helen_fisher's picture
Biological Anthropologist, Rutgers University; Author, Why Him? Why Her? How to Find and Keep Lasting Love
Research Professor, Department of Anthropology, Rutgers University; Author, Why We Love

"Free Love"    

"Love wins; love always wins," it has been said. But throughout most of our agrarian past, love lost, at least among the upper classes. Today I am optimistic about romantic love, because we are returning to patterns of romance that humankind enjoyed across most of our deep history: choosing lovers and spouses for ourselves.

Parents may have started to arrange their children's marriages when the brain began to develop some two million years ago. But in those few hunting and gathering societies that still survive, parents only initiate the first wedding of a son or daughter. Moreover, this contract is flexible. If the callow newlyweds are not happy with their match, they pick up their few belongings and walk home. The contract has been honored and parents are pleased to see their youth again. The young go on to choose their next partner for themselves.  

But as our forebears began to settle down some 10,000 years ago, and as they acquired immoveable property like fields of grain and sturdy homes, they began to need to cement their social ties. What better way than to wed your daughter with my son? Strictly arranged marriages became a way to built one's fortune and secure one's genetic future. These marriages had to endure, too. In some farming communities, you could fall in love with whom you chose; but you married the "right" individual, with the "right" kin connections and "right" social, economic and political ties. 

The widespread tradition of strictly arranged marriages began to dissipate with the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. As men and women left the farm for factory work, they no longer needed to maintain many of these connections. They could chose partners for themselves.

Today this movement is gaining speed, due to two dramatic world trends: the global rise of women in the paid labor force; and the aging world population. For millions of years women commuted to work to gather their fruits and vegetables and came home with much of the evening meal. Women were economically, sexually and socially powerful. With the invention of the plow, however, women lost much of their economic independence. But as women go back to work and come home with money, they are reacquiring their economic autonomy—and their ancient ability to choose their lovers and spouses for themselves. With the aging world population, high divorce and remarriage rates, and many modern inventions, from Viagra to hip replacements, women (and men) now have the time, opportunity and health to make their own match, what the Chinese call "free love."

And along with the rise of romantic love within marriage has come what sociologists hail as the 21st century marital form, known as peer marriages, symmetrical marriages or companionate marriages: weddings between equals. "Marriage," Voltaire wrote, "is the only adventure open to the cowardly." Today more and more men and women have the opportunity to enjoy this adventure—life with someone they passionately love. In this way humanity is regaining a tradition that is highly compatible with our ancient human spirit.