Australian National News

For women, it's just a four-year hitch

By JOHN HARLOW of The Sunday Times in London
The Australian
29nov99

FORGET the seven-year itch: relationships are genetically programmed to self-destruct after four years, says a leading anthropologist.

After more than 15 years of research in 62 countries, Helen Fisher was due to reveal on BBC Television last night findings that suggest the majority of women are ready to leave their men shortly after the marriage service.

Their genes tell them that children fathered by a series of men, creating a multiplicity of talents, stand a better chance of survival, Professor Fisher said last week.

Professor Fisher, of Rutgers University near New York, said this explained why most divorces were initiated by women. "The man may be playing around but it is the woman who needs to move on to her next partner in a lifelong chain of serial monogamy."

There was an innate four-year pattern in courtship, marriage, adultery and divorce, she said. "The brain chemicals that make us fall in love run out after 36 months, and it usually takes another year for us to realise this, look around and get out. I do not know why this is surprising: virtually no other mammal hangs around for anything like four years."

Professor Fisher, who is divorced, argues that cultural conditioning has artificially extended marriage. "Increasing economic independence of women will ensure that genes will out," she said.

Unlike previous researchers, Professor Fisher does not claim that people fall out of love after four years. Affection and warmth may allow relationships to thrive longer. She concedes that there are many happy-ever-after stories.

"In Britain and the United States, despite the divorce headlines, most people marry for life and stay married for life. Even those who divorce usually marry again, and happily."

The issues were highlighted last week when Mary Macloud, chairwoman of the British Government's new parenting institute, said passion was overrated in marriage.

"Marriage should be approached with a relatively cool head, like a partnership or a business," she said.

British scientists are sceptical about Professor Fisher's claims. Geneticist Steve Jones said: "The link between genes and any form of specific cultural behaviour is obscure. A century ago, you could have argued that genes dictated long marriages."

Helena Cronin, an evolutionary biologist and friend of Professor Fisher, said: "Long-term pair bonding, often based on the extreme vulnerability of the human baby, as well as love, is one reason why human beings are such a successful species. I do not see that changing."