My mother has been married three times; every time it has ended badly. I have seen her move repeatedly through stages that are now predictable to me: from excitement and giddiness at meeting someone new, to the desire to be free of a life that restricts her movements like a too-tight skirt. She is now beginning yet another new relationship, and I wonder at the instinct that draws her to this: how the promise of another chance has her enthralled, drawn moth-like to its flame.
Lifelong pair-bonding is uncommon among non-human animals, but it does occur. It is practiced by many kinds of creatures, from seahorses and spiny mice to wolves and whistling ducks. Monogamy evolved as a reproductive strategy because it helps to ensure the survival of babies to adulthood; the female can care for her young more effectively if she has the male’s assistance, ensuring the continuation of both parents’ genes. However, the restriction to a single mate prevents promiscuity (which has its own reproductive advantages) and, in humans at least, obligatory monogamy can lead to boredom and bitterness.
We would like to imagine that our complex culture makes us immune to the dictates of biology, but we are not as civilized as all that. Nearly all of us will marry at some point, even those who do not plan to have children (like myself) and those who are past the age of reproductive possibility (like my mother). For many years, homosexuals have been fighting for the right to marry as well; while some of these people plan to adopt children, most simply want their bond to be recognized. But, if marriage is not related to reproduction, it leaves one to wonder why it still exists at all.
The man I love is tall, lean, and always occupied. Even sitting still, he works ceaselessly on projects in his mind. I have the same busy brain; this connects us. We understand each other’s inability to be idle, and it is a relief not to have to explain it. There is more: he makes me laugh, and he is kind. The rest is inexplicable and nebulous: it is merely that I love him. We share a house and a dog, and there is a quiet and constant happiness to our days. It is an informal arrangement, but I can no longer imagine an end to our union. Still, I wish to declare it permanent somehow. I cannot explain why. He wishes to avoid any such confinement, and so we are stuck.
In the absence of any reproductive motive, why marry at all? Why voluntarily restrict future options? It seems to make more sense to stay with each person as long as you are happy there, and then to effortlessly move on when things get dull or unpleasant.
Still, some inexplicable instinct ensures that the desire to marry endures, although many of the marriages themselves may not.
In November 1998, researchers at Cornell University reported that humans are biologically programmed to stay in love (that is, to produce the heady infatuation chemicals dopamine, oxytocin and phenylethylamine) for a period of only 18 to 30 months at the beginning of a new relationship: just long enough for the conception and birth of children. After that, apparently only genuine affection, inertia, good sex or social conventions will keep a couple together, because the chemical effects of the hormones will wear off. Only a new mate can inspire those feelings again. Why, then, do we continue to marry, to appoint ourselves to a task that is so difficult? Which is stronger, the instinct to form a lifetime pair-bond, or the instinct for promiscuity?
Just a century ago the social taboo against divorce was strong enough to keep families together, but in recent generations hedonism has become the rule: if you aren’t happy, your friends will recommend that you simply walk away. It is called “?liberation’, but to me it looks like slavery to the biochemistry of those love hormones. It seems like doom: if you leave when there is a hiccup, when the bliss disappears for a time, you will be forever leaving.
The Cornell report tells of Emperor penguins, who generally mate for life; the pairs live separately but get together for two months each year to breed and incubate their eggs. The female has only so much patience, however, and woe betide the male that tests her limits. After their ten-month separation, the female arrives at a prearranged meeting place and waits for the male to show up. If he isn’t there within twenty-four hours, she moves on and finds a new mate. That seems an inexplicably harsh expectation for a creature with no access to a calendar, but she is strict about violations. Her commitment to this male may be strong, but it has clearly-defined limits.
I, unmarried still at almost-thirty, have begun to experience the pull towards marriage and am stunned by its power. I know now what brings my mother back, over and over, to an arrangement that always leaves her wretched. Explaining the appeal of pledging one’s eternal troth is impossible; the desire to do so is as primal as anything I have felt.
A man in Egypt claims that he has been married to a total of 203 women in his life (so far). Seventy-eight-year-old Mustafa Semeda says that he has fathered only three children as a result of these unions, and that in the wake of his most recent divorce, he is once again “?looking for love’.
Cornell University, (July 30, 1999). A Tough Year For Monogamy. Environmental News Network. Website:
Heather Wrigley recently abandoned a safe, but dull, Human Resources career to finish her Athabasca University B.Sc. in Human Science. When she’s not studying, she volunteers at the local Children’s Hospital and at the Women’s Health Centre. She also loves to garden, bike, drum, fish, read, and take long walks with her Border Terrier. She lives in Calgary.