Social anthropologist contend that humans, prior to the advent of sustained agriculture (about 6,000 years ago), had not conceived of the idea of monogamy. Rather they suggest that sexual relations was in a tribal-Polyamorous type arrangement so as to allow for both genetic variety and for a lifelong communal bond that was both familial and erotic. It was only with the advent of agriculture and ownership of land that men began to be concerned about the paternity of “their” children, and the rise of monogamy….. sort of. Monogamy of women, yes, monogamy of men was not required. Polygamy, rape and prostitution was fully acceptable behavior for men. Ah, but that is a different discussion.
What I wanted to discuss was the concept that one is or should be sexually active with only one person for life is not part of human DNA, it is a rather recent social function. Further, according to Kinsey and later researchers, human life-long monogamy is nearly entirely myth. The most telling new finding was actually an accidental finding. It was when DNA paternity testing was new, and as part of the early research they collected DNA from hundreds of nuclear family groups. What they found was in 1/3 of families whom the wife claimed had been 100% monogamous, that at least one child in the family did not share the husband’s DNA. The old joke that one kid looks more like the mail man than dad is more true than anyone realized. The simple fact is that only a tiny minority of couples actually are 100% monogamous. And if you include the prevalence of premarital sex, (again Kinsey found far fewer women had not been sexually active before marriage than was previously believed) the number of people with only one sexual partner for life is very small indeed. Humans just aren’t evolved for that.
But does that mean marriage is problematic? Should we decry marriage as an impediment to human happiness? I suggest no. For even our hunter-gatherer ancestors lived in family groups. Not simple father-mother-children groups but in groups of a few dozens were the property, children and sexual contact was communal. What is significant is that that their survival depended on complete commitment to the group for life. The commune movement of the early 1970’s failed when the men who impregnated the women did not stay around to raise the children for life. Why? Because we are not hunter-gatherers and the men had no intrinsic need to care for the women and children for survival as did their ancestors.
So, is group marriage the answer? Would group marriage with all the legal protections and obligations as individual couple marriages solve the problem? Maybe, but I don’t’ see that happening anytime soon.
What is more practical is to acknowledge the difference between erotic love and familial love. Though most marriages begin based on erotic love, the reality is that that “in love” high rarely lasts more than two to three years. What replaces that hot, passionate erotic love in successful long term marriages is the growth of familial love . This familial love is not too unlike the love one has for parents or children. It does not excluded bouts of erotic love but does not depend on it. Why? Because life happens. Child rearing, financial struggles, chronic illness, disability and eventually old age crush the hot burning sexual love on which the marriage was founded. This is why we find live-in relationships change and sometimes fall apart shortly after marriage. It is familial love that survives when one’s body is no longer capable of erotic love and none of us know what might happen to impair our ability to maintain erotic love until next week, let alone next decade.
So, what of erotic love? Clearly we as humans crave it (some to higher degrees than others), so what should be done. I am quite convinced the solution is to openly and practically separate the two loves and their attendant behavior. If we would stop expecting that our marriages will be the sole venue of erotic love in our partner’s life, we will resolve a host of problems. When my wife has a lover, it does not diminish her familial love for me one bit. I’m not just speaking of the sex itself, but the romantic relationship as well. In my wife’s life, she has actually had romantic relationships that did not become sexual and sexual relationships that did not become romantic. I have no reason to begrudge her either. They make her happy. Since I love her, I want her happiness. There is no substitute for new erotic love. No high quite like it. She gets personal fulfillment in relationships that I get out of academic and professional work. She doesn’t begrudge my happiness in those things that make me happy and I don’t begrudge her loves and lovers.
In the end, we will be married for another 26 years and age gracefully together as family. And that is what I want, that is what my wife wants, that is what our kids and (when we have them) our grand kids will want.
Originally written and posted Jan 22, 2012 on my Tumblr blog