Why We Mate: An Adaptive Challenge

Why We Mate:  An Adaptive Challenge

Humans have been hooking up a long time.

Like most animals, the need to keep our DNA here on Earth after we are gone drives us to seek out partners and procreate. Unlike most animals on the Discovery Channel, however, you may have noticed that we do it a bit differently. Positions and mating rituals aside, humans are part of a very small percentage (about 3% of all animals) that exhibit long-term pair-bonding.

Evolutionary biologist, psychologists and anthropologists have all put some serious efforts into researching why, despite our biological proclivities towards random couplings, long-term monogamous mating is the mode in most human cultures and societies.


Depending on the research, there are several different theories that point out how the evolutionary benefits of a long-term partner outweigh the cost of not spreading your love around.   One theory is that having a main squeeze for life better allows us to solve adaptive problems.  Adaptive problems are those that may be recurring over time that might be difficult to identify and navigate and greatly influence your chances for survival.  In early humans, this might have looked like the means of procuring food or surviving extreme temperatures. These are problems that may require collaboration that are best solved by the passing down or sharing of knowledge over time, which makes long-term mating a great strategy over the years.

Our modern-day problems may look very different to our ancestors’, but being part of a two-person team can still provide these benefits, both in the short-term for the two individuals involved, and generationally over time.  This only works, however, if you are able to recognize and strategize when adaptive problems arise.

In his seminal work on leadership, Professor Ronald Heifetz of the Harvard Kennedy School identifies most challenges in life as either technical or adaptive problems.  Technical problems are those that can be solved by knowledge or experts, while adaptive problems are those that require new learning.  In our own lives, we face a variety of each of these daily. A strange rash on our arm may require a visit to a doctor to diagnose (technical problem), but learning that the rash is due to a food allergy, which requires us to explore our diet, identify the culprit, and change our eating habits requires new learning and an adaptive solution.  

As a couple, we may not always realize that we are approaching a shared challenge with these two different mindsets for solutions.  A typical argument in my household involves our dirty kitchen. My partner views this as a technical problem. His solution is to hire a housekeeper.  I see this as a more adaptive problem, in that the overall division of housework seems inequitable. Both views deserve discussion, but not necessarily the same discussion or same solution.  

Technical problems are easier to identify, easier to fix, and generally easier to implement solutions for.  They do not, however, lend themselves to adaptive solutions, which provide the biggest benefit in (and reason for) long-term relationships over time.  While adaptive solutions may take longer, and require overall changes of roles or perceptions, it’s here that we can cash in on the evolutionary value of our partnerships.  

Take a look at your top three “challenges” in your partnerships.  Do you fight about money, housework, parenting styles? Choose one to explore together (over a glass of wine or in a low-stress setting).  What triggers and snags come up regularly for this shared challenge? For example, if you choose to explore your problem of different parenting styles, do you see this come up most around extended family, school work, or screen time? See if you can divide them up into two columns: technical challenges versus adaptive challenges.  Chances are, each of these will probably have aspects that fall into each. In your technical challenges, see if you can identify either a source of information or an “expert” that can help address these. Then, take a look at the specific adaptive problems you’ve identified. Here is where growth can happen.

Adaptive challenges will not be solved tonight.  Finish that wine and plan some time to really explore these in the future, but first, identify what new learning would be most helpful to know moving forward.  Do you need to explore your own thoughts or your partner’s feelings or experiences a little deeper around this topic?  Are there pieces of information, such as books, blogs or input from some other source that might be helpful? Do you need to examine (or re-examine) priorities before moving towards a collaborative solution first?  Gather ideas and input (both individually and together) and commit to coming back to this with fresh eyes. This could happen during a set time (such as your State of the Union planning) or over time, as the issues come up.  Regardless of when, you’ll be much better prepared for the “how” to address these type of adaptive challenges once you recognize them for what they are and seek out the resources needed to address them.