Teasing out the overall divorce rate isn’t straightforward but, suffice it to say, divorce is prevalent. Despite this prevalence, having a marriage end in divorce is considered a mark of failure.
But divorce has gotten a bum rap when, if you think about it properly, it’s really marriage that’s the problem. There has to be something wrong with the institution that it fails so often.
Marriage was created by man when people weren’t particularly long-lived. Staying married until the age of, say, 30—long enough to have children and raise them to an age when they can reproduce—seems pretty easy. Since our purpose on the planet is to perpetuate the species, staying with a mate who would help raise those children was good for the offspring’s health and safety. Thus a legal binding between man and woman made sense at the time.
But now, we typically live well past the childrearing years. Mating for life can mean 50 or 60 years with the same person. A lot of people do it, but I think it’s asking a lot to expect everyone to be able to, or to want to.
I’ve given this some thought, because I’ve observed that some people seem meant to mate for life and others seem less suited to it. My theory is that the tendency is a genetic predisposition. That’s not to say that the people who aren’t genetically predisposed can’t or won’t have a lifelong marriage. Just as those who don’t have a natural talent for music can still manage to learn to play an instrument and, with enough desire and practice, play it well, people who aren’t built for lifetime monogamy can manage to play that tune.
On occasion, I meet a couple of the “mate-for-life” variety. It’s obvious they’re perfect together and perfectly content in their marriage. The people I’m referring to are not the ones who make a lot of noise about how great their marriage is. It’s not ostentatious perfection, which is often a cover for a marriage that has a lot of volatility below the surface. Instead, there is something you can almost smell on these people that says they belong together, that only death will separate them, and that they will be as in love with their mate on that last day as they were on the first.
I’m a cynic, but I believe in this.
I have an interest in evolution and biology and why we do the things we do, given that procreation is the focal point of our existence. Because of this interest, I have to wonder why it seems that some people are meant for this and some—most, actually—are not. Biology is surely a factor. The article, “The Science of Romance: Why We Love,” in Time magazine, reveals that people are attracted to and repelled by members of the opposite sex based on suitability for reproduction:
Among the constellation of genes that control the immune system are those known as the major histocompatibility complex (MHC), which influence tissue rejection. Conceive a child with a person whose MHC is too similar to your own, and the risk increases that the womb will expel the fetus. Find a partner with sufficiently different MHC, and you’re likelier to carry a baby to term.
The article goes on to explain that, in one lab study, women smelled shirts that had been worn by anonymous males. They consistently found the ones worn by men with a safe MHC to be the most desirable. (The MHC signal is also contained in saliva.)
I hate to kill the romantic notion that there’s such a thing as true love, but I imagine there is something about having two mate-for-life type people together that is good for the continued health of the species, and thus they attract each other. If we call such people Type A procreators, I’m thinking there must be something about Type A and Type A that is genetically favorable such that these people tend to find each other.
So what about the rest of us? Is it possible we’ve been fighting nature by attempting to stay married to—and have all our children with—the same spouse? If we label the non-mate-for-lifers as Type B, perhaps the Type Bs are meant to mix it up, and the hardiness of the species depends on the variety caused by multiple couplings. As far as protecting the offspring goes, that notion is nearly extinct, because women in our society are increasingly able to care for their offspring without the child’s biological father.
So how do you know if you’re a mate-for-lifer, or if you’re erroneously buying into a tradition that doesn’t apply to you? I don’t know. Maybe if I get a good whiff of you…