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How Darwin Can Save Your Marriage

August 25, 2012, 12:00 AM

What's the Big Idea?

Sex isn't such a big deal, says Christopher Ryanauthor Sex at Dawn: The Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality, which he coauthored with Cacilda Jethá. So why do we let sex get in the way of all the other important things?

The point of marriage, after all, is to grow old with someone and develop a sense of trust. Infidelity happens in half of all marriages. Many end in divorce. The institution of marriage seems to be in big trouble, but Ryan says an understanding of the way humans evolved can help us cope.

Ryan points out that we are hardwired to crave novelty, and that's what leads to infidelity. Ryan says the way culture responds to this "natural behavior," however, causes more problems than it solves. Therefore, Ryan argues we need to take a "harm reduction approach" over an "absolutist approach." 

Watch Ryan explain what he means by that in the video here:

What's the Significance?

So how exactly can marriage adapt to the realities of human nature? Ryan suggests leaving the door a little bit open, but not wide open. So what exactly does that mean?

That means at the very minimum an understanding of your partner's desires and a certain baseline tolerance of your partner's behaviors. If a husband watches pornography, as many do, this is normal behavior. Can that behavior get out of hand? Certainly. But Ryan's point is that a man watching a pornographic film shouldn't exactly be grounds for divorce, nor is it a sign that a marriage is somehow not working. 

The question of infidelity is of course a trickier issue. This is where evolutionary psychologists tend to get controversial, as people like Ryan suggest a little action on the side is permissible. An "open marriage" might work for some couples, but it certainly has not worked for all. 

Cheating is a different matter entirely. That kind of infidelity can be one of the most painful things to deal with in a marriage. While an indiscretion might be forgiven, it is never forgotten. Affairs can also be especially messy because they tend to happen with people that one or both of the married partners know. 

So here is a sensible takeaway from what Ryan is saying: if infidelity occurs in a marriage, we tend to regard it as a one-way ticket to the divorce lawyer. And yet, that impacts people well beyond the married partners. It impacts the whole family, family friends, entire communities. 

Marriage isn't easy, but Ryan is saying you need to learn to deal with it. If you think your marriage can perfectly conform to the standards we set up as a society, you are probably setting yourself up for failure. It is much better to try to understand your partner's need for novelty, and address that need in the ways in which you are the most comfortable. 

By the way, here's some good news about marriage that we don't always hear. While you have no doubt heard that 50 percent of marriages end in divorce, that is not true. The divorce rate has probably never exceeded 41 percent in the U.S. Some estimates suggest that 70 percent of first marriages succeed. The overall number, however, is brought down by people who are getting married and divorced multiple times.

So if you take the time to get to know your partner, understand his or her desires and what makes that person tick -- and you're comfortable with who that person is -- you have a great chance of success. 

And why get married at all? If for no other reason, you should consider the studies that show married people are happier

Image courtesy of Shutterstock

Follow Daniel Honan on Twitter @Daniel Honan


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