They used to call it “the seven-year itch”. After seven years of marriage, in the days when marriage was “till death do us part”, men were statistically most likely to stray from the conjugal bed and take up with other women. Such affairs were usually temporary. Usually the other woman was left in the lurch when papa remembered his obligations to his wife and kids, or perhaps the financial cost of divorce. As Marilyn Monroe famously sang in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes,
He’s your guy when stocks are high, but beware when they start to descend –
For that’s when the louses go back to their spouses. Diamonds are a girl’s best friend!
Judging by the world’s three billion women, as a species they seem to be programmed to bear children and nurture them; the world’s three billion men are designed to sire children and ignore them. Women’s instinct seems to be to need families and a life that doesn’t threaten the welfare of their children; men’s is to seek companionship and a life that doesn’t interfere with that.
I’m well aware that a few millions of both sexes have progressed beyond such instincts. Good for them; but I’m writing about the vast majorities. Ethical concepts such as individual freedom and the perceived right to choose the way one lives are historically recent – and of limited application outside the Western system of governance. If that’s so, how and why did the two sexes reach a compromise in the Western system?
In other words, how did Western men become domesticated, in defiance of their sex’s contrary instincts and tradition? Why do they stay with their wives and kids despite their seven-year itches? And even when they don’t stay, in the advanced Western culture of serial monogamy and divorce, why do fathers (more often than not) keep in touch with their children?
After seven years of marriage there are, on average, two or three young children underfoot who divert their mother’s attention from the man in her life. If she wants to keep him and his financial support, and he wants her to stay active and attractive, she has little option but to become his slave – just as she would be in all the other cultures throughout human history. Oh yes, there’s been a queen here and an influential courtesan there, and Joan of Arc..., but the mass of women have always led lives of quiet desperation far greater than the mass of men could ever comprehend. They still do.
Except in the Western world – and even in it, sometimes – women have to leave their homes and families and move to the homes and families of the men who have bought and paid for them. Is it their fathers who oblige them to do that, or their mothers? Their fathers, almost certainly. When they (the sold-and-bought women) produce children, they give them up to their men’s clans or tribes, to live in peace or war at the discretion of those clans or tribes.
Traditionally, a man’s clan or tribal duties include providing children to his clan’s or tribe’s inventory of males – cannon-fodder for war or defence. The taboo of incest may well have originated when clans first noticed the physical debilitation of the children of siblings. Maybe, too, the practice of female infanticide originated as a means of depriving rival clans of breeding stock.
I’ve long puzzled over why Western women – so liberated and sophisticated, relative to their sisters in the Third World – don’t kick up more of a fuss about their children going off to unnecessary wars. Having carefully nurtured their babies through all the dangers of childhood, how can mothers send them off to die for the supposed honour of the community? It doesn’t make sense, except in terms of an atavistic submission to their lords-and-masters’ tribal instincts. The child of a slave-woman is also a slave. That was and is the rule in chattel slavery – a rule that may have begun right back with the very first tribes of pre-history.