Why women have been programmed not to sleep around like men and you will also be happier if you don’t say ‘I love you’ to your partner, writes CLAIRE FOGES

A campfire, 40,000 years ago. There is something about her – the way the flames’ glow lights up her soft features, the plumpness of her lips, the arch of her back. He just wants to be near her, and she him.

He is known for his hunting skills, often coming back with a feast for the group. The couple are magnetised, entranced. They pair up, have sex, have babies.

The scene around the campfire in 38,000BC is not all that different from one in a nightclub today. Then, as now, we were driven to seek mates who would give us the best chance of passing on our genes. 

We might think ourselves sophisticated creatures who are unbound by such primitive calculations, but the old gene-spreading urge is still felt in many subtle ways.

Take the fact that men with deep voices tend to be considered more attractive. Why? A study of Hadza women found that they prefer men with Barry White-style baritones because they assume that they are better hunters.

There is a huge gap between what human pair-bonding was designed for and what is expected of it today – and it’s causing incalculable emotional fallout in relationship breakdown, writes Clare Foges

Another oddity: women at the most fertile point in their cycle are three times more likely to wear red than those at the least fertile point, a subconscious choice driven by the age-old linking of the colour with fertility and attractiveness (perhaps because of the way some women’s skin takes on a rosier tone when oestrogen levels rise).

Researchers have even found that men are particularly attracted to women with a back that curves exactly 45 degrees above the top of her bottom, because this precise angle would have given Stone Age women an advantage in pregnancy. 

As bellies grew, this spinal curve would have helped to shift their centre of mass back over their hips, thus allowing them to stay active and forage for longer.

That such a tiny and subtle breeding advantage still causes the male pulse to quicken tens of thousands of years beyond its practical relevance underlines an important point: our sexual instincts are rooted in our Stone Age past.

Our hormones work in the same way today as they’ve always done: a cocktail of feel-good chemicals that draw us to a mate for the purpose of perpetuating the species. As we pass through the phases of lust, attraction and attachment, different hormones do their work. During the lust phase, testosterone and oestrogen are stimulated in men and women.

During attraction, the hypothalamus fires out dopamine, explaining those feelings of ecstasy.

When it comes to attachment, the two primary players are oxytocin and vasopressin. For evidence of the power of these hormones, look no further than prairie voles. Whereas their promiscuous cousins, the montane voles, are about as faithful as a drunken stag party in Las Vegas, prairie voles stay with their partners for life.

Once they have mated, they have eyes only for each other. When one dies, they even show signs of a broken heart.

Why the difference between prairie and montane voles? Because prairie voles have higher levels of receptors for oxytocin and vasopressin.

In an experiment where the promiscuous montane voles were dosed with these bonding hormones, they too became monogamous and loyal to their mate.

Oxytocin and vasopressin work in a similar way in human beings: they are hormonal superglue, binding us to our lover.

Why is all this relevant in a world of hook-ups, dating apps, sexual choice and female empowerment? Because however sexual culture may change, our ancient hormonal responses stay the same. 

The denial of this truth has led to the creation of an unhelpful modern myth: that for women, there is such a thing as ‘casual’ sex, the idea that we can enjoy random or one-off sexual encounters in exactly the same carefree way that men can.

This may be the acceptable ‘sex positive’ view, but it ignores the way that female bodies and brains evolved to respond to sex. The poet Philip Larkin mournfully wrote that ‘Sexual intercourse began in nineteen sixty-three (which was rather late for me)’.

Then was around the time that the contraceptive pill became widely available in the UK. ‘Up to then,’ writes Larkin, ‘there’d only been a sort of bargaining.’

‘Bargaining’ might be an ugly way of putting it, but Larkin is pointing to the different agendas that governed human sexual relations since the dawn of the human race. If a man and woman had sex that resulted in a pregnancy, and the woman was left to raise the child alone, she faced a daunting task. Therefore it made sense for the woman to be choosy about whom she had sex with.

Women’s sexual agenda was to grant sex to those who could offer them commitment and resources to help raise the child. They limited the supply of sex. Men’s agenda was to seek sex, to vie for women’s attentions.

Clare with her husband Sean. She says that at the beginning of her relationship there were certain things about Sean that frustrated her

Clare with her husband Sean. She says that at the beginning of her relationship there were certain things about Sean that frustrated her

Over recent decades it has come to be seen as pro-feminist to be promiscuous. Women who have sex ‘like men’ – enjoying casual encounters with multiple partners – have been lauded as liberated. In the first episode of Sex and the City, Carrie Bradshaw has a casual encounter with a man, after which she declares: ‘I’d just had sex like a man. I left feeling powerful, potent, and incredibly alive…’

But while contraception can liberate us from old social conventions, it can’t liberate us from hormonal responses which are far, far, older.

