What A Relationship Needs To Succeed
“If we were endowed with the same biological mating pattern as the [pair-bonding] goose, there could be no polygamy, no promiscuity, no celibacy, no harems, no group marriage, no trial marriage, and no divorce in any human community in any part of the world.” and “The gibbon’s ‘very low sex drive’ is a reminder…[of the fallacy] that pair-bonding is based on sexual attraction.”
– Elaine Morgan, The Descent of Woman, Bantam 1972
The article title refers mostly to male-female relationships, though the first reason could apply to any relationship, including friendships. Let’s examine that first reason.
Why so many relationships fail is simply that few people know what makes a relationship work. A large part of that has to do with the fact that living conditions for most people today are so different from those in the past.
In my country, Canada (numbers for the US are similar), a century ago 85 percent of the population lived in the country, in rural areas. That left only 15 percent in cities, despite what we hear and read about lots of people in cities in those days and very little about those who lived “off the land.” Those numbers are reversed today.
Today 85 percent of North Americans live in urban areas, have access to everything cities have to offer, but miss out on so much that was good about rural life. Country living is simply not available to most people, for reasons beyond their control. More importantly, what was good about rural life in the past has not been replaced sufficiently by the good of city life today.
In agricultural areas and in areas where most people made their living from resources in the past, people had few enemies. They needed each other. Everyone people knew had value. No one knew when they might find themselves at the side of the road with a broken wagon wheel, homeless (or barnless) because of a fire, in need of someone to fetch the doctor in town but unable to get there for having to look after a sick child, or any of uncountable possible emergencies.
Rural people often needed someone else to help them. They couldn’t afford to alienate others they may need to help them one day. Few rural people had money to spare, so volunteer help meant drawing on the goodwill of friends and neighbours, who were often one and the same.
Kids learned in their families how to get along with others because they had to. Sure, they had fights, many physical, far more than today. But they learned to make up after a fight and get on with their lives. Friends were often combatants of the past who made up so they wouldn’t have to live as hermits without any friends in areas with few other people around. Grudges were rare because people couldn’t afford to have enemies living nearby.
Today people in cities believe that most of their needs can be satisfied with money. We hire people to do whatever we need done. Friends are often workmates, fellow church parishioners or other people life brings together frequently. We may know our neighbours little more than on a nodding acquaintance basis.
Friends tend to be those from whom we can derive some benefit, such as people where we work or fellow club or church members. When it’s clear that these people can no longer provide us with any benefits or potential benefits–they or we change jobs, one leaves the club, one moves some distance away–the friendship dissipates with the disappearance of the potential for mutual support. Friends have become another form of object in the throw-away society. There are always more people become friends with in a city. Of course this generalization, like all generalizations, is not true of everyone and not necessarily entirely true of any one person.
Because of this impression that anything we need can be bought, we have allowed ourselves to lose the feeling of needing others in times of tragedy. In the process, over a period of decades we got out of the habit of teaching our children the skills of making friends, of keeping friends through all adversities, of knowing what makes a friendship work. Again, that’s a whole society, not necessarily true in every family.
Though most of us now see more people in a day than our ancestors of a century ago saw in a month, we tend to have fewer close friends, people we can count on when the going gets rough, when worse turns to worst. We no longer teach relationship skills because they were not taught to us. We don’t know what to teach because most of us don’t even realize there are great gaps in our knowledge about relationships.
To make a friend, you have to know how to be a friend. To find a good mate, you have to know how to be a good mate.
The second reason most relationships fail is that we don’t know our obligations in a relationship. We know what we want from others, but we give little or no thought to what they may want or need from us to maintain a healthy relationship. As relationships are two way affairs, when one person feels no great commitment to the other, the relationship fails or wanes away at the first crisis.
For any relationship to succeed, each person must believe that they contribute more to the success and health of the relationship than the other. The perception of an imbalance is usually not real because we don’t fully appreciate what the other contributes. But if we perceive that we contribute more to a relationship than we receive and we can be comfortable with that, the relationship has a chance.
The best examples of why relationships fail is demonstrated by the staggering divorce rate in western countries. A husband or wife believes that the other is not giving what they used to, that their own needs in the marriage are not being met, that the spouse is “not the person I married.” It’s usually true. However, what most people fail to appreciate and understand is that their own commitment to being a devoted spouse may be equally weak.
You can’t be a good husband or wife if you have very little idea of what is required of a good husband or wife. Ironically, we all seem to have pretty good ideas about what is required of the other, our mates, even if we don’t know what is required of ourselves.
The third reason why relationships fail has to do particularly with male-female relationships. Especially the requirement of fidelity in a marriage or common law relationship. If there is one thing we have taught each other and our children about marital and marriage-style relationships it’s that each partner should be monogamous.
