The Science of Dating: An Interview with Helen Fisher

The Science of Dating: An Interview with Helen Fisher

What follows is a transcript for the podcast: HomeGrown Humans - Helen Fisher, Ph.D. - Sexuality - Hosted by Jamie Wheal

Topics of the interview include: 

  1. Why Do People Fall in Love?
  2. The Science Behind
  3. What Is the Notion of Slow Love? 
  4. What Are the Top Five Things People Look for in a Partner?
  5. How Modern People Express Sexuality
  6. Mating in Hunter-Gather vs. Agrarian Societies
  7. The Real Definition of Monogamy
  8. What is Polyamory?
  9. What Is the Capacity of Sexuality to Lead to Higher or Transcendent Experiences?

Why Do People Fall in Love?

Jamie Wheal: It's my deep pleasure to get to welcome Dr. Helen Fisher, a fellow at the Kinsey Institute, the Senior Researcher for, and one of the leading academic voices on the nature and science of relationships and sexuality. So Helen, so excited to get to talk to you and welcome to HomeGrown Humans.

Helen Fisher: Thank you. I'm delighted to be with you.

Jamie Wheal: Yeah, there's so much that I'm excited to jump into with you and I actually get to feature a good chunk of your work in my next book, Recapture the Rapture. So taking a look at the role of neuroscience and psychology and sexuality and what a kind of curious and potent intersection that is. So before we jump into some of those fine-grain questions, I'd love to just kind of roll back the clock for us a little bit and just describe for us your relatively unlikely journey into those, because it's a fairly niche field, it is not one, particularly in the United States that receives lots of funding, approval, accolades. And you're also carrying the torch forward from Masters and Johnson, Kinsey, the kind of early and groundbreaking sexual researchers. So how did you get to this? How did you choose this as your topic of study? And what has your personal and professional journey been to now?

Helen Fisher: Well, let's see very briefly. First of all, I grew up in a glass house in Connecticut and my neighbors all had glass houses too. But when I was six and seven and eight, I would walk through the woods and go sit on an old stone wall and watch my neighbors eat dinner. I was always an anthropologist. I have all my life watched people, always wanted to know what was going on, who they were. And I'm also an identical twin. When I was in graduate school, I was told that the mind was an empty slate in which environment swayed personality, as you know. And it wasn't true.

As an identical twin, your whole life, everybody asks you "Do you have the same cavities in your teeth? Do you like the same food? Do you have the same friends? Do you think alike?" Now, when I was a kid, I didn't know how to answer that. Now I actually do. I thought it was very strange. I mean, how would I know how anybody else really thinks. But of course, that's been my business for over 40 years. So when I was in graduate school, and I remember even once having to write an exam extolling the issue that your childhood made you who you were. I knew it wasn't true.

I mean certainly a good 40% to 60% of who you are does come out of your childhood and your experiences, we all know that, but the bottom line is a whole lot of a good 40% to 60% does have a genetic, biological, and evolutionary explanation. So I thought to myself when I was writing my PhD dissertation, if there's any part of human behavior, any part at all that would have a genetic and a biological basis, it would be our reproductive strategy. It would be how we mate and reproduce. Because as Darwin once said, "If you have four children and I have no children, you live on and I die out." I mean, we know about kin selection and other ways of passing your DNA on, but the bottom line is love matters, attachment matters, sex matters. It matters on a fundamental, biological, evolutionary perspective.

So I really chose to study... Well, my first job was I wanted to figure out why we form pair bonds. I mean, 97% of mammals do not pair up to rear their young and people do, so right off the bat that's different. And then of course I wanted to get into divorce. So I looked at divorce in 80 cultures around the world through the demographic yearbooks of the United Nations. And then I looked at adultery at 42 cultures. And then it began to occur to me, maybe I could study the brain circuitry of romantic love and attachment. I mean, when you think about it, people live for love, they pine for love, they kill for love, they die for love. It's a very powerful brain artifact. It's a powerful experience. And when you think of all the artifacts about love around the world, I mean, not only our myths and our legends and our plays and our operas and our ballets and our symphonies, but our therapists and our cards and our letters and our poems, you name it, we are deluged with the artifacts of this experience. So it began to occur to me, well maybe this is a brain system like the fear system or the anger system or other basic brain systems. And if I looked into the brain I could figure that out.

So I did a lot of that. I've written a lot of books, as you know. And then 15 years ago came to me, called me 2 days before Christmas and asked me to come in 2 days after Christmas. Well, nothing happens in New York City at Christmas, but I went in and in the middle of the morning they asked me "Why do you fall in love with one person rather than another?" And that got me into the biology of personality and why people will say "Well, we have chemistry." Why are we naturally drawn to some people rather than others? So that's where I'm at, and yeah.

The Science Behind

Jamie Wheal: That's fantastic. So also, I'm curious, because I've heard a fair number of reports in the sense that there's been a bit of a tightening in availability of funding, permissibility of IRBs that kind of thing, even sort of Congressional pressures of keyword searches for anything with sexuality or orgasm in the research proposals to be kind of called out and seen that this is frivolous or not necessary. Your move to come under the wings of, which is obviously a corporate organization, but can potentially... I'm curious, did you find more freedom, did you find more access? I'm imagining you found piles more data. I would imagine that your data sets are meaningfully expanded from getting to be working within a platform like this. But what was your experience of sort of the private versus the public sphere in sexuality research and what trends have you noticed over the last few decades?

