marrying Down’”
The High Cost of Divorce
Separate Beds Save Marriages?
Marital Discord Linked to Depression
Marriage Contracts: Give People More Legal Options
Older Couples Avoiding Marriage For Financial Reasons
Divorced Men 8 Times as Likely to Commit Suicide as Divorced Women
Vox Charts Millennial Marriage Depression
What’s the Matter with Marriage?
Life Is Unfair! The Great Chain of Dysfunction Ends With You.
Leftover Women: The Chinese Scene
Constant Arguing Can Be Deadly…
“If a fraught relationship significantly shortens your life, are you better off alone?
“Divorce in America: Who Really Wants Out and Why”
View Marriage as a Private Contract?
“It’s up there with ‘Men Are From Mars’ and ‘The Road Less Travelled’”
Free Love, eHarmony, Matchmaking Pseudoscience
Love Songs of the Secure Attachment Type
“The New ‘I Do’”
Unrealistic Expectations: Liberal Arts Woman and Amazon Men
Mark Manson’s “Six Healthy Relationship Habits”
“The Science of Happily Ever After” – Couples Communications
Free Dating Sites: Which Have Attachment Type Screening?
Dating Pool Danger: Harder to Find Good Partners After 30
Mate-Seeking: The Science of Finding Your Best Partner
Perfect Soulmates or Fellow Travelers: Being Happy Depends on Perspective
No Marriage, Please: Cohabiting Taking Over
“Marriage Markets” – Marriage Beyond Our Means?
Rules for Relationships: Realism and Empathy
Limerence vs. Love
The “Fairy Tale” Myth: Both False and Destructive
When to Break Up or Divorce? The Economic View
“Why Are Great Husbands Being Abandoned?”
Divorce and Alimony: State-By-State Reform, Massachusetts Edition
“Sliding” Into Marriage, Small Weddings Associated with Poor Outcomes
Subconscious Positivity Predicts Marriage Success…
Why We Are Attracted to Bad Partners (Who Resemble a Parent)


  1. Nate sounds more like a dismissive-avoidant, with the mindset; “I’m okay, you’re not okay.” I am seeing a fearful-avoidant (just friends) after dating him and he unfortunately has VERY low self esteem, thinks he’s not good enough for me and that I will leave him, nothing I could say or do could change that. He is subconsiously determined to let the self-fulfilling prophecy do its job and so he acts like a jerk; VERY stingy, closed off and mistrusting. But I can see his wonderfulness shining through, in a way that makes him unique, that is the other side of this emotional rollercoaster. It’s all VERY confusing. Sorry for my English, I am Dutch.

    1. The distinction between fearful and dismissive is usually that the fearful are conscious of a need to attach and have low self-esteem, so are afraid of losing attachment when actual intimacy threatens. The dismissive appear to have high self-esteem and not to care very much about attachment. Nate is motivated to attach and does so as often as possible, though he borders on dismissive on occasion. Usually dismissives end up in relationships seemingly by accident when they meet someone who is motivated to attach to them and acquiesce; though of course they subconsciously want to be wanted. Both fearful and dismissive types have shorter relationships than average, but the fearful type is more likely to end one out of fear.

      Your task, if you want a good relationship with this man, is to convince his subconscious that you are reliable and won’t hurt him. It sounds like you cherish some things about him, and if you can talk about his fears, remind him that you feel that. If you can bring him to be conscious of his distancing and how it arises from fear of intimacy, he may be able to control it consciously. Getting an avoidant to that point can be very difficult since they generally can’t detach from themselves to objectively view their behavior.

      I’ve been to Amsterdam a few times — lovely city. Good luck with him!

      1. Thank you for your response and your suggestions on how to help this man. Wow, you’re describing him like he is… almost 100%. I would love to try to get him to see his behavior and fears underneath. But it is going to be difficult. His father is a narcissist, bordering psychopath, who told him over and over that he wasn’t even good enough to be clubbed to death. Yes, it’s mindblowing, criminal abuse, lost for words when I heard that. His mother was also abused with words by his father but only left when it was too late for him and never protected him or showed a lot of love for her children.

