Marriage secrets

The pair-bond is not male monopoly but a ‘guarding’ service to the female, and a shackle not on the woman but on the man.

[dropcap]I[/dropcap]t’s always been assumed that marriage – the cultural ‘encoding’ of an underlying evolved universal facility to pair-bond that underpins any form of non-casual sexual partnership (and not just in humans but generically across nature) – is all about the male securing control over a female’s reproduction; her fertility. Supposedly, the woman is shackled from having sex with other men, providing the husband with a reasonable guarantee than any children are his.

So much for assumption: it’s false. ‘Marriage’ is now being revealed actually to be much more in line with how men have suspected it really works all along.

There would seem to be two complementary aspects underpinning the human pair-bond. First, there is male mate-guarding (to use the biological term). Male mate-guarding is not to keep the female on a tight leash; at least not for the male’s benefit. If functions instead as a service to the female: to keep away ‘losers’. It hardly can be as usually conceived, given that a female has little problem having sex outside the partnership with a male of her choosing when she really wants to.

The problem for the female is that she has no such desire at all for most males; quite the reverse. Yet these much more numerous and lowly males, in being obliged to play a more long-shot game, are the ones most likely to try their luck. In the human case, it’s not that a woman needs a ‘bodyguard’ to ward off rape; though it may be that she could be cajoled into having sex. Perhaps most importantly, even in entirely unproductive courtship the attentions of ‘undesirables’ can displace any interest from the minority of men with whom the woman might be up for a fling, and can stop her spreading her wings to cross their paths.

Reinforcing this is the second aspect of human pair-bonding, which likewise is a service to the woman, and is in effect a shackle for the man. This stems from the obvious fact that attractiveness (mate-value) moves in radically different directions over time according to sex. For a male, his complement of ‘good genes’ takes time to play out to manifest in his status (rank in dominance hierarchies signifying mate-value).

Male status usually increases with age, and often markedly so. For the great majority, at worst it flat-lines, albeit for an unlucky few it falls. By contrast, for women, with their mate-value being in terms of fertility, as indicated by youth and beauty; the trajectory is ever downward, and quite steeply so – and compounding the effects of age is the impact of childbirth. This major divergence in life history in terms of attractiveness according to sex – with the male an appreciating asset and the female a depreciating one — in itself provides a basis for pair-bonding in the female interest.

If, when very young (at or near the peak of fertility shortly after puberty), a woman can pin down a male of the sort of mate-value she can acquire through the youth and beauty that at that time she possesses, then she can have successive children with the same complement of ‘good genes’ each time. She can, in effect, project forward in time her peak of fertility.

If instead she simply reproduces through casual sex with a string of men, then she will have children with a progressively poorer set of ‘good genes’ as the attractiveness of the men she is able to acquire falls with her advancing years. In this light, sense is made of the conclusion by Helen Fisher, the leading academic expert on sexual love, that the human pair-bond typically is short-lived, with a peak in divorce after just four years of marriage.

bizarre wedding cakeFactoring-in time-to-conception, gestation and lactation time, ancestrally four years would have been a rough minimum to ensure that a subsequent (second) child is conceived by the same father. [Evolution unsurprisingly has not provided a longer baseline duration, given other forms of affiliation naturally kicking in – a post-romantic mutual regard, and not least a mutual affection for offspring – and extended family contexts further binding the couple to stay together (through inertia if for no more positive reason).]

With this fuller picture of the pair-bond we can see that the reason a woman assumes the man’s surname upon marriage is not as an expression of the man’s possession of her, but in effect of the woman’s possession of him; as well as being an expression of the ‘protection’ the man provides for her from unwanted sexual advances (which rather than obstructing the woman’s access to extra-pair sex, if anything is facilitative in the case of partners the woman desires).

What a woman needs is a man who, on the one hand, is sufficiently attractive to her (that is, he possesses enough ‘good genes’), and, on the other hand, can show a clear willingness to reliably stay by her, not only to act as a guard to fend off ‘undesirables’ but also to simply stay there as her fertility declines.

