Are we biologically inclined to couple for life?
—Chelsea Brennan, Minneapolis
Jeannine Callea Stamatakis, who is an instructor at several colleges in the San Francisco Bay Area, responds:
"Till death do us part” is a compelling idea, but with the divorce rate exceeding 50 percent, many people would very likely agree that humans have a biological impulse to be nonmonogamous. One popular theory suggests that the brain is wired to seek out as many partners as possible, a behavior observed in nature. Chimpanzees, for instance, live in promiscuous social groups where males copulate with many females, and vice versa.
But other animals are known to bond for life. Instead of living in a pack like coyotes or wolves, red foxes form a monogamous pair, share their parental and hunting duties equally, and remain a unit until death.
For humans, monogamy is not biologically ordained. According to evolutionary psychologist David M. Buss of the University of Texas at Austin, humans are in general innately inclined toward nonmonogamy. But, Buss argues, promiscuity is not a universal phenomenon; lifelong relationships can and do work for many people.
So what distinguishes the couples that go the distance? According to several studies, a range of nonbiological factors can help pinpoint which pairings are built to last—those who communicate openly, respect each other, share common interests and maintain a close friendship even when the intense attraction wanes.
John Gottman, a psychologist emeritus at the University of Washington, developed a model to predict which newlywed couples will remain married and which will divorce, a method that he claims is 90 percent accurate. He found that most divorces happen at critical points after a couple unites. The first period occurs after seven years, when pairs tend to feel the strain of their relationship (does the Seven Year Itch ring a bell?). After 20 years, couples may encounter “empty nest syndrome”—a lonely feeling that can take over when children leave home, causing a rift in the marital bond.
A couples’ therapist recently shared with me one key question that he always asks his clients: “Tell me about your wedding day.” An answer composed of positive memories is a good sign. A couple that instead begins talking about the rain and stress is also offering a telling clue.