Helen Fisher: Well I mean, it's very interesting. Years ago... I and my colleagues have now put over 100 people into a brain scanner, studying the brain circuitry of romantic love. And the very first scan, I just paid myself. People gave me the machine to use, so I didn't have to pay for that. I would give out of my own pocket, and I didn't have a nickel, $50 to each one of the kids that I would put into the machine because I figured it's a whole day, you're lying in a long, dark hole, et cetera, et cetera. And then I wrote an academic... I tried to get something from National Science Foundation. I can't remember, one of the... A grant to study people who had just been rejected in love. And I spent 10 months writing that research proposal and I got the answer back and this was literally what it said. It said "This is one of the best written proposals we've ever had on a very important issue; rejection and love. Rejected." And I looked at that and I said "I am never doing this again. I am never going to depend on that kind of thing again."

And I spoke to my brain scanning partner about it and she said "Well, it's just traditional in neurosciences that your first thing is rejected." And I said "I'm not going to play that game. I'm going to keep on with my research. There's only so much time on this planet." As Darwin once said, he said "He who wastes even an hour doesn't understand the meaning of life." And that's the way I feel about it. I've always been in a rush. I went and did all the brain scanning by myself, well certainly with my colleagues, but without any funding. I made my living writing books and then called.

What's beautiful about Match and all of the press, I worked with the press for many years, first of all, I've never, ever once been told that I should say a particular thing. Never once has Match told me they want something said a certain way, never once. I have been able to... Well, for the last 10 years I've done something with Match called Singles in America. What this is, is every year I assemble a little team, Justin Garcia, the Director of the Kinsey is the only other academic, and two people at Match, my handler and another, and the four of us... I largely create about 200 questions in July and August and then we discuss this, we send it to the CEO, we decide what we went looking for this year-

Jamie Wheal: So you've been doing different ones each year? Like they continuously evolve.

Helen Fisher: I do a different natured questionnaire with about 200 questions, yeah. And we do not poll the Match members. We do not poll Match. This is a national representative sample of singles based on the US Census. So it's real science. We've already published 14 academic, peer reviewed papers on it. But because it's different every year, we've done it for 10 years, we're going to start to do it in the 11th year any time now, I've got data on 50,000 Americans. And as I said, we've got the right number of blacks, whites, Asians, Latino, gay, straight, rural, suburban, urban, every part of the country, every ethnic group, and every background. So it's a deluge of data. I have a deluge of data. I won't live long enough to publish on all of this data. What would I have done in academia? Continue to say no, it's a great idea, it's well written, and we're not going to fund it? I'm not going to do that with-

Jamie Wheal: With 20 grad students at a time kind of thing. Yeah.

Helen Fisher: 20 graduate students at a time or 120 in a psychology class. I remember once I was making a speech at Southern California, it was at an aquarium. What's the name of it? Anyway, bottom line is some guy in a three piece suit looked down his nose at me and said "Oh, you work with Match." And I said "Yeah, my personality data, I've been able to collect data on 14 million people in 40 countries." Now really, who would not want to do that? I work with a company that I like. Unfortunately I'm a high estrogen girl, so I don't actually like being around people I don't like and I don't think I would have worked with them if I didn't agree with their principles and what they're doing. I know what they're doing. I know they're honest with what they're doing, and they give me a tremendous about of leeway and they love anthropology. They could have hired a psychologist. The fact that I'm an anthropologist and that I'm always looking for evolutionary explanations.

For example, here's something, this is almost a perfect example. I asked a question one year, when you meet somebody, what are the first things that you notice. And I gave a list of about 20 different things. Everything from the car they drove to their waist to hip ratio, et cetera. The top three things that people notice in a partner, in a potential partner, first is their teeth, their grammar, and their self-composure.

Jamie Wheal: Grammar. Wow.

Helen Fisher: Yes. So what is those three things from a Darwinian perspective? Your teeth show your age. Your grammar shows your background and your education. And your self-composure shows your psychological stability. All three primary things that our ancestors would have needed to know about somebody before they started a longterm partnership. So over and over again, I, with this 50,000 people, or with the 14 million people who took my questionnaire in 40 countries, on personality, I'm able to see patterns.

Jamie Wheal: And what are you seeing? Like you said you've been at this for 15 years and each year you're rebooting it. What are you noticing, especially as... And in that time period, I mean Match was one of the relatively early folks to the digital dating game. That's now become ubiquitous and it's now, rather than being a sort of embarrassing thing you admit to friends, it's now the norm for how people connect. It used to be first and second circle social network, friends of friends, church members, community members, sports teams. Now it's Tinder or Match or whatever it would be. The increasing hyper-mobility and even in 2020, quarantining and fragmentation, I just read something on a new dating site that's actually not a dating site, it's the "We're both in our 30s and we actually want to have a child and how do we do platonic, co-parenting right out of the gate. So let's just skip the roses and the messy divorce and just get to healthy co-parenting because that's where we are in our life." So what are some of the most interesting trends that you've noticed in the mating game in the last, say three to five years? What's happening to it?

