The Gene Pool
Statistically, men are more likely to be unfaithful to their spouses than women are, though married women’s track record is far from squeaky-clean overall. Some evolutionary psychologists claim people simply can’t help cheating, citing the notion that both males and females are biologically programmed to want to spread their genes to as many partners as possible. A 2008 study authored by University of Arizona geneticist Michael Hammer concluded that not monogamy but polygyny—a practice in which certain males take control of reproduction by impregnating numerous women—was the dominant form of mating for much of human civilization’s history. This method served both men’s and women’s deep-seated biological needs: it allowed men to fulfill their innate desire to spread their genes through sperm dissemination, and, because polygyny meant fewer men were fathering children with more women, it enabled the mothers to propagate more of their genes to their offspring.
Though monogamy may be the norm nowadays, Hammer’s study cast it as anathema to humans’ biological history—and inspired psychologist David Barash, of the University of Washington, to describe it as “a recently inspired cultural add-on.”
For Better or for Worse?
Meanwhile, back in the land of marriage, the case for social monogamy isn’t looking too strong there, either—at least, not as far as men are concerned. In 2003, researchers from the University of London examined a British Household Panel Survey of more than four thousand people to compare men’s and women’s mental health in different types of romantic relationships. The bad news for all you ladies hoping to get hitched? Men are happiest when they never get married; instead, they prefer to be shorter-term serial monogamists, involved in a succession of relationships but always stopping short of popping the question. In stark contrast, women who had had several partners and split from them were the least happy of all the female subjects in the study, while the ones who married their first love were the most emotionally fulfilled.
Nonetheless, the vast majority of men do get married at some point in their lives, but even the most initially contented ones sometimes go on to deviate from long-term social monogamy in response to traumatic incidents that lead them to seek out casual sexual dalliances as an escape from their everyday cares. As Frank Pittman pointed out in a Psychology Today article entitled “Beyond Betrayal,” people are “most likely to get into these romantic affairs at the turning points of life: when their parents die or their children grow up; when they suffer health crises or are under pressure to give up an addiction; when they achieve an unexpected level of job success or job failure; or when their first child is born—any situation in which they must face a lot of reality and grow up.”
So Why Commit?
Some scientists believe that children’s well-being is primarily what spurs men’s and women’s continued efforts to sustain their partnerships, despite the signs that they’re not meant to pursue long-term monogamous relationships. Jane Lancaster, a University of New Mexico anthropologist, explained to LiveScience.com that “the human species has evolved to make commitments between males and females in regards to raising their offspring,” though she qualified that remark by saying, “However, that bond can fit into all kinds of marriage patterns—polygyny, single parenthood, monogamy.” The dominant paradigm of modern society remains “married with children” for the moment, but at some point in the future, humans just might allow what appear to be their deep-rooted biological and psychological tendencies toward multiple partners to dictate new social conventions. As the mighty Tina Turner once sang, “What’s love got to do with it?”
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