Humans are funny animals aren’t we. Lets look at relationships.
We all want to connect, to be with someone, someone in our life at whatever a relationship means to the individual. Some only want someone for the occasional hang out or friendship or maybe just a sex partner. Others want someone for everything to share hobbies, holidays, work, sex, family/friends, everything! But I think it is a very rare individual that is truly happy to be always alone and to live in isolation as is shown by the fact that the ultimate form of punishment is solitary confinement. I feel that people who genuinely enjoy their own company and aren’t retreating from some pain or suffering still enjoy friendships and the interaction of society. There may be exceptions but I have yet to meet one and if they are out there I’m sure they are extremely rare.
Considering how much we yearn to form community and want to be with others, the amount of effort we put into finding someone special, a soulmate it’s interesting how poorly we do it. Our communities breakdown into tribal conflict and our personal relationships breakdown after a time despite our expectations that they are to remain forever. We want it, we crave it, we have the drive and the systems, biologically and intellectually to connect but we don’t seem to have the mechanism to make it work forever. There seems to be some conflict between expectations and outcome!
Now I must come clean… Yes, I’m also talking about myself. I’ve done the euphoria, the first flush of relationships, I’ve been well and truly beaten with the smitten stick a few times and it feels great. I’ve moved into the relationship with the expectation that it will last forever, to be two elderly people holding hands in the street going through life together. I’ve also had the disappointment pain and hurt as the relationships have ended and dealt with being divorced and a single parent. So I know what it is like and I still want to connect with others.
The problem I feel isn’t that we want relationships, that’s fine. The problem isn’t that relationships end either. The problem stems from the conflict that we feel that relationships should form and not end. Why shouldn’t they end? Maybe having a relationship end is a good thing, an opportunity for something new.
I can hear you… “NOOOO….”
Why do we form relationships? We have a yearning for companionship, sure. We have a biological urge to procreate, sure. We want to form an alliance for strength and power, sometimes that occurs also.
Here in the West we have a divorce rate of between 40% and 60% and I often notice of the remainder the vast majority of relationships are challenging and definitely not what they would call ideal so the percentage of relationships that are as the individuals had hoped for is probably in the single figures. Cast your mind over all of the relationships that you know and consider how many are wonderful and fully functional, even then are you sure, as we have all seen the perfect couple separate.
If you were about to get on a plane or boat and you knew that your chance of surviving unscathed was five or ten percent would you board? These are our odds as we go blindly into marriage wishing that we will be different. Remember research shows that the stress of divorce is similar to that of someone close dying.
So my thought is to take from the old saying “it better to love and lose than never to love at all”.
Considering the odds we would be better off assuming that relationships will end and to enjoy the ride on the way, embracing every moment, as we can’t assume that things will last as ultimately they won’t. After all it will change and it will end, it’s either separation or death we just don’t want to think about it. So get over it and get on with it, unless you want to be by yourself and miserable.
But this isn’t the way we are told it’s supposed to be. Find your soulmate, fall in love, marriage, kids, house and they live happily ever after. Right! Sorry, maybe for the rare few but generally it doesn’t seem to work like that.
Lets go back a few hundred thousand years or so when the human animal is walking around the savanna of ancient Africa. We are living in a small tribe of ten to fifty individuals. Many of us are interrelated, occasionally someone new joins to add to the mix. One day two people look across the camp fire and something stirs in them. Attraction is there, the primal urge says to each that this would make a good combination for children and after some negotiation it’s on and we have a new member of the tribe. The mother along with the rest of the tribe raises the child and the father is there as support doing the provider thing for the tribe and offspring but able to drift about. The mother is basically bound to the child from conception till about four when it is independent enough to support itself somewhat. Sometime during this due to the pressures of the practical life attention moves away from the partner and others are noticed, attraction kicks in again and a new coupling is formed and the cycle starts again. One woman has mixed her genes with a few men and one man has mixed his with multiple women but they are still within the one tribe so they are still around all raising the children providing for the group and living within one large multiple person marriage called a Tribe.