Helen Fisher: Well, of course Jamie, that's a huge question. But I'll pick one that is very important to me. First of all, these are not dating sites. They are introducing sites, that's all they are. That's all they do is introduce you. Once you get meeting the person through video chatting or in person, you laugh the way you always did, you smile the way you always did, you parade the way you always did, you assess the other person the way you always did. It doesn't change who you are and it doesn't change the brain circuitry for romantic [inaudible 00:15:32] and it doesn't change who you're going to choose. All it enables you to do is meet people. So these scientists will carry on about how "Oh, we're going to choose entirely different kind of people." It is simply not true.

So anyway, of all the things that have fascinated me most is something that I call slow love, and I wrote an academic paper on that, and I'll write some more on it in the book too. What I've noticed, okay, so there's some questions in this, it's called Singles in America. It's this annual study. You're getting data on 50,000 people, 5,000 every year for 10 years. And every single year, there's some questions I ask every year, the trend questions. And every year I ask "Have you had a one night stand?" And over 50% have said yes. Not necessarily this past year, but during the course of their dating life. Almost 50% have had a friends with benefits. Over 50% have lived with somebody longterm before they wed. And something like 34% have actually had sex before the first date. So people think oh-

Jamie Wheal: How do you do that?

What is the Notion of Slow Love? 

Helen Fisher: How do you do that? I'll tell you how you do it. You start out... At this stage, you start out with just friends, oh we're just friends, then they go into friends with benefits. You learn a lot between the sheets, not just the way somebody makes love, but they have a sense of humor, are they kind, can they listen, et cetera. You learn a lot. So basically today, these kids are reckless, they are cautious. They want to get to know every single thing about a person before they tie the knot. Where they used to marry in their early 20s, now we're marrying in our late 20s. What we're really seeing is what I call slow love. This extension of the pre-commitment stage of the partnership. Starting out as just friends, just friends, moving into friends with benefits, learning a lot about the person, then going out and telling friends and family all about this person, then having the official first date. And I don't know where you live, but I live in New York City and in New York, a first date could cost you $200. So these people want to go out, spend a huge amount of money, deal with this sex, deal with the money and all that, until they have some idea that this might be something that they could really be interested in.

So they start out as just friends, then make, a lot of them friends with benefits, not all of them, about a third. Then they move into telling friends and family. Then they move into the official first date. Then they court for a period of time. Often after about four months of the courting, they do what they call the DTR, define the relationship. Millennials are serious. I'm telling you, I mean, I am so impressed with millennials. They want to know what's going on. They want to know fast. So after about four months they have the DTR conversation, where is this headed. And if they agree on that then they will keep going, live together for a period of time, often for years, and then they marry. And what's important about this trend, and the COVID is only just slowed it down. I'd love to talk about that. But anyway, this slow love, they're marrying later. And all the data shows that the later you marry, the more likely you are to remain together. I've got data on 80 societies through the demographics of the United Nations back from 1947 to 2011. So it's not a cultural thing. It's a biological thing. The later you wed, the more likely you are to remain together.

Jamie Wheal: Is that first marriage? Is that first marriage or any marriage?

Helen Fisher: I'd have to... It's any marriage.

Jamie Wheal: Okay. I'm curious-

Helen Fisher: It's funny. It's wonderful that you asked that because the data from the demographic Europe books, they only ask about marriage and divorce every maybe 7 or 8 years or 10 years. So you've got data from 1947, I think 1953, then all the way up there. They are just asking three questions. When did you marry? These are divorce questions. How old were you when you married? How long were you married? And how many children did you have during the marriage? And what you see is how long were you married, the peak of divorce is around age... It's probably a little later now, 24 to about 27. So if you're going to marry and then divorce, you tend to divorce in your late 20s. And the later you get married, the less and less likely you are to divorce. That's what the data shows.

Jamie Wheal: So on the notion of slow love, right, it sounds like- Go ahead.

Helen Fisher: It's adaptive. It's adaptive.

Jamie Wheal: It makes me wonder, I think I just remember reading a piece not so long ago on Western Europe and Scandinavian countries in particular where marriage is often actually, there's cohabitation and even child rearing and parenting and the marriage is actually the sort of... It's more like a 10th anniversary victory lap, that they actually delay it until they say "No actually, we have done this, we are doing this, and we commit to keep doing it." And it's much more of the midlife affirmation than it was a prerequisite at the starting line. Does that fit in your model?

Helen Fisher: Yes. In fact, I've read that too. I think it was done largely in Africa. And they want to make sure that it's a fertile couple. So they will want to have some of their children first so that they know that this can really last. What's interesting is that I had read in some of the Scandinavian countries recently, they've had a very high percentage of people who don't bother to marry at all. They just don't want to do that. They are living and they're committed, they're raising their children together, but apparently there's a new swing back into actually wanting to do a legal contract as well.

But marriage is everywhere in the world. I don't know of a culture where they don't have some form of marriage and some form of divorce. Now, of course it was very difficult to divorce in our agrarian past because the upper third of people, the rich people, marriage was a union of families and a union of property and a union of political and social context and you had to marry from the same religion. So people married for different reasons then. I mean, you had to marry a girl who was from your same background, the same social class, man has to have enough money, and hopefully from the farm next door.  

What Are the Top Five Things People Look for in a Partner?

Helen Fisher: And in fact, when I looked at... I ask every year, one of the trend questions I ask every year on Singles in America is "What are you looking for in a partnership? What do you want?" The top five things every single year, the top five things, doesn't matter whether you're black, white, Asian, Latino, any part of the country, anywhere, top thing is they want somebody who respects them, somebody who they can trust and confide in, somebody who makes them laugh, somebody who spends enough time with them, and somebody who they find physically attractive. So when I ask the question, I want them to know for the last 10,000 years a girl really had to marry a guy who could provide.

