Fidelity: Nature or nuture?
For thousands of years, in western civilisations, fidelity has been imposed either by the government or by religion. But do humans really need these constraints in order to be faithful? Where does this particular idea, seen in other species as well, stem from?
In certain societies, fidelity to just one other person is one of the main social values. In others, it is polygamy which predominates. Most condemn adultery. But whatever the case, is faithfulness a natural pattern of behaviour?
Fidelity in the animal kingdom
In the animal kingdom, the practice of free love generally presides. Males and females of numerous species have multiple “partners”. This is often the necessary path in order to increase chances of reproducing, so that the species survives.
However, it has been observed that certain animals are an exception to this rule. Pairs of wolves often demonstrate absolute fidelity and mate for life. In emperor penguins, monogamy is the golden rule. Males are even stay at home dads, keeping the eggs warm or feeding the young. The champion of fidelity, however, is the beaver. To such an extent that if the male is sterile, the female will not procreate full stop.
According to Jared Diamond, the author of the book The Third Chimpanzee and specialist in biology and evolution, the organisation of relationships where “one male is surrounded by many females” is also a common occurrence in nature. “You find this type of system in gorillas, with a dominant male and a harem. Fidelity is still present here, since there is only one male”, he explains.
Biological basis for fidelity in man...
According to Gérard Leleu1, there is a biological basis for fidelity in humans, among other programming related to “the instinct to form attachment” in childhood. These could be to get closer to the need to be linked to each other, and to the “impulse to hold on to someone”. As adults we have an irrepressible need for contact, whether with the skin or on an emotional or sexual level. Psychologically and spiritually, Gérard Leleu specifies the “need for security and success (culminating in) the dream of a great love, love which can lead us to spirituality and this spirituality is what inspires fidelity.”
A social and historical issue too
Traditionally, being faithful means having only one partner in terms of emotional, sexual and psychological attachment. Since marriage has many different incentives, as well as love, (social organisation, inheritance), historically women had to prove absolute fidelity under pain of being punished, banished, put in prison or even done away with!
Since an act passed in 1975, adulterous spouses have been equal before the law. Before this, female infidelity was an offence in all circumstances while if it was the man who was unfaithful, this was a domestic affair. In divorce cases, adultery is now no longer grounds for divorce but counts as a grievance among others.
So, fidelity has evolved along with society. Women, through their battle for access to contraception and to the world of work, have acquired a new freedom to lead their own emotional and sexual existences. Fidelity even seems to have switched sides. Furthermore, female infidelity is no longer a taboo subject. Erotic literature, women’s magazines, and chick flicks show women have reclaimed their own sexuality.
Sexual fidelity and moral fidelity
Our lives are getting longer, and the lifting of moral constraints (religious or civil) has reduced the punishment of adultery. Faithfulness is no longer a requirement if it is not through love or desire for another. Now that conjugal life rests above all on feelings, matrimony is less stable but seems to engender fidelity more. In all cases, faithfulness is something that is decided upon.
However, an increase in the number of people living a double or sometimes triple love life has been observed2, due to the need for change and the desire to mix the stability of married life with the excitement of extramarital affairs.
While it seems like fidelity is losing its momentum, this code of behaviour doesn’t seem to be about to disappear either. For 70% of women, the definition of happiness is to have a faithful husband...
1 - La Fidélité et le couple (Fidelity and the Couple) by Gérard Leleu, Flammarion Edition
2 - Francoscopie 1999 by Gérard Mermet, Larousse Edition
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