Pic of the day: There are probably biological reasons why the myth of The One True Love, the Soulmate etc, is more popular among women than men.
Men, women and The One
It is kind of pretentious of me to write about this, but with 6.5 billion people, there are bound to be some who know even less about it than I, at least regarding theory. (Whether any of those ever find this page remains to be seen.)
Let us for now exclude any spiritual love. It should probably not even be called the same thing. I still think the ancient Greeks got that part right, by having a separate name for friendship, erotic love and spiritual love. Anyway, this is about the two natural loves, romantic and parental. I believe that by necessity these are different for men and women, but with some overlap. I also believe the traditional family is a compromise.
Onward to the cold hard fact about human procreation. Humans are mammals, which means that the female invests a lot more in the children than does the male, biologically speaking. (Not necessarily financially, but that's a rather recent invention.) Women are extreme even among mammals by the small number of children they bear in a lifetime. For this reason, and because each pregnancy is painful, exhausting and dangerous, they have to be very selective. They cannot just randomly procreate, although it sometimes looks like it.
As such, the romantic notion of The One seems tailor-made to the female perspective. She is putting her life at risk and at the very least making extreme sacrifices, so she looks for the best possible genes and the best possible assistance with raising her children. The One has all of this: He is ruggedly handsome, meaning he has both a strong body and symmetry. (Our concept of attractiveness is heavily influenced by symmetry. The more symmetric a person is, the better the genetic transcription process. I should probably not go into details here about homeobox genes and all, but the short of it is that early fetal development is orchestrated mainly by the father's genes. The more symmetric the father's face, the better chance that the genes of BOTH parents are expressed correctly.)
The One is not just physically attractive. He is also proficient in skills that give status and respect in society, and able to completely recover from plots against his status. And finally he is focused exclusively on the one woman, the main character, no matter what distractions may come his way (which they should, what with him being such a great man after all).
In practice, of course, there are very few of The One. By the time you have ticked off the first few points on the list, you are likely to discover that your One is also The One of half the women in the area. Furthermore, you are likely to discover that he doesn't mind this at all.
So what is a poor woman to do? Hey, don't ask me, I'm a man. But I know what they do in practice. (Most of them, at least.) Compromise.
In the Bronze Age and some similar societies, the solution was polygamy. The successful man would have several wives, and the losers would have none. This gave the women all of the benefits except the exclusivity, which they continued to fight for in endless harem intrigues, most of which were never written down because girls didn't go to school.
The thing is, the Bronze Age was a time with less strict patriarchal rule than the Iron Age that followed. During the Bronze Age, mankind expanded largely by extending agriculture into areas that had formerly been sparsely populated. Changing from hunting to agriculture allowed the population to expand tenfold or more. It also allowed the women to do much of the manual labor at no extra risk (grain doesn't have claws) so large harems incurred only a moderate cost. Toward the end of the era, the land was all settled, and population growth depended on killing other tribes and taking their land. Thus came the more male-oriented and military-dominated Iron Age.
In the Iron Age, it soon became obvious that men who fought for their women and children were far more reliable in war than those who fought for some rich guy's women and children. In fact, the latter were quite likely to instead throw their weight behind whoever promised to kill the guy in a spectacular manner, understandably. To this day, single men are regarded with suspicion by society, and extremely overrepresented in a wide range of crimes. So any society that by design or accident went with monogamy, had a military advantage, all other things being equal and sometimes even if they were not. Fighting morale is extremely important, at least until you have attack helicopters while your opponents still have spears.
Marriage, then, is a compromise. You get the undivided attention (in theory at least) but you don't get the Winner unless you are one yourself. Many people accept this kind of compromise. The rest cheat (or die trying).
For a woman, the second-to-ideal solution is to get the genes of the good-looking guy (the one with the symmetric genes, remember?) and then have that other guy give his undivided attention to her and her children. In a less mobile age, where everyone in the same area had the same skin and hair color, this was quite feasible unless she was actually locked in. (Which, consequently, she often was, and still is among some groups of people.)
For the man, the situation is even simpler. There is no upper limit to the number of children he can father, well in theory there is but probably nobody ever reached it, although Genghis Khan is said to have been rather close. The short of it is, every woman who kindly puts her reproductive apparatus in his way is a big boon and there is no downside to it. Well, unless he is caught and his rival has the means to dispose of him. True, some men may have a religion or some such conviction that says "just say NO to extramarital sex". Observation by numerous sources through the centuries agree that the religion says NO but the man says YES, OOOH YESSS, except for a few weirdos who go on to found new religions or somesuch. I believe my readers will remember from public debate barely a decade ago, that even being in one of the most trusted positions in the world does NOT mean a man can keep it in his pants. (Pants tend to become literally painfully tight in such situations.)
While women may opt for some genetic diversity (don't put all your ova in one basket, as the saying goes), there is a strong tendency that they break their marriage vows far more selectively. Unlike the average man, the average woman will NOT jump at any genitals of the opposite sort that cross her path. Instead, she will home in on The One, who by now is someone else's One most likely, and do pretty much anything less than outright assault to get his genes at the time of ovulation. Whereas women are unfaithful much less than men, they tend to be so at exactly the time when it is easiest to conceive, so the net result is more drastic.
By the time genetic profiling becomes commonplace, I am convinced that we can take all our centuries of painstaking genealogy and throw it in the nearest dumpster. We will probably also find that half-siblings have children together fairly often without knowing it, since The One in generation 2 is the son of The One in generation 1, whether he knows it or not. Oneness is strongly inheritable.
As I trust you see by now, most people have to compromise. The romantic myth of The One appeals to women in particular on a fundamental level, even instinctive. But a myth it is, for all except a very few. Those who have realistic expectations will be far happier in the long run than those who chase their dream. But then again, isn't it always so?
Visit the archive page for the older diaries I've put out to pasture.