Jamie Wheal: Well four out of five of those sound like just good friends. It was only the fifth one that had anything to do with physical chemistry.

Helen Fisher: Yeah, I was surprised that it was number five. Every year I'm surprised that it's number five. We're really looking for a companion. And then, by the way, want a woman with a career, not just a job, but a career. So anyway, one of the main things that I've found that you asked about was this slow love. Another thing that I found that I've always loved to say, and I've got the opportunity a moment, we don't understand men, we don't understand women either. But we really don't understand men. All of my data every year, men fall in love faster, they fall in love more often, when they do find somebody that they love, they want to tell friends and family sooner. As your neuroscientist is probably [inaudible 00:24:28] men have more intimate conversations with their lives than women do with their husbands.

Jamie Wheal: Meaning they're asymmetrical, like a husband will overshare with his wife versus the other way around?

Helen Fisher: Yes. Because women share their real secrets with their girlfriends.

Jamie Wheal: I've always said that to my wife. I'm like talk to me like you would after three glasses of wine to your best friend from college. Like lay it on me. You know?

Helen Fisher: [inaudible 00:24:56]. And I wouldn't either. Why do we complain for God's sakes? We wouldn't do that to you. 

How Modern People Express Sexuality

Jamie Wheal: I wouldn't say... She's like "No way would I unload all my juiciest stuff on you." Yeah. Well so I'd love to kind of put on the anthropologist hat for a second, and you were just describing millennials in particular being quite cautious. The friends with... Basically the test or try it before you buy it. Let's have friends with benefits, let's have safe ways to explore sexual chemistry, relational compatibility, all these things, and this notion of what you've been calling slow love. To me, that feels like a quite modern, it could be missing some key, deeper truth, but this is social stories. But it feels to be a quite modern adaptation where virginity, particularly control of women's sexuality and young women's sexuality seems to not be playing as strong a role in the mating game, in the push towards early marriage, because obviously if someone has just his adolescence, they become hormonally drenched, there's the tension and attraction of high school, college, and the idea of we better get married as soon as possible so you can make an honest woman of me. That old story, kind of often Marvelous Miss Maisel kind of stuff. Versus now where our millennials, do you have a sense that sexual activity and openness is now decoupled from social status and immorality and those kind of things? Is that what's giving people more freedom of choice as to how they architect their romantic arcs?

Helen Fisher: A wonderful question. Well first of all, darting back to the grasslands of Africa, they didn't concern themselves with virginity before marriage. And when you really look at the hunting and gathering societies, women were very powerful in most of these cultures, actually in all of them. For millions of years women commuted to work to gather their fruits and vegetables, they came home with 50% or more of the evening meal, the double income family was the rule, and women were just as sexually and socially and economically powerful as men. And under those circumstances, women married who they wanted to marry and they walked out on who they wanted to walk out on. So bottom line is then we begin to settle down on the farm, and on the farm women really lost a great deal of their economic power. They could no longer wander off and collect the fruits and vegetables and come home with the evening meal.

The men's roles became much more important, not only falling the trees and moving the rocks and plowing the land, but taking the produce off to local markets and coming home with the equivalent of the money. And along with that, we see the rise of exactly what you're talking about, the rise of virginity at marriage, the concept that a woman's place is in the home, the concept that the man is the head of the household, and the concept of 'til death do us part. And I mean, on a farm, how are you going to walk out? You can't walk out. You can't cut the cow in half and take it out of town. You can't move half the wheat field and take it with you. You either walked out empty handed or you stuck with it.

So in agrarian cultures around the world you see these beliefs of virginity at marriage, et cetera. So what we're really seeing today is not something new. What we're seeing is we're moving forward to the kinds of partnerships that we really had a million years ago where girls were expressing their sexuality very young, using their sexuality as a test to see whether they like you well enough or not. And they can do this now. I mean, young girls today know how to not get pregnant, they know how to not get diseases, and they don't have to walk the walk of shame. So the bottom line is the pots off the lid and the lid is off the pot and women can express their sexuality. That old thing of why buy the cow if you've got the milk for free is different. That was a total agrarian line.

Jamie Wheal: So wait. So you just covered so much ground. So we've just gone from 100,000 years ago through the last 10,000 years, the age of agrarian societies, and there's tons of conversations, theses, counter-arguments embedded in that conversation. Yuval Harari, for anybody that read Sapiens, he also penned the beginning of our fall into the agrarian era that we were happier, we were healthier, we were more egalitarian as hunter gatherers and it wasn't until the 10,000 years, Chris Ryan, famously with Sex at Dawn-

Helen Fisher: He didn't do it. I mean, I know him and I actually like the man, but he really fiddled with the data.

Mating in Hunter-Gather vs. Agrarian Societies 

Jamie Wheal: Yes, exactly. Exactly. So that's my point. So my question is, is let's really slow this down because I think it's a fascinating conversation that most people skip over and they shape it to be their just so story, like this is the way it was and then I'm going to make my point about a contemporary issue. So to your point, I mean I think Jared Diamond actually wrote... I don't know if you read his book, Why Sex is Fun, but it was-

Helen Fisher: I should read some of these things. I really should. I just get so involved in writing my own books.

