There are few topics capable of generating debate as passionate as the one arising from the question of fidelity and human monogamy.
From tabloids to credible research articles, the question whether or not humans are hard-wired for monogamy is certain to attract large audience with very different and often opposing views.
Despite, or because of, the world overloaded with temptations, the topic has seen some renewed interest recently. On top of the over-supply of readily available sex in every form imaginable or sometimes even unimaginable, as the human life expectancy continuous to extend, vowing to stay true’ till death us do part’, seems like an impossibly long-term pledge; which may account for the upward trend of later life – ‘silver splitter’ divorce.
French, who are famously accommodating to all matters of heart, took rather dim view of their presidents widely publicized l’affaire de coeur. The rest of Europe seems to agree even though the concept of high-power men keeping mistresses and often having a second family alongside their official marriages has long been part of European milieu.
Keeping in step with the rest of the world; New Zealanders recently discovered home-grown variety of not-officially-sanctioned love, (some more romantic souls like to call it ‘forbidden love’). The major of our biggest city suffered all manners of public lashing for having an affair with much younger woman.
In the same time South African president Jacob Zuma has four wives and 20 children, while one Nigerian preacher is said to have 86 wives. Clearly, preaching does not seem to be as demanding as one might think -:)! Chinese emperors however use to complain of their relentless sexual duties!
So, why such vast differences? Is human monogamy really an enduring puzzle?
Serious scientists tell us that, while we share the same evolutionary tree as chimps that are notoriously promiscuous, it is our instinctive drive to bond in pairs that may be at the very heart of what makes us human. In his book, ‘The Red Queen; Sex and the Evolution of Human Nature’, scientist Matt Ridley describes the human mating system as ‘monogamy plagued by adultery’.
Figures show that 89 per cent of the world’s people married before the age of 49 and, even in polygamous societies, most stick to a single spouse. ‘It is our usual monogamy, not our occasional polygamy, that sets us apart from other mammals’, says Ridley.
In order to answer long standing question -why do some species mate for life rather than cluster-bombing multiple partners to more effectively spread their DNA – theories of the evolution of monogamy have been systematically tested by tracing social behaviour through time. The results are rather interesting.
UK based research team concluded that species with high levels of infanticide were much more likely to make a shift to pair bonding, which meant dads were more inclined to stick around home and protect their young from being killed by rival males. Researches in USA however concluded that monogamy evolved when females spread out over a wider territory, making it hard for males to guard more than one mate.
What both research teams agree is that the emergence of pair bonding was a major transition that dramatically altered the evolutionary trajectory of our species. Without monogamy as a centrepiece for a family unit humans could not have developed the way we have.
Still there is also agreement that if a short-term sex is available, men in particular will be inclined to be tempted. Which is just as part of human nature as are desires and drives to find lifelong partner and soul mate.
And this is where the whole issue of human monogamy becomes little bit more complex. Because, unlike most other species, human mating systems are highly variable, and highly culturally determined. Another unusual aspect of human behaviour compared to other species is that we are constantly re-evaluating our partners and whether they make us happy.
Still, even when we leave one unsatisfactory relationship, it is often to partner up long-term with someone else. All of which suggests that most of us are looking for romantic love, which by its very nature is a commitment device that pushes us towards monogamy rather than towards having multiple partners. Conclusion that renders pop-psychology books such as ‘Sex at Dawn’ rather implausible in its claim that monogamy is an artificial construct that’s crushed our natural urges.
However, apart from polygamous societies, ever since the term ‘polyamory’ has been added to the Oxford English Dictionary some seven or so years ago, polyamory has been described as an alternative model for ordinary couples who don’t want to break up their families to have more than one intimate, loving relationship at a time. In 2009 it was described as a ‘thriving phenomenon’ as it was estimated that more half a million relationship in the USA were openly polyamorous.
Modern couples are no longer forced to marry or stay married for either economic, dynastic, religious, or any other reason, as it was the case for centuries, or even to raise children, have sex, or co-habit. As a result they are free to negotiate their own terms and definitions of ‘fidelity’.
For some that means polyamory which comes in various constellations; the trio might be in ‘triad’, and there are also ‘quads’ or ‘pods’ which are often based on ‘polyfidelity’ (no sex with outsiders). All of which indicates that polyamory requires absolute honesty and clear agreements around physical contact, acceptable boundaries and how couples share their time so that the ‘primary partner’ and ‘other significant other’ or OSO get along and don’t get hurt. Which of course raises a question of jealousy, in itself very powerful emotion. People who consider themselves poly say that they learned to overcome it. To that end Esther Perel in ‘Mating in Captivity’ explains that the ‘presence of the third’ can help ‘reconcile the domestic with the erotic’, since ‘in monogamy, you have to negotiate monotony. In polyamory, you have to negotiate jealousy, Pick you evil.’
Be that as it may, the fact remains that polyamory, just like monogamy, is based on the mutual love and respect for all involved, with the obvious difference that those in polyamory constellations adopted and agreed on modus operandi that involves as many people as they can fit into their hearts. The bigger the heart the more considerations is required to maintain those delicate balances.
All of which is quite different from what is commonly known as ‘affairs’ of which secrecy is the first and the most important ingredient.
Although secret extramarital affairs are most certainly not a new phenomenon, advent of internet has given it the whole new life. Never before have we seen proliferation of internet dating sites specifically designed for those seeking affairs. Ashely Madison’s marketing pitch – ‘Life is short. Have an affair!’ has seen explosion of some 15 million members across 25 countries, including New Zealand, making it a highly profitable enterprise!
Catching on this very lucrative trade in betrayal, ‘Have An Affair’ site has sprung up from Auckland couple of years ago attracting up to a thousand sign –ups a day. Almost all members looking for ‘something casual’ or NSA (no strings attached sex). Since then number of copy-cat sites have been created, some targeting more isolated rural communities of South Island, or even attempting to create hybrid service whereby ordinary women alongside usually retired call girls offer ‘companionship/sex’ services for a set fee in complete discretion.
As always – there is no shortage of takers when money is to be made from any form of human misery, be it loneliness due to isolation, illness, age, or from those who simply seek thrill that accompanies clandestine liaisons!
So where does all this leaves us some seven million years after hominids branched off from our common ancestor?
After all has been said and done, the hard facts and figures clearly indicate that even in Western countries with easy divorce cultures, most people stay married for life because our evolutionary ‘software’ continue to encourage us to settle down and develop long-term intimate relationships because this is what we have evolved to do.
The fact that some of us prefer more than one loving, committed partnership at the time within the full knowledge of all concerned, while others seek thrill and excitement of discreet affairs or NSA, simply confirms those findings.