One of the podcasts I like to follow is On Being w/ Krista Tippett. She interviews people of all faiths and types about a range of topics generally related to the spirit and religion. One of the recent episodes was an interview with Helen Fisher on “Sex, Love and Attachment.” Fisher is an academic who studies love and marriage from a variety of perspectives (neurology, sociology, psychology) and she works as a science advisor for Match.com or one of those dating sites. She didn’t talk about polyamory per-say, but what she said had some interesting suggestions.
There were two points in particular that I found very interesting. One was about how, while the divorce rate is going up (and everybody talks about that) it is mostly b/c life expectancy is getting longer. The average time a marriage lasts hasn’t changed much. But the life expectancy especially of women (due to the past dangers of childbirth combined w/ the lack of birth control) used to be shorter than now. However, the lifespan of the average marriage has apparently always been about 12 to 15 years. Lifetime monogamy is actually relatively new as a social norm and also makes us unique (we could say ‘abnormal’) among primates.
Now, from the perspective of evolutionary psychology, this makes sense. From the standpoint of biology, the purpose of pair-bonding w/ a mate is to raise kids, and humans take longer for our offspring to mature than any other mammal: around 12 to 15 years (before, biologically speaking, they are ready to mate and have their own offspring). So, from the standpoint of evolutionary psychology, it actually makes perfect sense that the average pair-bond (i.e. marriage) lasts about 12 to 15 years. Once the kids are raised, our brains stop producing as much oxytocin as they used to (that’s the hormone that makes us feel attachment to someone).
Now, the conclusion of this should not be that marriages should only last 15 or so years and then end. I plan on making mine last until death do us part. However, it does imply that when a marriage does end in divorce around year 14 or 15, we shouldn’t necessarily judge it as a “failed marriage.” That’s actually normal. That’s statistically average, and it makes sense as far as our biology goes. Divorce is painful enough, so let’s at least take away the stigma of “failure.”
It also means that after 12 to 15 years when we start to feel that “spark” decline, we shouldn’t quickly say, “Oh, well, I guess we’re not in love anymore; time to split-up.” That spark is likely to decline over time; we’re kind of designed that way. That doesn’t mean we have to end an otherwise good relationship or go into a “what’s wrong w/ us” panic. You start out in phase 1 by marrying the person you love, but you continue through phase 2 by loving the person you’ve married… if you see what I mean.
Okay, so the second thing that came up in this interview that I thought was so interesting was Fisher’s idea of “associations.”
We all have programmed into us this idea that the nuclear family is the norm. That’s totally wrong. The nuclear family (with 2 parents and 2.5 kids living together in a home) is actually an abortion. It’s a fluke. It comes about w/ the post-war economic boom when everyone could buy a house and a car and move to the suburbs and commute to work… We all think this is a normal way to live only b/c we’re so culturally indoctrinated w/ it. The post war boom happened at the same time TV appeared. So we have decades of Leave it to Beaver, The Brady Bunch, All in the Family, and Home Improvement showing us the nuclear family model.
Go back before WWII and most Americans lived the same way most people around the world did (and still do): in extended families. The nuclear family looks like Leave it to Beaver; the extended family looks like The Waltons. You have parents, kids, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins living together or in very close proximity (the same street, the same tenement, or on the same ranch...).
The nuclear family is kind of an abnormal blip… and it turns out to be inferior to the extended family model: economically, environmentally, and in terms of social-psychology. It all-around makes more sense to live as an extended family.
Here, Fisher comes in with this cool idea that we are now starting to readjust and move out of the nuclear family model, and move back towards something like an extended family – but with a new twist. Because our society is so much more mobile nowadays (I think the average American moves like every 6 or 8 years or something) we are no longer bound to form an extended family of our literal, biological relations who all live in the same village or neighborhood with us. The increased mobility has meant that we are ever more seeking out places to live with people and cultures that suit us. (This is one reason why, even politically, the blue and red regions on the map are becoming increasingly distinct and divided, because people tend to move to cities and states that share their cultural and political values, so the blue grows deeper blue and the red grows deeper red.)
Fisher speculated that this is leading us towards a new model in which we live in what she calls “associations” – or what I would call “chosen family.” It’s more like the extended family model, only now we are choosing the “family” we are settling in with and tying ourselves to. Association, chosen family, Leather family, poly household, pack, etc. We are forming these new extended “families” based on shared values, and then living together or in close proximity, vacationing together, raising kids together, offering emotional support, sharing meals, and so on.
Finally, to me, both of these ideas – that the average pair-bound is only designed to last around 14 years and that we are meant to be living in an extended “family” network – seem to shine an interesting light on polyamory. One of the advantages of the poly household is that different partners can fulfill different needs at different times. There’s (in that respect) less stress on the pair-bond b/c you aren’t relying on one individual to meet all your needs (which is great when that works… but at least 50% of the time it doesn’t). Then you have the added financial and socio-psychological advantages of having an extended family – and potentially even ecological advantages as well because it’s more green to consolidate households rather than sprawling all over the ever-growing suburbs. I really think, long term, Americans have to get the fuck over this nuclear family notion of every pair unit owning their own home; it’s just very inefficient and wasteful.
Next month at CAPEX we’re holding a poly panel discussion which I’m in on. We’ll be talking about why and how people do poly. What are the advantages and disadvantages? How can you avoid or deal with jealousy and envy? What’s the difference between polyamory, swinging, and open-relationships? What makes an “ethical slut?” How do you manage time, space and possessions? How do you deal with children, family and “coming out?”