One of HuffPo’s most obnoxious “articles” to date – “Marriage Isn’t For You” – is the sort of self-important confessional memoir that’s clogged our discourse lately with earnest hectoring and boring personal stories. If nothing else, this essay at least serves as a cautionary tale about a particularly tedious type of binary thinking: that one way of doing things – naturally, your way of doing things – is the single right way of doing things for all of humanity.
Self-righteous religious moralists tout marriage as the end to all evils. Cynical sophisticates declare marriage to be a lie, a joke, the place setting for an inevitable betrayal (and because marriage and indeed all romantic relationships are socially constructed and doomed to failure, you’re completely innocent of any wrongdoing. It’s society, man. Not you. Society has made men into monsters and you’re just along for the monstrous ride.) Then there are the people who lack all serious conviction, but still assume that people in long-term relationships ought to get married because, well, you’ve been together for six years now, and what, you think you’re getting any younger or something?
Judging by the animal kingdom, it’s rational – but not correct – to assume there’s only one “right” kind of sexual relationship. Differences in sexual orientation aside, most animal species form only one type of sexual bond – penguins are serially monogamous, lions are polygamous, bonobos put the most hardened swingers to shame, foxes are faithful. But, while humans are animals, it’s fair to say that our cultures are more complex than animal cultures. Our neocortexes are more developed, our cultural expressions are more elaborate and more diversified – why shouldn’t our sexual preferences be more complicated as well? Is there any discoverable law of nature that declares humans must have one – and only one – natural sexual behavior?
The prevailing theory among evolutionary psychologists is that men are naturally polygamous, interested in fucking literally anything with a vagina, and women pretend to be monogamous but are actually natural schemers out to get the best semen on the market. There’s a whole lot wrong with this argument – besides the fact that it completely excludes homosexuality, as evopsych frequently does – but one of the major objections is purely logical, and has to do with the problem of human childbearing. Human childbearing sucks. It’s actually one of the easiest arguments against intelligent design – the fact that without modern medicine, human females have a high maternal mortality rate, especially as compared to other animals(1). There’s also the complete pathetic helplessness of human infants. The female hip/baby head ratio evolved only so far, and then stopped too short. (I’ve heard arguments that there are structural limits to female hips, and placentas can only last so long before degrading. There’s also the fact that humans weren’t very sanitary until recently, which further influenced maternal mortality.) Some of the earliest sculptures, like the Venus of Willendorf, depict idealized women with enormous hips and enormous breasts. These are probably fertility symbols, in part because they are also symbols of strength – the forms of women who would be most likely to survive childbirth.
The reason I bring all this up is to make an unfounded evopsych speculation of my own – that monogamy evolved as a means of providing support after childbirth. Even if women survived the birth of their children, raising the fragile little monsters has always been extremely difficult. Infant cows struggle to their adorable wobbly feet right after birth, and tag along with the herd shortly thereafter. Human infants…poop everywhere. For years. Wouldn’t it have made sense to pair-bond with one reliable man, so that he would be able to help raise and protect these relatively helpless children, especially if the woman’s death was a distinct possibility with each birth? Evo psych posits the existence of a beta male, a poor horned husband who stayed with a woman like some dickless idiot while she just swanned around vacuuming up the best semen available. But men, even without DNA tests, have sometimes been able to tell if children are theirs or not(2), and anyway cheating is always a risky proposition. Faithfulness on both sides might have ensured that a man stayed with the children, even after the mother’s death. In this way, the offspring would have been more likely to survive into adulthood(3). This argument is about as plausible as the men=sluts, women=liars argument, and has as much evidence as any evopsych argument, which is to say it’s basically just logical speculation. The reasons evolutionary psychologists haven’t really entertained this particular monogamy argument is probably that 1. it doesn’t tell men what they want to hear and 2. it posits the laughable idea that women have agency and that their needs were the primary motive for the development of a trait.
Then there’s the oft-ignored fact that survival of the fittest doesn’t mean survival of the best imaginable. The human body doesn’t need to be a perfectly designed Maserati. It can be a beat-up old Chevy, as long as it gets where it needs to go. It doesn’t even have to be one identical model, but can be a fleet of similar junky American cars. Spreading seed among many women might produce tons of children, but they would be less likely to survive into adulthood without protection. Staying with one woman might produce fewer children, but those children would likely have a higher chance of surviving. In that way it’s entirely possible that both models of human behavior – polyamory/lying, or monogamy – effectively produce healthy children, and therefore, both could be evolutionarily sound. There are probably logical evopsych arguments to be made for all sorts of sexual relationships. All roads are different, yet they all lead to Rome.
