I began studying the science of falling in love when I was in my early 20s. I was a late bloomer, had never had a real boyfriend, and the inner workings of relationships were a mystery to me. I was convinced that somehow, if I could decode the science behind love, I could figure out a formula to give us all perfect happily-ever-after relationships with one another.
Well, I'm several years into my studies now, and I wish I had better news for you guys. Truth is, according to science, we're fucked.
Let's take a look at a few things. I mentioned in a few past blog entries (specifically this one and this one) that we cannot count on nature to look out for our own happiness. Natural selection passes down in us the traits that help us to further the species by creating healthy, functional offspring, because that is evolution's main goal. (Even if you're on the pill and using condoms. Even if you never want kids. Even if you're gay. Your brain is still programmed to make you select partners with apparent qualities of survival and reproductive fitness and to pairbond you in ways that would help you raise a kid if you were in a natural environment, whether you like it or not, because we have not evolved neurologically as quickly as we have evolved socially and technologically. So spare me that argument. You don't get to opt out of your biological programming just because of the life choices you make.) Past the part where you do your share in furthering the species, nature does not help you in having a satisfying relationship. This is not survival of the happiest.
Let's then look at the construct of monogamy. At the very least, we can say that monogamy is the current cultural norm: relationships that consist of nonmonogamous pairings or of more than two partners are all lumped under the category "alternative." But why?
Drs. Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jetha explain in their book Sex at Dawn: The Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality that monogamy became a big deal right around the agricultural revolution. Before farming, there was no such thing as land ownership; humans lived in hunter-gatherer societies, and while careful mate selection and pairbonding still occurred, children were more or less raised in a communal setting as the whole tribe was somewhat invested in a child's survival. When food (i.e., valuable goods) could be cultivated on a piece of land rather than hunted/gathered, having land became paramount. Monogamy became important because a guy with land wanted to make sure that the kid he passed his land on down to was actually his, and so like land, a wife became synonymous with property. Thus began our culture of ownership, and when ownership is important, any threat to it results in jealousy. (Ah, jealousy -- you can find out more of what I think about that right here.) And with that came the double standard of the shaming and blaming of adulterous women. Yes, farming is to blame for why we have a slut-shaming/stud-praising culture today, because a woman's infidelity meant bringing unagreed-upon genes into the family, whereas a man's infidelity resulted in... aww heck, who's ever gonna find out anyway. Next time someone calls you a slut, blame the farmers.
But let's dissect the idea of monogamy bit too. My hero Dr. Helen Fisher in her book The Anatomy of Love: The Mysteries of Mating, Marriage, and Why We Stray points out that the Oxford English Dictionary defines monogamy as "the condition, rule, or custom of being married to only one person at a time," but does not necessitate sexual fidelity. Moreover, it certainly does not suggest a lifelong partnership, as indicated by the phrase "one person at a time." My hero Dr. Fisher goes on to note that several zoologists define monogamy even somewhat more loosely, as "a prolonged association and essentially exclusive mating relationship."
Ah, there's our loophole. Essentially. Meaning, you know... "kinda, sorta, basically, but who's really counting."
So monogamy and fidelity are not mutually inclusive. Even in the wild, mammals in monogamous, pairbonded relationships still often mate on the sly with mammals other than their partner. Cheating is practically built into our systems, both as males and females. For males, justifying cheating is simple: men are programmed to pass on their genes through as many genetically fit females as possible. With females, it may be a bit more complicated, but women still have their reasons.
In a recent chat I had with relationship expert Guy Blews (author of Marriage and How To Avoid It), he pointed out to me how common it is for a woman to marry a man who's a stable provider (to provide for her offspring, i.e., survival) but mate with a man who is a genetically fit badboy (to create genetically fit offspring. i.e., reproduction). "You'd be shocked at the level of denial some partners go through convincing themselves that a kid is theirs," he said in his cheeky British accent as we drove through Malibu. "They'll be like, 'Oh no, red hair runs on my mother's side of the family.' And I'm like, 'But you're black.' It doesn't matter. It's the way the world works."
Blews embraces the fact that his opinions on relationships are controversial in their extremity, but reading through his works, you can't help but see the logic in his anti-marriage, monogamy-skeptic stance.
"Stupidity is the reason so many people marry," he writes on his blog. "It’s not always a calculated decision. It’s not always logical. It’s not even sensible. It’s just STUPIDITY. 'Oh, my boyfriend likes me. I’m 25. He asked me to marry him. I love him. Yes, ok. I do.' See? STUPIDITY. Not, 'Hold on a second, I’m only 25 and I’ve only had 4 serious relationships and none of them lasted more than 2 years, and now I think I can spend the rest of my life with this one person that I kind of love!' No. Just STUPIDITY. Based on false hope, lies, and miseducation."