The trouble with that is that there is nothing in our natural or evolutionary history to support that. Humans, like all the great apes, are genetically and hormonally programmed to spread their genes as widely as possible. That means that men are genetically programmed to want to bed as many women as they can. And women are programmed to find as many healthy males with whom to procreate future offspring as they can.
Many people will find those last two statements offensive. But why? Nature didn’t teach us to be monogamous. Religions did. Religions even decry (in some cases even threaten death to participants of) male-male and female-female relationships. Why? Because those who formed the religions knew that most gay men are still capable of passing along their male genes to fertile females, just as most lesbians have the ability to give birth to children, can be impregnated by healthy males.
Religions, in the past, wanted desperately to expand, to enlarge their congregations, to increase their power as unelected bodies of social influence. That meant, in addition to sending out missionaries and conquering other cultures and nations by war, encouraging their own followers to have as many babies as possible. The financial ability of parents to raise children, the likely health of the children and the knowledge of parental skills held little importance compared to the lust for expansion. What was important was numbers.
As a result, homosexuality was forbidden and banned, while having large families was encouraged. To keep order among the families of congregations, religions dictated that families should consist of one adult male, one adult female, and the only other adults allowed would be those who could help to tend to the children while the parents were busy creating more or working to support the ones they had. Polygamy and infidelity were considered sinful because the resulting “families” would be hard to manage, to control.
Science doesn’t care much for the word monogamy. It likes “pair-bonding.” You have heard of animals that pair-bond, that stay together for life, through thick and thin. Like geese–most examples of pair-bonding are birds, including northern gannets and penguins. However, the only pair-bonding along our branch of the evolutionary family tree is the gibbon. Though gibbon mates are totally devoted to each other, they are comparatively anti-social. They have little to do with other gibbons or other animals of any kind. They keep to themselves.
Gibbons, like other pair-bonded animals, have low sex drives. Not an attractive characteristic for us humans. In fact, sex is of so little importance among pair-bonded animals that some gibbon couples are homosexual and some heterosexual couples do not engage in sex. Do we really aspire to pair-bonding for ourselves? We should see pair-bonding as it really is in other examples in nature.
Let’s switch back from the term pair-bonding to monogamy. Monogamy, while a charming and attractive concept in certain contexts, is fundamentally unnatural for us humans.
If monogamy is unnatural and many people insist that they could never live with a mate who is “unfaithful” (i.e. not monogamous) then the marriages and marriage-like relationships that depend on monogamy will likely fail. Estimates in the US of infidelity among married men range around 85 percent, while most estimates of infidelity among married women range between 65 and 75 percent.
A priest commented to me recently that it’s up to each member of a couple to fulfill the sexual and other needs of the other so he or she doesn’t need to go looking elsewhere. Good idea in theory, doesn’t work in practice.
If a marriage depends on monogamy, that makes sex the most important component of the marriage, literally the tie that binds. There are two things wrong with that. One is that a marriage must be based on much more than sex or it doesn’t have enough to sustain itself. The other is that few people with a lower sex drive than their partner feel compelled to engage in sex and its accompanying gestures and procedures if they don’t feel like it. They may not want to have sex, even if their partner does, but they also don’t want the “needy” partner to go out and have sex elsewhere.
It may not be the actual act of infidelity of a partner that results in the breakdown of a marriage, but the attitude of the mate that feels “cheated on” who feels the partner should be something he or she was not naturally programmed to be.
Few “unfaithful” partners want to break up their relationship. They just want to be fulfilled in ways they can’t get at home. Nature tells them to find it somewhere else.
A wife who says “You may be the perfect husband in all other ways but you can’t be faithful to me, so you must get out of my life” (even though she can’t give what the husband needs sexually)–reverse the gender words if it applies–can be the partner who makes the marriage fall apart. If doing what nature dictates and what all other primate animals do causes a marriage or relationship to fail, then the marriage was not well founded in the first place.
We humans have the ability to use our intellect to overcome our natural inclinations. Few of us use that ability. Every war that ever was, most murders, almost every person behind bars in a prison or jail and almost everyone in a mental institution or on mood altering drugs give an abundance of evidence that we tend to give in to nature much more often than we overcome it using our intellect.
When following what comes naturally to us causes a relationship to fail, there is something wrong with how the relationship is constituted. That is, we don’t know what a close human relationship is, what it should consist of.
When you don’t know what you’re doing, expect something to go wrong. It will. If you want a relationship to succeed, you need to learn what the other person needs and how you can fulfill that.
A successful relationship means two people each committed more to the welfare and happiness of the other than they are to their own. That’s hard. But no one ever said it was easy.
Bill Allin is the author of Turning It Around: Causes and Cures for Today’s Epidemic Social Problems, a guidebook for teachers, parents and grandparents who want to give their children what they need at each stage of their development, rather than leaving it all to chance.
Learn more at http://billallin.com