Jamie Wheal: So he did a very interesting study on basically caloric output and gain from hunting and gathering, the male roles versus... Or the hunting versus the gathering, the nuts and berries and horticulture kind of stuff. And bottom line is, if you wanted the most consistent caloric harvest for your family, you did the women's work. And that the men it was feast or famine. And then there was this series of theories as to why that was the case. And basically there would be the idea that if I came home with the bison, if I came home with the big game, I would gain status or these kind of things and there was also the advancing thesis of why a woman might actually choose the reliable, dependable mate, but occasionally sleep with or exchange sexual favors with a successful hunter who was the neighbor kind of thing. And it was sort of this whole now you get into the bonobo theories of sexuality as social bonding glue, social capital, that kind of stuff.

So I'm curious as to... Because that whole notion of agrarian revolution equals patriarchy equals oppression of women equals control of sexuality, I'd just love to kind of take our time through that. So you gave us a sort of highway speed drive by, but let's take each of those. How and why, because I think those are really important. And again, back to something like Sex at Dawn, which every serious evolutionary biologist and anthropologist I know chokes a little on that book and on the other hand, it took off like gangbusters in popular culture because, at least my assumption is, because it gave people permission to do what they thought what they wanted to do right now, which is this advent and explosion of polyamory. So walk us through this. Walk us through more egalitarian distributed, and also even gender roles. Or if you look at Pueblo Hopi culture, the women are the house builders. They're actually doing a lot of, at least in the Western world, gender masculine roles. But they crush it. And then also their divorces were free and easy. Just put a man's moccasins outside the home and that meant hit the bricks, like I'm done with you. So what do you feel or what's your working hypothesis as to the drivers that degraded feminine agency with this rise of agrarian societies? How did that happen?

Helen Fisher: Okay, well first of all, you're talking to a person that actually feels that in agrarian societies men are equally chained to the roles. Now, every single woman who's in an arranged marriage is in an arranged marriage with a man and he might not want that marriage any more than she does. So I've often felt that it's not just a patriarchy coming down on the heads of women, but just a sort of societal economic demands coming down on the head of both sexes. I mean, if somebody dropped in from Mars in a farming society and saw what men do every day, they do the dangerous jobs. Many more men die of overwork I think around the world, et cetera. So anyway, I maybe may go down in history as one of the few people that defends men as well as women. So I don't think that patriarchy was necessarily very good for either sex. And that their behavior was curtailed by both. So I don't know which part, the one that's sticking to my head was about-

Jamie Wheal: I'm curious about fixity, geographic fixity, access to work or sustainability close or far from home, you're talking about bringing things home versus being staying at home, you can't cut the cow in half, those kind of things, like the accumulation or aggregation of wealth and then even the nominal notion of men to markets and the conversion into currencies. What's the... There's lots of theories. And again, Ryan is an example of a popularized [inaudible 00:34:40], but the notions of paternity certainty, like I need to know whether or not the resources I'm distributing to my woman and my supposed children actually are propagating my gene line. What's your sense of monogamy, serial monogamy, polyandry, you name it? Different relational formats? How did we end up with, at least the persistent illusion that some variant of monogamy has been a default norm at least within our culture if not across the spectrum of anthropological variation? 

The Real Definition of Monogamy

Helen Fisher: Okay, so there's two questions here and I'm hanging on to them. First of all, generally the environment is what changes culture. By 10,000 years ago, the environment was dramatically changing. You really see more and more people having the ability to settle down. I mean, they started off with just coming seasonally to certain places just to fish and moving seasonally to some other places where the animals came pounding through. They collected wild plants, this and that, and the seeds dropped off, and then they came back the following year and there were more seeds growing there and more of what they needed. So it was a very gradual process of turning into an agrarian society.

But let's talk about something else, which is monogamy. As you know, but probably not all the listeners know, mono means one and gamy means spouse. One spouse. It does not mean sexual fidelity. It means forming a pair bond with another individual. 97% of mammals do not form a pair bond. Zebras travel in a group of one male and several females. Gorillas travel in a group of one male and several females. Chimpanzees live in a group of many males, many females, and everybody copulates with everybody in some sort of patterns. So the bottom line is that we form a pair bond, which is the right term for monogamy, forming a partnership, monogamy. I think evolved by 4.4 million years ago among ardipithecus ramidus and I read all this so carefully for so many years.

What anthropologists really do is they look at patterns of sexual dimorphism, in other words, two different forms. So for example, male gorillas are much bigger than female gorillas. And one assumes then that they're going to be polygamous because the big male's going to have to fight other males and collect a lot of females. Pair bonding species are monogamous, for instance like a lot of birds are very similar in their teeth and their coloration, this and that because they work together as a team. They form a partnership to rear their young. Why do birds do it? They have to. They have to because somebody's got to sit on those eggs and that individual would starve to death unless they get somebody to feed them. So in the spring, a robin, a male and a female get together, they form a pair bond, they are monogamous and together they breed and raise their babies.

However, when you take a look at all the birds and all other monogamous species, there are also adulterers. You can go into the eggs of some sort of nest of a songbird and find that not all of those baby chicks are the babies of the fellow that's feeding them. So a long thought that we've evolved what I call a dual human reproductive strategy, a tremendous drive to form a partnership, rear our children as a team, and also a tendency to be adulterers, to collect extra partners on the side, have extra children with them, in the case of men. In the case of women, get extra support for the children that they've already got.