You have to admit that marriage as an institution was designed to be entered into before the peak of our reproductive years, which is usually less than a third of the way into our entire lifespans, and that at best it is unrealistic for us to believe that we will want to stay forever sexually faithful to that one person we chose at that point in time. As I pointed out in another blog entry, our brain chemistry is designed to stop releasing happy love chemicals over a partner a few years into a relationship, so divorce becomes a trend after about four years of marriage. Why do we do this to ourselves? Why put ourselves under so much unnecessary pressure?
Back to my hero Dr. Helen Fisher. As I continued reading The Anatomy of Love late last night, this one passage struck me:
It is not difficult to imagine that the evolution of serial monogamy and clandestine adultery triggered the beginnings of selection for this moral wiring some four million years ago. What conflict this dual reproductive strategy produced. To form a pair-bond and also be adulterous required the skills of deceit and judgment and the ability to weigh the odds. ...As human social life became more complex and our ancestors continued to jockey for sex and power, they acquired a conscience too.
As men and women became engaged in larger and larger networks of social obligations, individuals became more driven by the opposing values of reproductive self-interest and the necessity to cooperate within a larger group. Here was conflict.
Yes! Here is conflict! Opposing values! This stuff that I've basically devoted my life to figuring out a way around? It's wired into us. It sucks. We each basically want a faithful partner that we can cheat on. Our happily ever after isn't fair or even remotely realistic.
It's times like these that I really wish I was a shitty relationship expert who could bullshit you with happy stupid aphorisms or give you a list of "rules" to follow so some dude will get hitched with you (BECAUSE CLEARLY IF HE MARRIES YOU THAT SOLVES EVERYTHING). I hate being the bearer of bad news. But as far as I'm concerned, we're all in this together to figure this shit out, and I'm not just going to pepper my blog with rehashed book excerpts every couple days to up my traffic so that you'll go buy it (although seriously, do go buy it). I'm still looking for answers and my quest continues every day. I am on the front fucking lines here, AND I do all the dry and boring anthropological reading so you don't have to. So if there's one thing about me that you can trust, it is that I am always going to be honest with you.
I don't have the solution yet, but I can tell you this much: what we're doing right now as a society isn't working out so hot for us. Divorce rates are higher than ever, and yet we persist in this notion that our relationships ought to just perpetuate because of love, something that most of us can't even properly define for ourselves.
I do think that we need to make cheating less of a taboo in society, and also to be more realistic about what it is. I've been in monogamous relationships and in nonmonogamous relationships, and in my experience, getting to be sexually intimate with an outside partner that I found attractive was far less damaging to my relationship than not getting to be sexually intimate with them. Strange, right? About four years ago I spent a night in Paris with a man I was devastatingly attracted to, and I turned down his sexual advance because I was in a monogamous relationship. This haunts me to this day. (Seriously, Mr. Fashion Photographer, if you're reading this, whatever part of the globe you're in now, come back to New York and find me already, I am not fucking kidding.) Conversely, last year I was in a nonmonogamous non-relationship, and I found myself devastatingly attracted to two other men. I slept with both of them, because it was in the rules that I got to do so, and you know what? I found myself wanting to be back with my pairbonded partner pretty quickly afterward.
Even stranger, when that pairbonded nonmonogamous non-relationship ended, I continued the affair with one of my two occasional lovers, and several months later found myself getting all pairbondy to him, only after my other primary partner was out of my life. (For like half a second until my rational mind kicked in the door like a SWAT team and informed my oxytocin-flooded brain that that was not at all a good idea.) It was like my brain wouldn't even let me pairbond with more than one partner, despite my attraction. It was actually safer to cheat than to not cheat.
I don't know, you guys. I'm not the most reputably monogamous person out there but I am at a point where I am starting to try to take my relationships a little more seriously, like maybe try to prioritize dating people who seem capable of emotional intimacy rather than people who just have a lot of tattoos. I've realized that within some of my recent involvements I have not always lobbied for my own best interests, and I've let my eternal optimism keep me at it when I should have just acknowledged a person's lack of intimacy abilities and moved on. So I'm pretty invested right now in trying to figure out what actually works.
All I do know is that something will only work if it's working for both people, so it becomes necessary not to try to fit two people into the same box, but rather to design a relationship that is tailored to the needs of both individuals. Some say that people's needs are never in conflict, only their strategies to get their needs met. Well, I think we need to address our strategies.
Because the ones society has been giving us aren't working out, and nature isn't much on our side either.