As an institution, marriage is on the rocks. People are marrying less, and later in life, in both the developed and developing world. One in nine Jamaican unions now end in divorce, twice as many as forty years ago. The real failure rate is higher, since many couples separate without the legal rigmarole. Of the dwindling remainder, at least half of spouses cheat, and one in three confess to being unhappy. Finally, studies attest that most people feel worse about their marriages over time.
Not exactly a gold-ringing endorsement of wedlock. On the contrary, all that misery suggests we should call the whole thing off. Maybe matrimony has served its purpose, guiding us through some purgatorial middle stage of social evolution, from the savannah to the verandah. To wit, the long-term decline in marriage is often linked to the rise in female education. As women get higher degrees and financial independence, the thinking goes, they have less need for men — and marriage. In country after country, from Argentina to Zambia, the data show more schooling leads to less schmoozing.
Except Jamaica. Running counter to almost everywhere else, here you’re way more likely to find a mister if you have a master’s. But our divorce rates follow the global trend. What gives? Why do marriages really fail?
The decline in marriage is often linked to the rise in female education
Before we answer that, let’s decide whether matrimony is worth saving in the first place. Cohabitation is increasingly common worldwide, allowing partners to learn about each other, reap the benefits of proximity, share the burden of childrearing, and split with expediency, all without the aisle. More Jamaicans are also choosing to live alone. Aside from pleasing your earthly mother and heavenly father, good reasons to tie the knot aren’t obvious.
Cue scientists rappelling through stained-glass windows. Thanks to long-running experiments, we now know that wedlock increases your life expectancy and decreases your risk of all kinds of diseases, from the common cold to cancer (compared to singles and cohabitors). In addition, you’re more likely to finish grad school, earn a higher salary and have successful children. That’s nothing to sneeze at, but those benefits only accrue to satisfied couples. So what’s preventing most married people from being happy?
Monogamy. Huh? Isn’t that the whole point of pairing off? Well, yes and no. Underneath our sophisticated seductions, we’re just primates in pants. And while we use our big brains to make individual choices, collectively our animal instincts win out. When it comes to monkey business, humans fall somewhere between gorillas, where one alpha male has all the sex, and chimpanzees, where everyone humps everyone else. As columnist Dan Savage punned, people aren’t monogamous, they’re monogamish.
Our slightly polygamous nature — very roughly two partners for every mate — has always been fighting a losing battle against our strictly monogamous nurture. In truth, every human society establishes some kind of unofficial outlet for sexual promiscuity — eg, slavery or prostitution. The only difference in the 21st century is the number of (mostly) women who can escape relationships of infidelity, not the number of (mostly) men who indulge in it. What’s more, it stands to reason that if we could invent a type of marriage that not only tolerated but embraced the reality of male and female desire, spouses would be largely content.
Our polygamous nature is fighting a losing battle against our monogamous nurture
That’s exactly what happens. Partners who jointly engage in extramarital sex — a.k.a. swingers — report notably higher levels of emotional and physical satisfaction than their straight-laced counterparts. An incredible nine out of ten describe their marriages as happy. Unlike adulterers, they are vigilant about safe sex. And outside their libertine bedrooms, swingers — pegged at 15% of unions — are ‘demographically indistinguishable from the general population’. (If anything, they are less racist and sexist than the average John and Joanne — not least because they want to sleep with them.)
By right, matrimony and monogamy should be close cousins, not the identical twins we’ve made them out to be. Our jealousies, fears, dreams and expectations of relationships are not innate but insidiously inscribed by Hollywood, Hallmark and the hymnal. That might sound like hyperbole, but its truth is found in the widespread practice of open polygyny by many remaining indigenous cultures. In short, it’s who we are. The recipe for a normal marriage is simple enough — two lovers coming together in mutual trust and respect — but if you want the spice of life, try doubling up the ingredients.