The Ever Changing Human Pair-Bond

The Ever Changing Human Pair-Bond

In spite of the intense displays of life-long passion our media tells us we should find in our partnerships, the human “pair-bond” has actually meant different things at different times throughout human history.

History of human pair bonds
Image credit: Hans

A Bried History: Were Did We Come From & Where Are We Headed?

Reproductive Pairs

For much of our past, the primal goal of women and men was to reproduce, thus, pair-bonding meant two people who desired each other long enough to have sex as often as it took for the woman to conceive. After a female became pregnant, the relationships that supported her and raised her children were the tribe and extended family, not solely or even necessarily the man she had become pregnant with.

Child Rearing

During this time, child rearing tasks did not last over decades as it does now.

Young mothers and fathers at 13 or 14 years of age soon became part of the care-taking network itself. In many ways, pair bonds surrounding child rearing were much shorter lived than what we experience now.

Polygamous Pairs

Then with the loss of nomadic lifestyles and the rise of agriculture and land ownership (10,000 or so years ago) longer lasting polygamous pair-bonding and social groups arose. In fact, approximately 80% of all societies throughout recorded time have consisted of men in families with multiple wives (only 4% consisted of multiple husband households).

This suggests polygamy was the mating system of choice for humans during the agricultural era.

Monogamous Pairs

About 4,000 years ago, the monogamous pair-bond began to develop. At first, it was only an option, not a rule. But in the last 500 years, one-on-one love relationships have become more highly valued for their potential stabilizing effects and legitimized by law in a growing number of countries.

Benefits to Society

Data supporting the benefits of monogamous marriage show its value to society.

  • Monogamous societies have lower pools of unmarried men, with statistically lower crime rate.
  • Commerce, innovation and GDP increase in monogamous regions, as men can focus on work productivity, rather than competing for multiple wives.
  • Monogamous marriage is also helpful to women in many ways. It:
    • Increases women’s age at marriage,
    • decreases spousal age gaps (decreasing the practice of older men marrying pre-pubertal brides),
    • and can decrease gender economic inequality.

Mating Strategies & Deep Psyche

But societal benefits aside, marriage systems such as monogamy don’t always line up with our evolved mating strategies and our deep psyches.

Our recent age of economic parity for women, birth control, and no-fault divorce is ushering in a new revolution in pair-bonding. No longer do religions keep monogamous marriages together, nor do social systems (mainly because of economic necessity) force couples to stay together.

In fact, the “modern family” shows who we really are—in many ways not truly monogamous and for at least half of us not mating for life.

In all this, it is crucial to remember that mating strategies in human pair bonding have created our evolved sexual psychology for mate selection. We mate (have sex) much more based on our brain, DNA, and hormone guidance than on any words or vows in our heads.

Our goal on the instinctual and cellular level is to find the highest quality partner to create children with (e.g. the Dominant Male), even if this individual is not the best for a long term pair-bond.

In contrast, marriage systems are defined by culture, religion, and individual expectations. Genetic qualities of our offspring rarely factor into marriage choices.

- Dr. E

Science can help us nurture and enjoy our sexual selves.

Dr. Ellington (“Dr E”) is an internationally recognized scientist in the area of sexual medicine and sperm physiology with over 75 publications. 


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