I mentioned yesterday that society puts Love into boxes and in doing so, distorts our understanding of it.
So today, with the help of Helen Fisher and her decades of anthropological study, I’ll be exploring one of love’s most widely misunderstood concepts.
A man can mate with a single woman at a time, monogyny (from the Greek mono, “one”, and gyny, “female”), or he can have several mates simultaneously, polygyny (many women). Women have two similar options; monandry (one man) or polyandry (many men).
These terms are commonly used to describe human marriage types, however, when it comes to coupling up, the correct term should actually be monogamy.
The Oxford Collins Dictionary defines it as “the condition, rule or custom of being married to only one person at a time”.
Zooologists James Wittenberger and Ronald Tilson use the term to refer to “a prolonged association and essentially exclusive mating relationship between one male and one female”.
Neither of these definitions stipulate that sexual exclusivity is a condition of monogamy, where as other dictionaries do. Merriam Webster says that “monogamy is the state or practice of having only one sexual partner at a time”.
And herein lies our misunderstanding.
In cultures all over the world, we feel it; a universal battle held within us that both denies and accepts the notion that we can pair up with one person and go to bed with another.
In our hearts and minds, monogamy is spoken of and adultery is silenced.
According to Fisher, both of these impulses are natural and they’re drives that date back to our evolutionary past. The sex drive evolved as a basic reproductive strategy and love evolved to form pair bonds that would last long enough to raise a child together.
To get your head around the subject, you first really need to think back to why sex exists in the first place.
Nobody knows how the two sexes evolved, but most are familiar with Darwin’s theory — survival of the fittest — which explains how males and females are endlessly locked in a mating dance, passing on the beat of human life.
Sex is a basic human reproductive strategy and if you have babies that have babies, you are what nature calls fit. You have passed on your genes to the next generation and in terms of survival, you have won.
So, if spreading our seed is what we’re programmed to achieve, then it makes sense that we’ll do whatever we can to make it happen – even if it means breaking hearts and breaking vows.
But on the other hand, we are also genetically programmed to fall in love, to form a deep-rooted attachment with a special other. Why? Again it comes down to survival.
After DNA propagation, the best way to survive and therefore win, is through a process referred to as kin selection. When a woman or a man spends a lifetime nurturing each other and their genetic relatives, he or she is actually helping his or her own DNA. When kin survive, you survive.
It’s a theory that we don’t need convincing of; we almost never have to be cajoled into pairs, we do it naturally. We flirt. We feel infatuation. We fall in love. We marry. And the vast majority of us only marry one person at a time.
Pair-bonding is the trademark of the human animal.
Fisher puts our misunderstanding of monogamy down to society and culture; the invention of marriage, fairy tales and romantic comedies, public shaming, penalties for infidelity and various other social norms have conditioned us to think of infertility as the ultimate sin against the sanctity of love.
But with my borderline Buddhist hat on I can’t help but think about the Ego’s role in disrupting our L word ideals.
Our egos create standards, expectations and possessions.
Applied to a relationship, a marriage or a pair bond of any kind this creates wishes and desires that more often than not can’t be fulfilled. We look for self-satisfaction in the wrong places – in others – and we brand our innate impulses for extra-marital dalliances as satanic acts of adultery.
I do wonder what would society look like if we accepted monogamy for what it really is – a deep rooted opportunistic mating strategy. What if we were happy with letting each other be almost completely faithful?
I guess there are people already trying this out with open relationships and open marriages, but then it’s questionable how well those work and how happy people in them really are.
I don’t have the answer to cure the world’s woes when it comes to monogamy and I doubt anybody else does either. But I do know that with his blunt and fact-based statement, George Peter Murdock, an anthropologist who surveyed over 259 cultures on the matter, summarises it perfectly:
“Nearly every known human society can be characterised as monogamous, despite the preference for and frequency of polygyny in the overwhelming majority”.
We love, we cheat, we stray.