For much of humanity's recent history, marriage was less about love and more about economics and reproduction. Your ancestors likely subscribed to some very unromantic notions: arranged marriage, an adultery double-standard, even the oath to "obey" one's husband. Though many cultures and individuals still practice these traditions, over the past 100 years, they have given up significant ground to a new way of living and loving: hooking up, shacking up, same-sex marriage, childfree marriage, open marriage, and more. Though some decry this brave new world, according to Dr. Helen Fisher, there's nothing new about about. She asserts that "traditional marriage"—generally between an older man and a younger virginal woman, with a power dynamic to match—came about only when human beings developed agriculture. Before that, when we were hunter-gatherers, love was free.
Fisher points to peer marriage as a perfect example. For the past few thousand years, wealth was generally concentrated in the hands of men. These men would marry young women whose primary role would then be raising children and tending the home—they had little to no economic power of their own. But over the past century, as women have begun to enjoy economic power of their own in many parts of the world, marriages have become contracts between equals. Fisher asserts this is another return to our past: in hunter-gatherer societies, women would be responsible for gathering around 50 percent of the evening meal. In other words, our distant ancestors were dual-income families, too.
The changing face of love will affect all aspects of society and inspire the inevitable pushback from tradition-minded social institutions. As scientific research continues to challenge our ideas of true love—as in, for example, an increased understanding of the effect brain chemistry has on our feelings of passion and attachment toward our partners—we will have to reevaluate many dear romantic notions. What was once love-honor-and-obey, til-death-do-us-part may have to expand and change. As far as Fisher is concerned, this can only be a good thing.
We are living in a sea of social and technological currents that are likely to reshape our family lives. But much will remain the same. To bond is human. The drives to fall in love and form an attachment to a mate are deeply embedded in the human brain. Indeed, in a study I just completed on 2,171 individuals (1,198 men, 973 women) at the Internet dating site Chemistry.com, 84% of participants said they wanted to marry at some point. They will. Today, 84% of Americans wed by age 40—albeit making different kinds of marriages. Moreover, with the expansion of the roles of both women and men, with the new medical aids to sex and romance (such as Viagra and estrogen replacement), with our longer life spans, and with the growing social acceptance of alternative ways to bond, I believe we now have the time and tools to make more-fulfilling partnerships than at any time in human evolution. The time to love is now.
photo by andrew morrell