So we select it for a double, for a dual human reproductive strategy. Men are striving to fall in love, to be jealous of others, protect that partnership, have our babies as a team, and also as Byrum said a desire for fresh features to be [inaudible 00:38:57]. So bottom line is I also think that we evolve a series of partners of serial monogamy or serial pair bonds. And I arrived at this because, well for many ways, but I looked at the demographic yearbooks of the United Nations and everywhere in the world where people can divorce, they do divorce. Divorce is very common. It was very common in hunting and gathering societies. Anthropologists have suggested that in all of our human history individuals tended to have two or three husbands or spouses, whatever, during the course of a series of socially visible partnerships and clandestine things on the side. So I think this is a very old tradition and you go around, look around the world just counting heads, the vast majority of men and women are living in a place with only one person at a time, monogamy. Now 86% of world cultures permit a man to have several wives at the same time, polygamy.

Jamie Wheal: Did you say 86%?

Helen Fisher: 86%. Traditionally. Now it may have changed in the last hundred years. But traditionally, yes, 86%. But, and this is what anthropologists don't tell you, is that when you look in those wonderful articles on this, when you look in those societies carefully, although the society permits a man to have several wives at once, the vast majority of men don't do it, they can't do it. Women will not share a man unless he's got a lot of goats, a lot of cows, a lot of fruit trees, a lot of money, a lot of education, a lot of land, a lot of prestige. And we are a jealous animal. And in fact, in these polygynous societies it's not as quite common even for co-wives to fight or to even try to poison each other's children. So we're not built for that. We're not built to share.

What is Polyamory?

Jamie Wheal: Whoa whoa whoa. Let's just wait one sec. Because you've just said something fascinating. You've said on the one hand it appears to be the pervasive natural order for serial monogamy with infidelities on the side, and on the other hand you've said but we're not wired for it, we're jealous creatures. So how do we... Is that just that we're complex and contradictory in our genetic and hormonal imprinting, are there just competing interests that are at play and that's why love has consistently been such a battleground or does one take precedence over the other?

Helen Fisher: Sure. Different things for different people. Some people are adulterers and end up leaving their partnership. Other people just lie about it. Other people have a fling and feel terrible and never do it again. I mean, we all handle this differently. But by... You come to a very wonderful thing here that I've never had an opportunity to say. It seems as if we've got this tremendous drive for partnership and also a drive for autonomy. And we all work it out in our own way, at different times in our life or even at the same time. What's interesting about polyamory, it's just transparent adultery, that's all it is. What these people have done in polyamory is they've decided that they don't want to lie to each other and they're in a wonderful partnership, they like where they are, they don't want to leave it, it's a deep attachment, but they want the rush of intense feelings of romantic love. And those are different brain systems. The brain system for attachment is a different brain system for romantic love and you can feel deep attachment for one person while you feel feelings of intense romantic love for somebody else. So what people who are polyamorous and poly-, many, -amory, love, they agree, they're totally up front about it, they agree that they're going to find some romance on the side. Not just sex, but romance.

Jamie Wheal: That's cheesy. That's what my parents did in the 1970s. That's swinging. We're doing polyamory. It's way cooler baby.

Helen Fisher: That's right. Swinging you do with your partner. You take your partner with you, you have sex in front of each other with other people and then you go home and laugh about it or whatever. I don't know, I haven't done it. I don't think I'd be good at that. I wouldn't be good at polyamory either.

Jamie Wheal: Stay up all night doing cocaine and listening to The Doobie Brothers. Yeah.

Helen Fisher: I like The Doobie Brothers.

Jamie Wheal: I was going to say another- Go ahead. You go.

Helen Fisher: Well, what the polyamorous people don't tell you is that they spend an enormant amount of time dealing with their feelings. I mean, they have a huge number of rules. Okay, no dates on Friday night, can't ever bring the person in your home, children won't be involved, or whatever, only this and this time. So they follow the rules. And then they spend an enormant amount of time talking about it. I don't know if that magazine is still in print, it's called Loving More. They used to really like me, the people in the polyamory community because I've always said and will continue to say that we've evolved through different brain systems through mating and reproduction. Sex drive [inaudible 00:44:31] and feelings of deep attachment. And what they like about that is the fact that I'm clearly saying I've been able to show that you can lie in bed at night and feel deep attachment for one person then swing and have feelings of romantic love for somebody else, and then swing into the sex drive for somebody you barely even know. So all they're doing is being honest about it.

So anyway, I did a study with Match, because I got this Singles in America study, and I asked one year "What do you think of polyamory and have you done it?" And 69% of singles in America, 5,000 people in this sample, had no problem with polyamory, but only 6% had ever done it. It's hard to do. It's much easier to lie to your partner, I mean, I'm not suggesting it because I've studied adultery in 40 cultures and it's very difficult for everybody. But it's a different thing from polyamory. Polyamory is I think just transparent adultery.

Jamie Wheal: Transparent adultery or serial monogamy with slow motion breakups.

Helen Fisher: Okay, that would work.

Jamie Wheal: You know. It's like I would like to go bang somebody more and I'm just going to tell you about it, and the moment that new relationship energy kicks in and the sexual attraction, then it's kind of asymmetrical chemical warfare. Somebody's in a steady state pattern versus the new and the dopamine overloads. And as often as not, that person does get left at the alter. Now there's one thing that you've said that I just want to-

Helen Fisher: None of us get out live Jamie.