The combination is the optimum arrangement. It’s a mutual bargain in that the man correspondingly gets a good deal for himself in that his offer of a reliable ‘guarding’ service partially offsets any relative lack of his attractiveness to her. He thereby obtains as a pair-bond partner a sexier – more fertile – woman than any of the women he might acquire for casual sex.

But what about paternity confidence: the assumed raison d’être of pairing up? The argument that the male needs to be sure the kids are his, stems from the investment the male supposedly places in his offspring. Yet the male provisioning model has not been in a good way ever since it was found that male hunters in hunter-gatherer societies more or less share their food across the group rather than favoring their own families (but note ‘cultural anthropology’ as a discipline is biased against a male-provisioning model, so you have to take these clams with a pinch of salt).

Then came Helen Fisher’s above-cited ‘four-year itch’. With regular sex taking on average about six months to achieve conception, plus nine months gestation, then the child would be aged just two – and, ancestrally, the mother would still be lactating – before typically the father’s no longer around. This hardly leaves the child old enough or the mother independent enough if having father around is the name of the game. [There would be female relatives close at hand to give support, of course; and note that I’m talking about the evolved underpinnings of the family here, and not what may have subsequently evolved in terms of male provisioning and a distinct role for the father.]

The model has since come down with a terminal illness after recent major research reviewing the basis of pair-bonding. It is now shown that male provisioning post-dated the evolution of the pair-bond (Bernard Chapais*), which arose not through any need to provision but to maximise the female’s (rather than the male’s) fertility (Jeffrey Winking**) – think quantity rather than quality of offspring. Winking does not explain how males contribute in this regard, but Chapais surely supplies the answer in his conclusion that mate-guarding is the key; albeit that he’s considering it in the male-proprietorial sense, despite researchers of mating behaviour in all sorts of species being nonplussed as to why it is that pair-bonding does not prevent the female choosing to have extra-pair sex.

This is where I came in. Flip the understanding of what actually is male mate-guarding, and all fits neatly into place; especially reinforced by the sex-dichotomous trajectory of mate-value.

An understanding of pair-bonding as a combination of ‘guarding’ the woman from undesirables and compensating her for her falling mate-value, and that it is not about resourcing, nests inside a wider proper conceptualization of the role of resources that completely contradicts the standard idea from politically grounded social science.

Just as the sparring males of any species would tell you if they were able, dominance contest is not about resources per se, but instead is over sexual access: resources figure in mate-choice as a good proxy for male mate-value (‘good genes’) rather than having an intrinsic value. A woman does not in fact choose a man with a ten-bedroom house over his rival with three or four because she even remotely has a use for lots of perpetually empty upstairs accommodations. It’s simply that a man who can progress in the world to the extent of being able to flash around such huge amounts of money in the form of conspicuous pointless assets must have a particularly fine set of ‘good genes’ underpinning an ability to successfully compete with other men.

That resources per se are not brought to the relationship at its outset, and given also that pair-bonding is a service provided to the female by the male, does of course beg the very big question as to why on earth a woman dissolving a relationship (or whose partner initiates the dissolution) can have any sort of claim on the assets of her ex-partner, or how the state can insist on this on her behalf.

Alimony (and clean-break settlements) makes not the slightest sense in the light of the essence of pair-bonding. Indeed, on the contrary, any assets that either belonged to the male partner at the outset, or which were created by him in the course of the relationship, surely should revert wholly back to him.

It might be further argued that if the dissolution is through the woman partner’s fault and instigation, then additionally there is a breach-of-contract case for reimbursement of any resources generated by the male partner that the woman partner consumed through the course of the relationship. However, with the pair-bond naturally not having a very long-lived duration (as afore-mentioned: four years), then a breach-of-contract understanding would require marriage to be considered intrinsically as female consumption, for which in effect the woman takes out a repayable loan – akin to higher education. [Fat chance of her paying it back, judging by what happens to higher education loans. The arrangements here in the UK whereby much-increased university course fees are not eligible to be repaid until a salary of at least £21,000 is earned, effectively removes the need for most women ever to repay anything. As ever, men subsidize women.]

