The Times

November 28 1999

Women programmed for four-year love affairs

John Harlow, Social Affairs Editor
The Sunday Times

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

After more than 15 years of research in 62 countries, Professor Helen Fisher will reveal findings this weekend 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, said Fisher last week.

Fisher, anthropology professor at 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, said the 53-year-old anthropologist, who unveils her evidence on BBC1's Heart of the Matter tonight. "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," she said. "I do not know why this is surprising: virtually no other mammal hangs around for anything like four years."

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, Fisher, a controversial figure in the United States, 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, chairman of the government's new parenting institute, said that 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. The 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 Fisher, said: "Men do not like looking after other men's offspring: in animal groups where female monogamy is low, infant mortality rates are high. Men are genetically inclined towards detecting infidelity, which risks their genetic inheritance: this manifests itself as jealousy.

"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."

Copyright 1999, Times Newspapers Ltd.