When human beings have sex, the hormone oxytocin is released. Remember the prairie voles? This is the one that bonds us fiercely to another. And guess what? Women produce far more of this hormone than men, which means that they are more likely to develop a deep attachment to someone after having sex with them.

Many a time I’ve commiserated with a friend experiencing the agonies of ‘why hasn’t he called?’ after an amazing night together. Sex has primed their brains for commitment with a man, but it hasn’t worked the same bonding magic on the man involved.

As anthropologist Dr Helen Fisher says, ‘it’s entirely possible’ to fall in love off the back of a one- night stand: ‘There’s no question about it, good sex is going to trigger the brain systems that push you towards romance and attachment.’

Sex-positive feminists argue that while men used to have all the fun, now women are owning their sexuality, enjoying shame-free ‘hook-ups’, feeling empowered. But our Stone Age instincts – and hormonal responses – mean the no-strings culture often isn’t so ‘positive’ for women.

It’s not empowering when a surge of sex-triggered oxytocin means that women fall for men who don’t fall for them back.

It’s not empowering when women find that men are increasingly reluctant to commit.

Dawn Maslar has written extensively about the relationship junctures at which men and women start to feel seriously bonded to one another are different.

For women, the bonding hormone oxytocin skyrockets when they have sex.

For men it’s different. While they are uncommitted to a partner, their levels of testosterone are higher, which actually blocks oxytocin. It’s not until the point at which men commit that testosterone drops and oxytocin – that loving feeling – is allowed to rise.

Broadly, then, women start bonding in earnest when they have sex; men start bonding in earnest when they commit. If the sex comes before any explicit commitment, different agendas will often lead to confusion and hurt. 

This is especially true in the online dating age, when so many sexual possibilities are out there via a smartphone. Is this heading towards an argument for women in chastity belts until their wedding night? No! It’s good that women are able to enjoy premarital sex without being (metaphorically) tarred and feathered as in the bad old days.

What is wrong is for women to think that if they’re not as gung-ho about casual sex as men, then they’re cold or frigid. The advice: if you’re looking for a long-term relationship, consider delaying intimacy for a while. This avoids the risk of developing sex-induced feelings for someone who’s not right anyway.

It also lessens the risk of losing someone who’s right if they haven’t felt that commitment-induced surge of oxytocin yet. It might sound old-fashioned, but so are our hormonal responses.

Of all the definitions of love that have been written, novelist Somerset Maugham got closest to the truth: ‘Love is only a dirty trick played on us to achieve continuation of the species.’

Love began as a commitment device, an evolution-mixed hormonal cocktail which binds couples together long enough for children to be created, born and raised to independence.

In the context of our family tree, human monogamy is an odd thing. Fewer than 10 per cent of mammal species are monogamous. Our closest cousins, the chimpanzees, are highly promiscuous.

For women, the bonding hormone oxytocin skyrockets when they have sex. But for men, it is not until they commit that testosterone drops and oxytocin – that loving feeling – is allowed to rise

For women, the bonding hormone oxytocin skyrockets when they have sex. But for men, it is not until they commit that testosterone drops and oxytocin – that loving feeling – is allowed to rise

Wouldn’t this make evolutionary sense for us, too?

Why has our species bothered with the whole messy business of love and monogamy when we could just meet, mate and part?

Promiscuity might seem a good gene-spreading strategy, but it has its limits. If a woman was left to raise a baby without a male, feeding the infant while gathering enough food for herself and others and dealing with the attentions of other men, that baby was less likely to survive.

If, however, a father stuck around to help, that increased the chance that his children would make it, along with his genes.

For Stone Age man, another benefit of pair-bonding was that you could be confident the baby was yours, rather than some other bloke who’d had sex with the lady in question while you were away. And so, many argue, monogamous relationships were critical to the success of our species. Why should we care about the roots of monogamy today?

Because it is in the conflict between age-old truths and modern culture that so much heartache is created. In the Stone Age, pair-bonding was a practical arrangement for the raising of children. Today, bride and groom may stand at the altar and promise to be each other’s ‘protector, confidante, co-conspirator, partner-in-crime, soulmate, best friend, sounding board, greatest fan, personal chef, eternal lover…’

It’s not enough for our spouse to care for us: they’ve got to champion us, challenge us, help us grow. We want them to awaken our sexual selves, expand our minds, hold our hand through 3am worries, inspire us to be the best we can be.

