The revolution in dating is not dating apps but our hugely extended lifespan and the possibility of a post-menopausal dating life
I spend a lot of time giving talks about the science of love and dating and the facts I impart often lead to some lively Q and A sessions. But one issue which my audience, which is overwhelming populated by female millennials, find hard to grasp is that despite the rise of feminism in the West our mating behaviour is stubbornly stuck in the past. I tell them that our dating psychology and behaviour are evolved to select a mate based on their potential as the parent of our future children.
As a consequence, woman search for the indicators of strong genes and the ability to protect and provide which were crucial if our female Palaeolithic ancestors were to overcome the dangers of the prehistoric world and raise their children to maturity. In contrast, men focus on the indicators of fertility and physical and genetic health which provide comfort that if they are to absent themselves from the mating market they at least have a good chance of becoming a dad. Further, once paired off our neurochemistry has evolved to encourage us to stay in this parenting relationship until we have reared all our children to maturity and they, themselves, have the opportunity to reproduce and pass on those all-important family genes. Despite my audience and our world being populated by strong, financially independent women these behaviours – underpinned by half a million years of evolution – are still powerfully evident in human dating behaviour today.
Until very recently the job of child bearing and rearing would consume our entire adult lifespan. The women of 1900s Britain would, at the very best, have had a year or two of post-reproductive life in which to explore a world un-encumbered by their offspring. But with improving healthcare the average lifespan today is 81 years old which means we have the chance of living another half lifetime after our reproductive work is done. And that means not only more time to travel, learn, work and play but more time to date. But this dating is not as we know it. In a post-reproductive world this dating has a whole other endgame in sight.
The Real Dating Revolution
The arrival of the internet and its associated social media platforms and apps is regularly heralded as the biggest change in our dating behaviour since the year dot. While I agree that these innovations have opened up a whole new chapter on dating it is the increase in human lifespan, and the possibility of a post-menopausal life, which is going to have the greatest impact on how we pick a mate. Because for the first-time women who are single during this stage of their life will be picking a partner without the drive to reproduce which dictated their pre-menopausal choice. And while men do not have a distinct menopausal life-stage the drop off in male fertility that occurs post 40 means that this drive also lessens in human males.
And statistics bear out the fact that, with the children having flown the nest, individuals are taking the chance to leave parenting relationships and embark on new, fresh post-menopausal dating adventures. Between 2015 and 2016 in the UK the number of men over 55 seeking a divorce jumped by 10% while the corresponding jump for women was over 15%. A phenomenal increase however you present the stats.
But this behaviour is new and at present we don’t know how the traits we prefer in our post-menopausal mate might differ from those we lust after in our 20s. I could suggest that because there is a link between companionship and good mental and physical health in old age what the sexes prefer may align for the first time and indicators of kindness and a personality indicative of a desire to share and care might become attractive. Or the link between keeping a lively mind and body and a lowered risk of both Alzheimer’s and other chronic health conditions might make someone with a thirst for travel and a black belt in judo a catch.
What I do know is that evolution can be slow to change and the half a million years of evolution that have wired our brain to employ every sense in the search for a mate with reproductive potential might take some time to overturn in this post-50s group. For now, we just don’t know, the research is yet to be done. But the possibility of a new way of dating, of redefining what is attractive in a mate is incredibly exciting for an evolutionary anthropologist. Asking the questions what is mating in post-menopausal life for? What are its drivers, its needs? What motivates our post-menopausal single to enter the dating game? And what does he or she want? Have no doubt I shall be watching, waiting and recording this most rare of moments; a true change in human mating behaviour as our species enters a whole new age.