        I forgot to tell you that he never said to me directly that he fears that I will leave (he is very closed off on these topics unfortunately), but I suspect that he does, because he did say that he doesn’t understand that I want to be with him. Although he pursued me at the beginning, our relationship brought unease to him, because before me he had come to terms with the idea that he would grow old alone (he is 44, I am 39), and after the thrill of the chase of me he wanted to get rid of the unease and get back to the unhappy but relatively easeful situation of being alone (that’s my perspective on it now). That’s why after a year he broke up with me, also because of arising problems at his work, which made him depressed.

        But after the breakup, he wanted to keep seeing me straight away (and have a friends with benefits type of relationship, what he told me later), but I wanted a no contact period of 3 months, and since then we’ve been just friends, for 4 months now, and we don’t see each other a lot, he wants to see me more but never calls, and is happy when I call to invite him to go out biking together for instance. At first, I wanted him to call and pursue me again, as he was the dumper and I am the dumpee, and he’s the man, but I think he has a fear of calling and emailing as well, and now I can live with this situation, I don’t let it consume me like it did in the beginning, and we’re just friends. The sexual attraction between us is immense though, so it’s difficult, haha, but it’s better this way.

        He likes me to be very confident with myself, he is attracted by that, which is great, but he doesn’t understand that his old nit-picking and emotional stingy behavior wasn’t helping (not anymore though, this was during the relationship, before I knew what was going on with him, AND at the same time he’s a little bit nicer to me now). I know now that he doesn’t see his part in my past insecurity because he thinks he is meaningless, so his actions are also meaningless for my self-confidence, in his logic.

        He can easily talk with me about other women that he likes, but who are way beyond his level, like me, he says and who he will never get, he implies. He was and is very surprised that he got me. It’s not nice, to say the least, I feel very replaceable, but at the same time I know that this won’t happen very soon. But we’re not bonding very strongly, to say the least. To protect myself I am approaching him now very differently; as a friend, with more humor, and a more carefree attitude, (although I always gave him space) also teasing him a bit, and now I see more admiration in his eyes, which I like, because I admire him as well; he takes care of things right away, a doer, which I would like to be more, I am more of a thinker. And he is very masculine and tender at the same time. both in- and outside the bedroom. And interested in psychology. In the near future I guess it is better to date other people, but I think I will always have a soft spot for the man, and I haven’t given up on him just yet.

      2. You’re both getting to be of a certain age where just finding someone you enjoy spending some time with is good, even if it’s not the long term relationship of your dreams. Realizing that he’s a bit handicapped in relationships, you should probably get over the natural feeling that he should work a bit harder to take the initiative and approach him as often as you feel like seeing him. If I were you I would stay open to friendship or more with him, while at the same time seeing who out there might be a closer and more comfortable partner. He may grow into a more reliable partner, or not; you may find someone a lot easier to be with, or not. If you can be patient, something good will happen…. I’m not saying what!

  2. Thank you again Jeb, this helps me a lot. One last question, hope you don’t mind; do you think it’s better to bond more with him (if possible) before being sexual with him again, in order to get a better and committed relationship, or can sex help guys like him bond and commit, so that he feels more masculine and strong through the sex, but less uneasy about being in a relationship because it’s FWB, what he wants? And that he can grow into something more? Or would he think less of me? I hope I don’t sound awful or stupid when I say that I kind of consider a FWB type of relationship with him. The sex is the best I ever had and ever will have.

    But in the long term it’s more important to me to mentally feel 100% good around my man (him or if that’s not possible, someone else) and have him to commit to wanting to make me feel good, like I am commited to wanting him to feel good with me.

    I am aware that it could make me feel vulnerable again, and I will be careful about that, but that’s besides the question for now. I am wondering about the potential effect on him, of course I could always stop it again, but I am curious what you as an expert would think. Or should I get him to see his unconcious patterns before that can happen? I apologise if the question is too explicit, I don’t want to offend anyone.

    1. Sex – ah, there’s a big problem. For some of these guys regular sex primes them to see you as only a source for sex, and when they find novelty elsewhere they move on. If you two actually have a kind of bond now (as it appears), I would personally try to make your relationship about enjoying time and activities together, with maybe occasional sex as something that happens, but not as a routine. Being an expected FWB slots you and might make him less anxious, but might also end the relationship after the sex is routine. So make sure it doesn’t become routine. And using the most important bonding glue when the relationship itself is uncertain is likely to make you feel less secure and wanting more from him, more quickly, which would be bad for you and probably scare him.