Now if this situation is correct it lasted for a long time and would have been successful or else some thing like monogamy would have come along. But monogamy has come along! No, looking at the mix of human genetics it’s been stated that one in ten people send a fathers day card to the wrong person and that is the way it has been for all of human history! Monogamy is a myth and we’re not designed for it. In the Selfish Gene Richard Dawkins lays out his argument that it is not even about creating new people but about replicating genes and that it’s all about gene mixing, so one partner is not as efficient as multiple partners for gene mixing.
So why don’t we just go at it like rabbits with everyone and spread our genes wider than we do. Why do we want to form relationships and communities as we do?
Power and survival is why. A group is stronger than an individual and resources can be shared more efficiently. No one person has to do everything as there are others to do for them through the group as they also do. Within a partnership a stronger bond is formed to aid coupling, child bearing and rearing but after a few years the partner bond is less important as the tribe takes over the role as the child integrates into the tribe then the individuals move their attraction to someone new.
In our traditional Western Society we see this. They meet, hook up, fall in love and marry. That takes a year or two. A child is conceived and raised to about four. Then things get rocky start to break down and the couple separates. About seven years give or take a few. Ever heard of the seven year itch? Maybe philandering is more natural than we think.
A lot of people don’t separate, or play up, sure but are they still completely in the relationship like they were in those wonderfully heady early years? Mostly no.
So why stay together? For the same reasons as before Power and Survival because we don’t have the tribe to support us now. A couple no matter how dysfunctional the relationship is, has some strengths of support and assistance that an individual doesn’t have in the raising of the child and maintaining the survival of the genes.
People have known this for a long time. Until the mid 1700’s only the nobles in Europe were married and it wasn’t the necessary thing for the lower classes to do. Even then it wasn’t about love it was about power and prestige. Couples weren’t married, families were Wed. Couples/Families wed together to consolidate estates, form alliances and build power bases. Once a couple of children had been produced and the linage of the power secured the couple went their own way with matters of the heart and had affairs, lovers, concubines and all matter of flings. This still happens today. Look at the British Royals for a case in point.
Many cultures have arranged marriages and many of them last a long time as they know the rules, that it isn’t about love but about the big picture of survival of the group. Where arranged marriages are frowned on as in the West, where we have the utopian picture of love based marriage it still happens, just more subtle as often people are introduced within ethnic, family or social groups and it is only the illusion of freedom to find love but the restriction is to find it within the specific grouping. So the power remains local.
So the 50’s dream of the nuclear family was always doomed but we expect it to survive only because we have such a short life-span and limited history that comes with it. If only we were to look at the longer human history instead of just a couple of generations as we have seen things are different. We have been sold the story to such an extent that we believe it. I’m not sure why we were spun this story but I’m sure it’s something to do with keeping us working and consuming for the system as we know it to work. I’ll get back to you about that one.
So marriage doesn’t work, not even monogamy, what then? Lets look at what we are already doing.
We find, love, connect, separate… then we find, love, connect, separate… then we find, love, connect, separate. Well this is called serial monogamy. One committed relationship until completion then move onto another. That’s what most people have done, not just with multiple marriages but the relationships before settling into the supposed permanent relationship.
It starts with dating in the teen years where it’s seen as ok to cruise through a few relationships, not too many, then to settle on The One. Fancy that, we expect to have half a dozen immature relationships then miraculously find our soulmate and be content with that for the next sixty years. Not really surprising that it’s rarely achieved. However maybe the way in which we date is the practice for the way that we are supposed to do it. The way we start in our youth is the way of the human relationship dynamic, to hook up and then move. We practice with dating then we mature to more substantial relationships but ultimately there is a use by date and we move on. So lets just admit it, that’s what we all do!
It’s the belief that it is wrong to relate like this and the hope that the latest relationship is the one that will last, despite the evidence, that keeps us behaving like this. I think serial monogamy is completely functional if both parties accept that it is like this and accept that things will change and then when it does it will be time to move on to a new relationship. By going in with your eyes open the devastation of the separation won’t eventuate as it’s always expected and the appreciation of spending what time you have together is increased as you are aware that the end is inevitable.
With a mature attitude this news is only good and the relationship is enjoyed fully in the moment and the suffering of the separation is diminished and maybe in parting a permanent long term new form of relationship is formed. With this completed and all accepting the situation all move on and if all stay connected harmoniously the tribe is supported and the circle of participants grow. Giving support and power to the group, for the good of all.