Maybe humans don’t have one fixed sexual behavior. Maybe it’s totally ok to get married or not to get married. Maybe it’s totally ok to be serially monogamous, moving on when each relationship falls apart. Maybe it’s ok to sow wild oats in your twenties and then settle down with a stable guy in your thirties. Maybe it’s ok to sow wild oats into your seventies, and die of a heart attack while happily fucking someone. Maybe it’s ok to bond romantically with two other people at once, or three, or four. Maybe no one’s relationship choices are morally better than anyone else’s (as long as all parties are consenting). Maybe it’s also fine to have children, or not to have children(4), or to adopt children, or to foster children. (It’s just not ok to eat children).
Children are the weapon of the pro-monogamy side. This side claims that a stable two-person marriage (often these same people claim it must be a two-person heterosexual marriage) is the only possible space in which to raise a good family. I’ve known families with parents who bitterly hated each other but stayed married for psychological and economic reasons. It’s not especially healthy to be raised by an unhealthy relationship. Divorce is rough on families, but that’s also a product of the difficulty of divorce. Getting a divorce is never a clean break – it takes a long time, it’s expensive, and it has socially negative associations. You’ve broken up with boyfriends in the past? No big deal, everyone’s got a history. You’re divorced? Obviously you couldn’t hack it in a marriage/you’re crazy/you’re damaged goods. This negative view of divorce affects both male and female divorcees, and it has a lot to do with the unfairly positive view we have of marriage.
Boring personal story alert: I’m married. The economic benefits are honestly pretty sweet – tax breaks, plus I was able to get on my husband’s health insurance when my new job didn’t offer it. Then there are the social benefits – often, other women regard me as someone who Has Made It. I say “My husband – ” and the respectful look on their faces tells me that I’ve managed to accomplish the thing that even in the 21st century, women have been indoctrinated to believe is necessary – I’ve snagged a husband. (What about grabbing a husband, stealing a husband, pirating a husband, embezzling a husband, grand-theft-autoing a husband?) Some people do look at me with a puzzled expression - especially because I married relatively young – which suggests “you must be religious, and/or naive.” All of this happens because our society says Marriage is A Moral Good, and offers the tax breaks to prove it(5).
As a happily married person, I should be telling you that marriage is the tits, and everyone should get married, and why aren’t you married yet, and do you think it’s your body or maybe the way you present yourself? and etc etc. Obviously I should defend my personal choices to the death, lest I be seen as somehow defensive about them. Why do people find it so necessary to declare that their choices are the correct ones for everyone? I think it’s partly an instance of the way capitalism has crept into our daily lives (6), insinuating itself into the attics and crawl-spaces of our minds(7). Monogamy is the product I’ve chosen, therefore I must become an evangelist of monogamy, as the world’s most annoying people have become evangelists of Apple(8). Other people, having chosen polygamy/polyamory/joyfully slutting about, evangelize their way of life, calling married couples boring or deluded. Vanilla people cry “ew!” at the kinksters. “Lame!” the kinksters shout back. Politicians rail against single mothers who dare to be serially monogamous while raising children with the help of relatives. Can’t they see that relationships are between a man and the mother of his children, and also between that same man and his mistress on the side? Can’t you see that my way of doing things is right? BUY MY PRODUCT!
Don’t buy my product. Don’t get married, unless you want to.
(Also, don’t take the current flavor of evolutionary psychology too seriously. It’s not especially rigorous and it operates on a lot of unfounded assumptions. I think it’s bound to improve in the next 10-20 years.)
(1) If you started to say “But Eve – ” slap yourself. Do it.
(2) There is an evopsych argument that says male fidelity evolved because men would kill babies otherwise.
(3) There’s an argument that homosexuality may have evolved as a means of caring for orphaned/abandoned children, or providing additional support within families devastated by disease or death in childbirth. Evolution, after all, is about the survival of individual genes, not an individual’s genes. Your siblings’ children carry a lot of your DNA. Maybe, instead of thinking about evolution as survival of the fittest individual, it would be best to thing about it as survival of the fittest small social unit – the family, the clan, the tribe.
(4) I’ll pass on my genes as soon as they come up with a plan to pay the gene-spawn’s college tuition.
(5) Even though they benefit me, I agree that we should end these tax breaks along with all the other economic benefits of marriage, because it unfairly situates monogamy above other types of relationships.
(6) Capitalism also inserted itself into evolutionary theory from the first. Darwin, a good Victorian gentlemen, just so happened to come up with a theory that justified competition at the same moment that Victorians were feeling uneasy about the toll that competition was taking on their society. This isn’t to say that the theory of evolution is wrong in any sense, but Darwin’s interpretation of his finches was colored by his cultural milieu. He interpreted survival of the fittest as the striving of individual against individual, a very Victorian notion, where someone from another culture might have drawn different conclusions entirely – like survival of the fittest meaning the survival of the small social unit, or of a larger society.
(7) Declaring “my way of doing things is better than yours” is older than capitalism, but that’s usually about the values of one social group versus another social group, whereas most of these get married/don’t get married/have babies/don’t have babies essays are written by white Westerners lecturing a presumed audience of other white Westerners.
(8) “But but -” Stop. This is you. Stop.