      I’m glad you asked because I haven’t addressed this topic anywhere, and I probably should. If you don’t mind, I may use your anonymized story as an example in the book I’m working on now about relationships with avoidants.

      1. Thanks for your honest, open minded and balanced response. To be honest, I was a little embarrassed for asking about this topic. I am now away from the city where we live, for three weeks, and have come to think about it the same way as you. It makes a lot of sense. Also, I would really like to see him wanting me more, I know he does, but he should show it more, like he used to do in the very beginning. But his mentality lately is to just give up on things, even things that matter to him. It originates with his lack of self esteem, unfortunately. So he shows he wants me only just before trying to make out with me. And I should not give in.

        It is a really strange paradox to me sometimes, since he really made me euphoric when we got erotic in the past, he showed very strong masculine behavior. Swept me off my feet, so to speak. I really have to try to continue to withstand that, also if and when we meet at his or my place (at the moment we meet up only in public places) it will be difficult.

        Also, I will try to use more humor during our meetups. And to be bubbly and positive and continue to not expect much, like I do now for a while and just take things very slowly. And date others as well and tell him in a non threatening way.

        And yes, you can use my anonymized story in your book.

      2. I think your strategy is the wisest course. I would not invest too much in him until or unless he starts to act as if you are important and a permanent part of his life. If you think of being his friend as an opportunity to learn more, but in a sort of detached manner, then you will more readily resist being hurt if he “flakes out” (runs away) on you eventually–and this happens a lot.

        Your story is fine as-is; I have to change details anyway, so the basic outline is all I need to make the point.

  3. Thanks for the post, questions and answers. Wow, Nate reminds me of myself. Undecided if it is fearful or dismissive attachment. Appreciate if you have a view? I have a history of getting bored in relationships and then becoming less caring, so unsurprisingly they break up with me. I always take it badly because I am attached, with an upset ego. I am currently seeing someone who is amazing in many ways, which I am attached to. I believe she loves me and also is attached to me. She’s the only one who hasnt broken it off (we’ve been dating for over 3 years). But I have two complaints that continuously threaten the relationship: 1) we live in Europe and I want to return to Austalia where I’m from. She wants 5 years more here. The possibility of having kids here & the relationship not working out with her (here or in australia) scares me.
    2) I am much less sexually attracted to her than when we met, and I frequently check out other women. Obviously I don’t say that it to her.
    The writing seems to be on the wall to move on, but the fear of ending it is there. The ‘who else will love me like her’ and some fears of unworthiness for finding anything like it from other women are there for me. I grew up in a loving family though my mum does get uncomfortable with intimacy like hugs. I also had some strong feelings of abandonment between 2 and 6 years old. Thanks

    1. Since you are caring enough about it to read and question yourself, I’d guess you are on the fearful end of the scale, more consciously aware of wanting to be attached, but a bit afraid of going all-in. It’s not especially unusual to be less sexually attracted to your partner after a few years — the question is, are you attracted enough to continue. Nothing is ever as exciting after some years of intimate knowledge. but have you built a shared history, do you laugh and enjoy each other’s company, etc.? Practical issues of where and how can be worked out, and of course children change the equation enormously, so if the idea of having one or more frightens you, that’s a sign you shy away from deep commitment. But time is passing, and you seem sold on her and she on you.

      So that’s the picture — a known pretty good partner against a maybe better one, somewhere. I’m not going to tell you what to do, but imagine how you’d really feel if you left tomorrow for Australia leaving her behind. Pang of loss or sense of relief? The avoidant types often feel relief at first, but regret later when they realize every new partner will end up making them feel similarly vaguely dissatisfied. Are you loyal to her? Or is it all about you? The best relationships happen when two people are as dedicated to their partner’s happiness as their own. Are you?

      All rhetorical questions. You have some work to do!

  4. Here is a case study for you: We met nearly 2 years ago, after both having been in long relationships that we were happy to be done with, and neither wanted a new long-term relationship. So we both stated that, and this was “just sex”. After the first 3 months he suddenly spooked when I light-heartedly said I cared a bit about him. He didn´t reply to texts at all, just disappeared. After about 4 months I sent him a new message, as I had a practical excuse, something he had promised to help me with, and all of a sudden he answered. Once reassured that I only cared about him, and wasn´t going to trap him, he warmed up again and came back.