Jamie Wheal: None of us get out alive. Yeah. But there's a couple of things you've layered in, a couple of moral judgments. And whether it was guilt and cheating or whether it was jealousy. There was just kind of this thin layer of moral interpretation of these actions. And that obviously, you coming from the anthropological domain, that's obviously, it depends on what your culture says about these behaviors and patterns. And so I just want to kind of slow that down too, which is in a society where adolescent promiscuity, where relationship changes... What societies are you aware of, either contemporary or historic indigenous where there was the closest match between the cultural norms, AKA the superegoic scorecard and our natural biological impulses? So there was the minimum of dysfunctional tension between how I ought to be and how I want to be?

Helen Fisher: I don't think there is one.

Jamie Wheal: Huh. So we just haven't necessarily designed or evolved a culture yet that matches just how we show up?

Helen Fisher: Well first of all, people are so different. Some people can form a partnership for their life. Sex isn't that important to them. Their community is very important and they just don't go there. There's other people who don't ever marry or marry very briefly because they don't think they'll ever be sexually faithful and they want that autonomy, et cetera. But let me tell you a story about polygyny. I was traveling in the highlands of New Guinea and-

Jamie Wheal: All good stories begin like that by the way. Nice.

Helen Fisher: Thank you. It's a true story. Anyway, it was a really beat up van. I could see this dirt road underneath my feet. I was sitting in the back of the van in an old, rusty, turned over barrel. And I was sitting there with three men and they did speak some English. One of them had three wives. And I asked him, because it was very common having three wives in that part of the world, and I asked him "How many wives would you like to have?" There was this long pause, and I was like has he been surprised, is he going to say 10, is he going to say 25. And he looked at me and said "None." And the reason... And then the guy next to him chimed in and he said "The reason is Helen, is that you can never have two wives because if you have two wives, every single time you're out of town, that wife knows where you are and they get jealous." Bottom line is we are a jealous animal and we've evolved, along with the evolution of pair bonding, I think by 4.4 million years ago, and I'd be happy to go into why, we evolved a lot of emotional systems to sustain that pair bond. And one of them is jealousy.

We are, as I guess [inaudible 00:49:07] of the outer New Guinea, and the outback of Australia said we are a jealous animal. Well, he was right. But we also like our autonomy. We also like some fresh features. And a certain number of people are going to be adulterers on the side. Frankly, I think adultery's going down in America today, largely because we're marrying so much later and we're really getting to know somebody before we wed and we really already have an awful lot of experience. All through your 20s you've got all this experience getting to know who you are, what you want, and getting rid of what you don't want so that by the time you walk down that aisle, that's what singles want today, particularly millennials, they want to know who they got, they want to know if they think they can keep who they've got, and they want to know that they've chosen the right person.

Now the other thing is, we can now divorce. I mean, during let's say, I don't know, even in the 1500s you'll see a French family and he's got a family and he's got a woman in town who is his adulterous companion with whom he will often have other children. Well, in past centuries, you couldn't divorce and women didn't have any means of production, economic means, if she did divorce. And as a result, you had to stay married forever. So an awful lot of men, and probably women too, because when men are sleeping around, they're probably sleeping around with a woman, you're going to see much more adultery in agrarian societies where people are stuck together.

Jamie Wheal: Sounds like you're basically advocating for the southern European model where men and women get to have mistresses and pool boys on the side, don't ask don't tell, everybody understands it's going on, and you maintain the stability of your core family unit. And that way, that navigates the jealousy factor, it addresses the novelty factor, it also addresses the pair bonding requirement that you've been advocating goes back 4 million plus years.

Helen Fisher: Well, I'll advocate that pair bonding went back 4.4 million years, but I'm definitely not going to advocate for any particular pattern of pair bonding today. To each his own. I mean, I actually got married a few months ago at my very advanced age.

Jamie Wheal: Was that your first marriage?

Helen Fisher: Well actually I was married for about 4 months when I was 23.

Jamie Wheal: Oh wow. So there you go. So one of the young 20s. You were consistent with your data.

Helen Fisher: Yeah. I didn't want to marry him when I walked down the aisle, but I was so scared of my mother that... Anyway, the bottom line is this one I did want to marry. But as I said, I'll marry you, but I'm not moving in. I'm doing something called LAT, living apart together. So I'm now at his house and it's my house too, but I also will keep my own home in Manhattan. And he's very pleased with that. We are going to be faithful to each other, that's not a problem at all. I'm done with all of that. But I like going out with my girlfriends and going to the theater and the opera. I like to go out and I like to walk through the streets of New York and he loves to stay home and read and do his thing. So what's the beauty of that is these days, we can make all different kinds of partnerships.

I mean, I have various friends of... Oh, their husband who is a writer lives in the country, they live in Manhattan and they go home for the weekends. I mean, we can have commuter marriages. Now we can have polyamory or we can have the kind of thing that you just described of having a woman on the side. But I guess there'd be less and less and less of that because women don't put up with it anymore and neither do men. If they feel somebody's cheating, then they get out of it or they resolve it instead of just putting up with it.

What Is the Capacity of Sexuality to Lead to Higher or Transcendent Experiences?

