Of Erotic Love, Familial Love and Marriage
Some 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 were 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 was adopted but the monogamy of men was not required. Polygamy, rape and prostitution was fully acceptable behavior for men right up until the modern era. Ah, but that is a different discussion. Anthropological studies of the studies of the last hunter-gatherer tribes in the Amazon would tent to support this assertion. Most of these Amazonian tribes practiced temporary pairings of men and women until sustained contact with the outside world, Unlike permanent marriages, both partners are fee to move to a new partner any time they want. Significantly such changes did not appear to have a social stigma for either partner. Additionally, the practice of "wife stealing" from one tribal group to the next was endemic. Women of child baring age were prized and there was a constant effort to steal them to increase the number of children born into a group. Anthropologist report that this was accepted as normal by the women and upon arrival in the new tribe, they were nearly immediately treated as full members (as opposed to captured slaves).
I say this not to normalize wife stealing, but to point out that sexual monogamy as we think of it is a comparatively modern development in human civilization. The claim by many that lifelong monogamous marriage is the normal human state is utter nonsense. Even in the 21st century, the vast majority of children are taught the concept that one should be sexually active with only one person for life. When I was younger, my Christian college made much of the idea of "pair bonding." They taught the idea that humans, like a handful animal species, are genetically wired to mate for life. They simply ignore that such monogamous bonding for life is extremely rare and completely nonexistent in mammals. But to those “Christians” and great many people in our larger society, the goal in dating is to find that one person for whom you willingly "forsake all others" for life.
Contrarily to what I was taught, monogamous pair bonding is not part of human DNA, nor is it commonly part of the animal kingdom. Rather it is a recent socially constructed concept that evolved out of the concept that wives are property, and her husband, not the woman herself, has total control of her sexuality. One simply cannot separate concepts like “virginity,” “monogamy,” “sexual purity,” or “adultery” from the concept that woman are the property of men.
What is funny is that even those animal species that are held up for examples of long-term or life-long pair bonding, are not monogamous. Research testing the DNA of the offspring of these bonded pairs shows a significant percentage of the offspring are not genetically related to the male. So while they appear to be sexually exclusive, they are not.
Humans are no different. According to Kinsey and later researchers, human life-long monogamy is nearly entirely myth. The most telling new finding was found accidentally. It was when DNA paternity testing was new, and as part of the early research a team collected DNA from hundreds of nuclear family groups. What they found was in 1/3 of families where the wife claimed have been 100% monogamous, at least one child in the family did not share the husband’s DNA. Yes, one in three "monogamous" women had a child that was not the husbands. 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 didn't evolve that way.
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 were effectively communal. This is what we find in the Amazon. While pairings within the tribal group change, the child rearing and property are all communal, so it matters not whose DNA is in the child.
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 their own 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? I would say yes it could; however there is little to no chance that will happen in our lifetime or even the lifetime of our kids. Such a fundamental shift in our basic relationships would take generations to achieve. So while it might be an aspirational ideal, it is only that not a practical reality.
What would be 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 most marriages today are 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.
Next week we will have our 34th wedding anniversary, and odds are we will be married for another twenty to thirty years and age gracefully together as family unit (of course unless I kick the bucket too soon). 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. Thus non-monogamy is our path to lifelong marriage.