    At first very guarded, making every effort to keep any emotion out of it. As the last time he gradually got more carried away, showing sign that he had feelings for me. Again after about 3 months he disappeared again. Again with the excuse (I find out later) that it was MY feelings that was the problem, but I always felt he was more afraid of his own feelings than mine. I didn´t have that strong feelings at first, and had a couple of other lovers (that he didn´t know about, because he made it clear he didn´t want to know), but after a couple of rounds of this I started to be more insecure and got more hooked on him.

    After he returned again after a few months, after the same reassuring that I wouldn´t expect anything of him or trap him, he again started getting carried away. Never really getting in touch with me, but if I got in touch he´d actually start inviting me to where he was, letting me into his social scene, which was a break through. I felt at this point that now he was actually ready for something more, and so was I, but after all that proof that he scares easily, I couldn´t bring myself to say anything. As I am waiting and hoping for him to say something, I notice he is starting to turn off again, showing the usual distancing behaviours of not replying to texts for several days, hugs where the body doesn´t touch at all, bouncing out of bed after sex to ensure no cuddling and so on. Then all of a sudden he informs me that he has met someone new, and so we can no longer continue our relationship.

    At this point I have nothing to loose so I come clean. And for everything I admit, feelings, ready for something more, he admits to having felt the same. Though always past tense. His new relationship is with someone considerably younger, and also with her he has told her he is not ready for a moving in kind of commitment, (though now he is ready for a “girlfriend”), and about his plans to move to another country in a few years. I can only imagine how uncomfortable it was for him to realise he was in love with me, but not thinking it was mutual. (He admitted to thinking that, I had obviously gone to great lengths to made him think that). So I´m guessing he jumped into this new relationship to distract himself from that, or to push me away even further this time.

    He generally never takes initiative, but is very quick to reject, it is obvious to me that he does this in order to ensure I don´t reject him. Now I´m kind of broken, wandering if it was just a fake personality I have fallen for.. He has all the signs of an avoidant, really uncomfortable talking about feelings, and says so, shuts down any “talk” before it even begins, stone face, and not to mention his brilliant plan of leaving the country, which may never happen, I think it is just a great escape for him to look forward to, and he uses it to create distance with everyone he meets. Once he even said he didn´t think it was important to have sex too often, I thought he ment because it gets boring, but I now realise it is just another way to limit intimacy and closeness.

    It should be said that I am really not the most needy person, and I did in fact give him a lot of space and respected his need for alone time. I didn´t nag or express any wish for a commitment of any kind, didn´t force him to talk about feelings and pretty much did all the right things. So my conclusion is that it was his own feelings that scared him, regardless of whatever I did.

    Now I am really curious to see if there is a round 4. Now he knows I have feelings for him, and as I have still not rejected him, I should now be “safer” for him. I suspect he will scare quickly out of his new relationship, when he realises she probably wants children (he at least thought he was done with that, and it will obviously limit his freedom and ruin his plans to have more), or he will turn this young girl into a insecure and needy person when he starts his distancing behaviour. I don´t know if I have it in me to give him yet another chance to reject me, kind of hope I will meet someone new before I get that choice, but at the same time it is hard to give up on him.

    1. Viciously cycled, your story is so similar to mine! My “partner” and I met travelling, both initially assuming things could go no further but then getting really attached. When I mentioned a relationship, he backed off… then came back when I stayed away. We were in different countries so this would happen every time it seemed we might get closer. Based on his backing away, I learned to withold which probably looked like I was keeping my options open when in fact I had very strong feelings for him. I arranged to visit so I could further investigate the possibility of a relationship. From then, his behaviour was much more erratic, stating he might be called away, then planning for me to visit all of his family, then telling me he had a new girlfriend when I arrived (I really think he would have picked anyone to put something in between us!) then vacillating between whether we were together or not whilst I was visiting. After leaving, he immediately jumped into a long distance “fantasy” relationship with the other girl who was willing to accept a bond to him at any cost. I’ve only just started to move on and feel ok since accepting I could have done little differently based on my desire for a deeper connection. Though other times, like you, I do wish I had been more open. Meeting someone new helped – a relief to be away from the push-pull dynamics! I hope you too have moved on with your life and if I can offer any advice, it would be to do absolutely everything in your power to ensure you do look for someone more secure!!

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