Modern marriages are creaking under the strain of these expectations. A friend who works as a couples’ therapist tells me of the many times that she has heard one partner complaining that their spouse is not ‘growing’ with them while the other partner looks utterly perplexed.

Spool back to the early days of human pair-bonding and this level of expectation seems preposterous. Do you think Stone Age partners were berating each other about not letting them grow? Did they expect their partner and co-parent to telepathically understand their every need?

There is, quite simply, a huge gap between what human pair-bonding was designed for and what is expected of it today – and it’s causing incalculable emotional fallout in relationship breakdown.

The more expectations of marriage grow, the more likely it is to disappoint, the more resentful partners become, and the more they wonder what (or who) else is out there. This might explain why about 50 per cent of marriages now end in divorce, and why around one in five cheat – or admit to it, anyway.

The romantic narrative that we absorb from our first Disney movie promises us – women and men – that love is poetry. When life delivers us prose, this causes heartache, disappointment and disastrous choices.

So in thrall are we to the Grand Romantic Narrative that it’s no wonder our partners often fall short. They’re our lover but not our friend, our friend but not our professional cheerleader, our cheerleader but not into croquet or obscure Korean films like we are. The gap between expectation and reality yawns wider.

The modern answer to this dissatisfaction is to ask more of our partner and our relationship. The Stone Age answer? To ask less.

Asking for less doesn’t mean putting up with abuse, cruelty or neglect. It means getting some perspective on what one other person can and should provide you.

At the beginning of my relationship there were certain things about my husband that frustrated me. When I was unwell he wasn’t particularly attentive, not bringing me hot-water bottles like modern white knights are supposed to do.

When I had a spasm of unconfidence about work projects he did little more than shrug his shoulders and say it would all turn out right in the end. When I wanted to share an amazing poem that I had read, he looked like he wanted to reach for a cyanide pill.

I began noticing all the ways he was falling short. Steeped in women’s magazine articles about how I should work out my ‘needs’ and get my partner to fulfil them, I initiated long debates. Communicate, communicate, communicate, goes the advice – and we did.

But the same old arguments were had. I wanted my husband to share my priorities, read my feelings, anticipate what I needed. But the more I reflected on the prehistoric roots of our relationship, the more I realised I was setting us up for failure. I decided very consciously to take a load of expectation off the relationship – or rather, to share the load.

These days if I’m in need of a pep talk I will seek out my mother. If I want to speak for an hour about the highs and lows of motherhood, I’ll call my friend Liz. If I want to watch an old Merchant Ivory film or reminisce on the beauties of Venice, I’ll do that with my sister.

Spreading the emotional load like this is strongly linked to wellbeing. Several studies have found that when someone has a range of different people to experience different emotions with, from sadness to triumph to reflectiveness, they have a higher quality of life.

Research like this is a riposte to the ‘twin soul’ idea that we’ve been fed by the Grand Romantic Narrative. My husband is still the central person I spend time with and talk to, but by not looking to him for everything I better appreciate all the good things that we share.

Once upon a time your beloved might have walked miles through lashing rain just to see you, memorised all the players in the Premier League to impress you, named every freckle on your body with the reverence of Galileo naming the constellations.

Now they can barely tear their eyes from the telly when you talk about your day.

The fading of love’s initial fire can be extremely painful. I should know: I sought therapy for it. Falling from my pedestal as love object extraordinaire felt like a failing.

After the third time this had happened, I asked a psychotherapist. ‘Why does this keep happening? Why can’t I have a relationship that lasts?’

Like countless others, I had bought into the idea that when the fizzy-and-obsessed phase is over, the whole relationship is over. It’s what inspires people to declare those dreaded words ‘I love you… but I’m not in love with you’. Behind these words is, again, a mismatch between modern expectation and age-old truth.

The modern expectation is that love should last with a burning intensity until death, or it ain’t the real deal. But the age-old truth is that the first phase of love is not so much ‘a total eclipse of the heart’ as a total eclipse of the brain by feel-good chemicals – and those chemicals are time-limited.

Scientists suggest that the dopamine surge involved in early love fades somewhere between six months and two years into a relationship. It doesn’t matter if you’re a Victoria’s Secret model, a sexual athlete or the wittiest person alive, the reward pathway in your partner’s brain won’t keep firing the way it used to.

Some may claim they still get goosebumps every day when their partner of 30-odd years comes home, but these are outliers.

For most of us there comes an inevitable ‘delirium drop-off’ a couple of years in, when the dopamine subsides – and with it the giddy highs.