Jamie Wheal: So final question then. We've talked about polygamous, we've talked about monogamous, we've talked about the different configurations of union. I'm fascinated as to what, if anything, you see is the relationship with hieros gamos, which was the Greek idea of the sacred union? So you've done a lot of work on the neurochemistry of lust, love, and attachment and how that shapes our consciousness and to some extent even has correlations with our personality structures and how we embrace the rest of life. So with your temperamental inventory and your personality profiles, what is the capacity of sexuality to lead to higher or transcendent experiences, the hieros gamos? So regardless of which relational format, we're all still playing with the same evolutionary knobs and levers, what is your sense of this profound neurochemical and hormonal cascade that tends to accompany pair bonding attraction, arousal, and actual mating and the transcendent, the potential, the realms of what in the west would have been this category of sex magic, in the east it would have been the tantric traditions, et cetera, but sort of the pinnacle of what does it mean when we come together?

Helen Fisher: Well, let me dive back to the kind of person that I am and just simply say that there is a gene in the serotonin system linked with religiosity, with what they call self-transcendence. Some people have that gene and they are rigorously religious. Other people don't have that gene and I'm one of them. So I can see the beauty of sexuality, of sex, I can see the thrill of it. But I don't link it with God. I don't link it with a higher power of any kind.

Jamie Wheal: We can leave the meaning making completely out. I'm thinking of la petite mort, I'm thinking about the collapse in the default mode network, I'm talking about the kind of homeostatic reboot that can come from that kind of intense, peak release.

Helen Fisher: Okay. Well I'd like it if you answered this question. But I'll start and then you finish it up, because I think you're looking for something that I'm not quite sure what it is. But when you have sex with somebody, sex is very good for you. I mean, first of all, it releases the androgens, including testosterone, so you want more sex. Any stimulation of the genitals drives up the dopamine system and can help sustain feelings of intense romantic love. And with orgasm there's a flood of oxytocin linked with feelings of deep attachment. So having sex with somebody that you like can trigger, and often does trigger, all three of these basic brain systems. More sex drive, more feelings of intense romantic love, and more feelings of deep attachment. I mean, sex is basically good for you.

It also drives up the endorphins so that you get pain relief. The pain threshold goes up by about 10%. The DHEA, one of the androgens, gives you the glowing skin. Sex boosts the immune system, which is good for you and it's good for heart rate, respiration, blood pressure, all of the muscles, all of the genital tissue. It promotes sleep. It brings oxygen to the brain. And it elevates mood. In seminal fluid are all kinds of neurochemicals that are really good for mood. So I don't know how to go any farther than that.

Jamie Wheal: That was fantastic. I mean, that is a beautiful-

Helen Fisher: So are relationships. I mean, so is... Positive relationships are very good for you. They lower blood pressure and lower cholesterol and cortisol and the stress hormone. They sustain memory and mood and mental agility. Hugs drives up the oxytocin. Laughter drives up the dopamine system that gives you energy and focus and motivation. Laughter boosts the immune system. And play really is good for brain growth. So we were built to form pair bonds. I'm not saying that we're necessarily sexually faithful, not saying that we're going to sustain them forever, but I do think with this modern trends of slow love, we're going to get to know ourselves before we wed, we're going to marry much later, and it's entirely possible that because we're simply marrying later, we're going to head in towards a few decades of relative family stability.

Jamie Wheal: Beautiful. Well Helen, you've done an amazing job kind of highlighting the full spectrum between sort of the agony of missed relationships, jealousy, disconnection, infidelity, all the way to the ecstasy and literally just the celebrious, life giving and crucial effects of us connecting. And this is how we do it. We wouldn't be here if we hadn't had this act, this practice, this set of connections encoded into our impulses. And you're now highlighting a way forward where we actually may be stepping into an era of increased choice and increased intentionality and if we can maybe manage or decrease the amount of agony and we can increase the amount of ecstasy, we might find our way with a path forward. So thank you for all your research. Thank you for your insatiable curiosity about all of this stuff and for highlighting a path that's not simply opinion-based but evidence-based and is drawn not simply from one discipline, but several and really kind of sign posting ways we can all become more aware of something that we all live, but aren't always fully in the driver's seat on.

Helen Fisher: Thank you. Thank you, thank you, thank you. And I hope we talk again sometime and I hear more about what you're doing.

Jamie Wheal: Absolutely. And I'd love to send you a galley of the book and highlight the sections for you.

Helen Fisher: This time I'll do it.

Jamie Wheal: Beautiful, beautiful. Helen, thank you so much.

Helen Fisher: Thank you.

Jamie Wheal: It's been great to see you. And a huge congratulations on your marriage. That's amazing.

Helen Fisher: It is amazing.

Jamie Wheal: The shoemaker's children. The shoemaker's children finally have some shoes.

Helen Fisher: That's exactly right. Take care and thanks again.

Jamie Wheal: Be well.


1 Comment

  • Brock Noyes
    This article seems to miss the critical point that sex with peak orgasm causes a flood of cortisol and adrenaline into the system. Oxytocin is just the initial rush, and then comes adrenaline and cortisol...neither of these are optimal bonding we separate blaming the partner or ennui when it is possible that nature simply wants a high level of reproduction and is not interested in us staying together... hence it doses us with adrenaline which is particularly deleterious with those who have experienced trauma...the question that is emerging is how many relationships fall apart because of the unawareness of biology of orgasm...two bibles in this canon are Peace Between the Sheets by Robinson and The Multi-orgasmic Male by Mantax Chia
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