The Science of Love: The New Marriage

With more women entering the workforce and spending less time at home, how have today’s marriages and family changed?

rings and love


According to the anthropologist Helen Fisher, a leading researcher on the biology of love and attraction, “no other time on this planet have women been so educated, so interesting, so capable. … They have never been as interesting as they are now.” We can clearly see this in developed countries like Singapore where – as women increasingly becomes integrated into the job market – men and women are becoming more equal in terms of social status. And with the rising power of women, Dr. Fisher says, we are also seeing the rise of female sexual expression.

In many countries today, but more so in Western nations, women are making the same choices that were exclusive to men just a decade ago: they now have more romantic partners over their lifetime, choose when to have children (and how many), and stay within or leave a marriage as they see is best for them. All these have led to dramatic changes on how we build families today and how we form and foster our marriages.

Dr. Fisher believes that we have already started what some social scientists call the “pure marriage” (also called the “symmetrical marriage” or “companionate marriage”). She describes this kind of marriage as “a marriage between equals, moving forward to a pattern that is highly compatible with the ancient human spirit.” (This refers to how back before the invention of agriculture, men and women were considered equal as both provided equally essential contributions to the family and the community.)

In a pure marriage, because the male and female have more or less the same social power, the union is one of mutual consent between the two partners, who are very likely to hold romantic feelings for each other. Indeed, we can see this everywhere. Here in Singapore, even while we follow age-old traditions, we have practically got rid of arranged marriages. In America, a survey found that an overwhelming majority of people will not marry someone who has everything they’re looking for if they are not romantically attracted to that person. In short, couples today just wouldn’t get married – no matter the incentives – unless they are in love with each other.

In her 2008 TED conference talk, Dr. Fisher says that we are experiencing two great social trends: the first is that women are becoming more integrated into the workforce (discussed in the first part of this article); the second is the aging world population. Why this second trend is very important to marriages is because the longer people live, the longer they remain married. And with advancements in technology (Viagra, estrogen replacement therapy, and hip replacements, for example) couples now are more able to sustain a happy marriage.

In her study of 58 societies, Dr. Fisher also found that the longer couples have stayed together, the less likely they are to divorce (with divorce rates peaking at couples who are in their early 30s). She also found that, at least in America, divorce rate has not only stabilized, but has in fact started to decline. In Singapore, where divorce rate is less than one in a thousand people (for comparison, the U.S. rate is 4.95 per 1000), it might mean that not only are more couples stay together, but also that they keep a happy marriage throughout their lives. As Dr. Fisher says, “I honestly think that if there really was ever a time in human evolution when we have the opportunity to make good marriages, that time is now.”

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