I find the inevitability of this reassuring. It’s one reason why I stayed the course with my husband beyond those first couple of years. In previous relationships I felt the delirium drop-off so keenly that I would sabotage the relationship soon after.

After all, if it felt like the partnership was nearing a natural end, why not pre-emptively show it the door?

By the time I got together with my husband I knew better. I had reflected on how our species is hardwired to fall in lust and love. I was prepared not to freak out when things inevitably shifted after a couple of years.

The Paleo Life by Clare Foges will be published by Piatkus on June 6, at £16.99. © Clare Foges 2024. To order a copy for £15.29 (offer valid until 08/06/24; UK P&P free on orders over £25) go to mailshop.co.uk/books or call 020 3176 2937.

Saying ‘I love you’ isn’t all it’s cracked up to be 

Telling someone ‘I love you’ for the first time is held up as one of life’s climaxes. It’s the crescendo in a song, the climax of a film, the moment readers crave for over two hundred pages of a romantic novel.

The Grand Romantic Narrative has led us to believe that this phrase is the touchstone for vibrant relationships.

But ‘I love you’ has become a lazy shortcut, a way of proving our feelings by mouthing a few words. By the time I was 35 I had parroted ‘I love you’ to five men and whispered it mentally to a few more.

Sometimes I meant it in the moment, sometimes I had felt compelled to say it (isn’t it rude not to say ‘I love you’ back?), but frankly I was getting a little tired of it.

When I got together with my husband it was with a certain weariness that I realised we would soon be mouthing the ole I.L.Y.: the same words for a relationship that felt very different.

'I love you' has become a lazy shortcut, a way of proving our feelings by mouthing a few words, writes Clare

‘I love you’ has become a lazy shortcut, a way of proving our feelings by mouthing a few words, writes Clare

As we had been friends for a long time I knew very quickly that I wanted only him for ever. I had always found him magnetic and magical. And now I would have to tether these very particular feelings to a very universal phrase: I love you.

The modern rules of romance decree that we had to have the I.L.Y. moment. And yet we never did. Almost a decade and four children in, we have never said ‘I love you’ – and I love it. Because when you banish I.L.Y. from your relationship vocabulary, when you can’t express your feelings in this easy way, you think harder about how you show them.

With no I.L.Y. shortcut or sticking plaster you have to be more imaginative about how you bond, through actions and words.

Instead of I.L.Y.

  • l Tell them how they impress you: what do they do that often goes unnoticed? Where do you rely on their strengths to compensate for your weaknesses?
  • l Describe how they’ve made your life better.
  • l Compliment them in a way that you haven’t done before.
  • l Don’t say it, show it: use actions not words to demonstrate the strength of your feelings.

The tasks that help turn couples into a dream team

Prehistoric couples were a practical team. The popular notion used to be of cave man the provider and cave woman the receiver: he’d throw a dead antelope on the floor; she’d cook it. But in recent years many have argued that this is way off the mark.

Some academics have suggested that women were possibly superior hunters, with bodies better equipped for long-distance pursuit.

Female skeletons show injuries consistent with being kicked by large animals, suggesting close contact with their prey. This led researchers to conclude that in prehistoric societies, no ‘strict sexual division of labour existed’.

For hundreds of thousands of years, human relationships were practical teams, collaborating to survive. Working together on practical tasks with common goals was what underpinned their relationships. 

That’s why I believe it’s important to have projects you work on together outside the necessary duties of earning a pay packet and sweeping the kitchen floor.

I’m talking about hands-on, practical tasks that involve a couple being in the same space at the same time, problem-solving and being creative together. The small plot at the back of our house is no Garden of Eden but my husband and I have spent many contented hours discussing how we can improve it, planning features and researching plants, going to the garden centre and getting our hands into the soil.

At Christmas we like working out what outlandish displays we are going to create in our house. Every year I ask for the same thing for my birthday: something we can work on together, such as a craft project to make.

My husband and I are at our best when working on something practical together, as our ancestors would have done every day – not when we are having deep ‘n’ meaningfuls.

Modern relationship advice instructs us that communication is everything. We’re encouraged to talk things out endlessly in the belief that this is the panacea to almost any problem in a relationship. 

But Professor John Gottman – a renowned expert on marriage – has found that 69 per cent of the problems among couples he has studied are never resolved. Sometimes the talking won’t work.

So then what? What I’ve found is that as we undertake practical tasks together, the old accusations and irritations recede. Instead of drained combatants facing each other having the same debates you’re collaborators working shoulder to shoulder. 

For millennia, human beings bonded as practical teams who had a job to do, not romantic partners who needed to complete each other. Sometimes it’s not good to talk. It’s better to do.

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