Marriage on the New Frontier

by Liam Scheff

There are precious few monogamous animals on earth — 3 to 5% is the current reckoning — and none are very much like us (a kind of tapeworm is the most ‘monogamous,’ if that’s an indication). There are three brain chemicals that are now ‘associated with’ monogamy – oxytocin, vasopressin and dopamine (but are imperfectly ‘associated’ nonetheless).

You’ve got to not just have the production of these things, but also the receptors to uptake them. What is clear is that humans have wildly differing levels of receptors — and this is meant to explain why some people are okay with ’till-death-do-us-part,’ and some of us have something between a “say what?” and “fuck that!” response to the offer.

But it’s all mucky, because even the little animals with the receptors and the production – Prairie Voles – screw around. They’re more “Socially Monogamous” than ‘pee-pee-vagina’ monogamous.

“They’ll sleep with anyone but they’ll only sit by their partners.” Biologist do not define monogamy the same way as most people. “The average person probably thinks of monogamy as a sexually exclusive relationship. Biologists, however, define the word a little differently. The monogamous animal is one that spends most of its time with one mate but is not entirely faithful, points out Insel. Most monogamous animals will, on occasion, mate with a stranger, he says. In addition, the monogamous male vole often takes a fiercely protective stance when a stranger threatens the nest. Finally, such males often help their mates with child-rearing tasks.”” [LINK]

So, the heart wants what it wants, apparently. Or, the vole. Or, whatever. But some animals stay together, allowing each other to screw around. And some insist on separating.

– Want to get together and make some oxytocin?

The 50s model of ‘nuclear’ disaster monogamy that we had modeled to us was a passing glance at an ever-shifting hourglass of multi-colored sand. Marriage was never about love, sex, partnership and being best best best friends.

It was about many things at different times – mostly about joining property. Then about running a household. In the early modern era, it involved having good in-laws. (Yes, people married specifically to have a good extended family!)

As for that 50s TV model, as per Don Draper (Matthew Weiner’s powerful television creation in “Mad Men”), the books indicate that 1/3 of marriages from the 50s ended in divorce. And if I take my own family as evidence, the rest were about as happy as Leo Tolstoy and his wife. (Look it up). Or look up John Cheever and the marriages of the upper class, soaked with alcohol and sedatives, and many with massive, swinging, bisexual infidelity. There’s your new frontier…

Not to say that people shouldn’t partner or couple, or make families. We should, we should and we should. It is to say that your relationship is yours and yours alone. And you must allow it to have its own life, its own internal structure, agreements and freedoms. Don’t be bound by the myths of contemporary culture. They’ll only leave you wanting.

Liam Scheff is author of Official Stories, drilling to the gooey, religious center of science.



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