So, taking all of the insights into ‘marriage’ together, how does this reflect in relationship breakdown? Why does the woman usually ‘stand by her man’ whereas the man usually feels so slighted by his partner’s extra-pair sex that he leaves her? Well, obviously, because only the female can bring into the partnership a child not having both parties as parents. A man never can.

Extra-pair sex never poses this threat to the female. But if the pair-bond is primarily not in the male’s interest, and the male has not lost an investment in terms of provisioning, then why would a man be so upset? For the reason that nonetheless there is male investment: the man’s sexual attentions, which turn out to have been in vain. What is more, if he were to persist with the partnership, he would continue to invest his attentions in vain for the entire length of the woman’s period of gestation and lactation (lasting several years ancestrally – which is what counts when it comes to the evolution of adaptations we are all now stuck with).

Instead he could have acquired a faithful partner and/or sought promiscuous sex. The male has suffered a significant opportunity cost. So it is that the discovery of a partner’s extra-pair sex is a clear deal-breaker for the man but not for the woman. His course of action is likely to be to cut his losses and desert. Yet his losses are minor in comparison to what his desertion entails for the female. She cannot now secure a pair-bond partner of as high a mate-value as the one, now lost, she had acquired when younger. The consequence is a significantly lower fitness for all of her subsequent offspring.

A proper understanding of the basis of pair-bonding provides a clear window on the reality – rather than the deliberate misrepresentation – of domestic violence (which, when you factor in the huge sex-differential in under-reporting, is preponderantly female perpetrated; and by a large margin). With the pair-bond being primarily in the female interest, featuring male mate-guarding and male attachment as services to the female rather than male proprietorial control, then the spotlight shifts on to the woman.

It is the woman more than the man who has a need to stop the partner from straying. What had been mistakenly viewed as the nature of male mate-guarding in fact is very much the nature not of male but female mate-guarding.

This has never been lost on ordinary people – at least until they have their common-sense knocked out of them by what passes for contemporary social science education. The popular stereotype of the rolling-pin/ frying-pan wielding housewife chasing her spouse became a stereotype because, as with most stereotypes, it’s essentially accurate (a rule-of-thumb appreciation of norms based on pooled repeated observation).

Research reveals that the female nearly always is the ‘controlling’ partner, and that even in male forms of ‘control’ at least matches the male (never mind any distinctively female forms of ‘control’). This need for ‘control’ is a major basis of female-perpetrated domestic violence, given – as we now know from recent findings – that physical aggression is women’s preferred mode of aggression in domestic situations (in complete contrast to men, who back away from engaging in physical aggression in any situation where a female would be the target).

This explains why, despite huge sex-differentials in both upper-body strength (conferring hitting power) and body-frame weakness (rendering a susceptibility to injury), there is little if any sex-differential in domestic violence injury rates – when it would be expected to be double an order-of-magnitude (x20) even if rates of male and female perpetration were similar, let alone predominantly male as usually but falsely supposed.

Well, there you have it. It’s likely that quite a lot of what most people think they understood about male-female coupling is turned upside down: or, more than likely, they intuitively knew that the standard line – let alone feminist cant – did not ring true. The cat is springing out of the bag, and it’s not the house moggy laid on its back purring for you to scratch its tummy. It’s a tiger set to scratch the eyes out of any apologist for the silliness-at-large who happens to cross its path.

* Chapais B (2008) Primeval Kinship: How Pair Bonding Gave Birth to Human Society. Harvard University Press

** Winking G (2007) Are men really that bad as fathers? The role of men’s investments. Paper presented at the IUSSP Seminar on Male Life History, Giessen, Germany

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