What monkeys can teach us about dating

An evolutionary biologist reveals 5 lessons she learned about relationships from studying monkeys

It used to be so easy didn’t it – sex and relationships? Back in the days of being 20something, there was such a choice of men. If you fell out of one relationship, you could just fall right into another.

Back then the world was my oyster. I was a biologist travelling to remote parts of the planet to study wild monkeys – particularly their sex lives. And also, I have to say, having plenty of sex of my own.

What I learned in my research was that a monkey girl has a lot of the same issues as we women.

What I learned in my research was that a monkey girl has a lot of the same issues to deal with as we women – picking a good strong guy to father the babies and help protect them, avoiding or appeasing the males that would try to be controlling and potentially violent, and the odd foray into the forest to seek out new “genetic input”.

But one thing female monkeys don’t tend to have to endure is ending up on their own in midlife.

That’s what happened to me.

Ending up alone in midlife

Let me take you back to my return to the UK from South Africa in the late ’90s after a two-year bout of monkey research. I arrived in London and there I met my first husband. It was a storybook whirlwind romance. We stayed at the Ritz, went skiing in Canada, ate at posh restaurants — it was all very exciting for a research student. He said he wanted all the same things as me, and because I really wanted this to be true I chose to believe him and said yes when he produced the ring.

But you know what’s coming – I’d chosen with my gut instinct rather than my brain, the marriage went tits-up very quickly and I had to run for it – although not before I’d managed to have 2 pregnancies and 3 babies.

When you’re on your own with 3 kids it clearly isn’t an option to be trogging around the jungle after monkeys so at this point I took to freelance science journalism as a way of working around the kids. I was writing about human behaviour now, and a lot of it about sex, attraction and relationships.

Trying out dating sites

But it was a lonely time and once the kids had grown a bit, I thought I’d sign up for a couple of dating sites and find me a hunky new man. Well hahaha. It didn’t go to plan.

Yes, I met men and had the odd relationship, but I was making the mistake of following those gut instincts again and getting together with guys who provided the “spark”, the “chemistry” we look out for, but they weren’t men who were looking out for me, and they weren’t good for any kind of committed, lasting relationship. As a late 40something single mum I was done with players, however sexy.

I had to change the way I was looking for men. I’d been writing about our evolved behaviour for years and it finally clicked that I already had the answers I needed.

What evolutionary biology teaches us about dating

And I have to say I get a massive kick out of the power of evolutionary biology to explain what the hell is going on. It provides the ultimate explanation – why we behave, feel, desire, and love in the way we do.

For a start I realised that simply following my gut instincts was a road to oblivion – those instincts evolved back in the Stone Age when women needed different things from relationships. Back then, couplings would have been relatively short term, and the important things to look out for were brawn and status. Nowadays we’d do well to consciously override our evolved instincts and figure out ways to make better relationship decisions that suit us in the modern world, and for the stage of life we’re at.

So I started working out what I needed for a happy relationship as opposed to what I felt I wanted, and when I met Rob at a singles event – there weren’t a million explosions going off right away but I liked him. He was interesting and I was curious to know more. We got to know each other gradually over a few weeks at some workshops I was running, although it wasn’t until I heard him sing in a ukulele session and totally own the room that I knew I really fancied him.

The point is, the desire grew gradually, and into something much more powerful than I’d had in those transitory spells of grinning stupidly at sexy texts and behaving like a teenager.

How a new approach helped me find love

So he’s become the real love of my life. But if I’d been following my old ways of looking for men I wouldn’t have noticed him.

I finally nailed it then – the relationship thing, and now my mission is to help other midlife women evolve their man-search habits to find a man they can grow and be happy with.

5 things evolutionary biology taught me about dating

1. Understand the type of man you need

You might want a gorgeous boyfriend, who’s 6’4’’ with a full head of hair and a salary well into 6 figures. You might want this kind of man, but so does every other woman — so if you get one of these how secure are you going to feel? And chances are he won’t have what it takes to make you happy.

I’m not suggesting you “settle” but I am suggesting you re-prioritise the qualities you’re looking for to make sure they’re what you actually need for a happy relationship. I reckon that’s a guy who’s considerate, trustworthy, and one who’ll warm up your side of the bed before you get in.

2. Try a bit of patience

So you need to suss out what a guy is actually like. Imagine the scenario then where you meet a sexy hunk and want to get in the sack right away – there’s not just a spark, there’s a firework display. But the thing is if we do get intimate with someone early on – this gets our neurotransmitters going bananas which then gets us smitten with this guy, even if he turns out not to be a suitable candidate for long term happiness. Then we spend the next few weeks, or months, or years, trying to get this guy to have the relationship with us that we want, but it’s never going to work because he’s just not that guy.

Better then, to approach relationships as friendships first of all. Identify guys who seem interesting, nice, that you’re curious about and would like to get to know better.

And the science shows that when we get to know someone and we like them, we like their personality, their humour, we then start to find them physically more attractive and we begin to desire them.

So it might not be as exciting as the fireworks guy – but you won’t be using up all your emotional energy on someone who’s never going to be good for a relationship, and you stand to find something a hell of a lot more satisfying and happy in the long term.

3. Bite the bullet with online dating

Yes I know, online dating is no panacea, but it can work and we all know someone who’s found love this way. This is a numbers game and the more men we can sift through the more likely we are to find a good one, so online dating is just another potential way to meet more men.

But your chance of success here is dependent on your attitude and if you like to moan about the horrible selection of men online – change the record. Having a more positive attitude will help you to see the good guys and will make decent men more likely to get in touch.

4. Talk to men in real life

You might think that actually, there are no decent men out there. This belief often stems from the fact that the ones who approach you are the confident ones, the experienced ones, the ones with the moves but who don’t really care what people think. The nice guys that you could have a decent relationship with – they won’t be so in-your-face, perhaps not so confident.

And you might think, “I’m not interested in men who don’t have the balls to approach me”.

But there are a load of perfectly legitimate reasons why a good guy might keep away:

  • You look amazing – why would you be interested in him?
  • You’re busy, he doesn’t want to disturb you – he’s considerate, remember
  • He doesn’t want to be that creep – he’s respectful.

It’s time to get off your phone, open your body posture, make eye contact, and smile. And if he doesn’t come and speak to you? There’s nothing stopping you speaking to him. It’s the 21st century.

Whatever you do, don’t leave it up to the universe to deliver your man – it ain’t gonna happen. You’ve got to put in a bit of effort, make opportunities, and help your luck along.

5. Get your self-esteem sorted

Finally, you need to know that you’ve got what it takes to be attractive to a man who’s right for you. Everyone’s different in what they like so show off those unique foibles. Yes, if you’ve a Ph.D in astrophysics and like doing maths in your spare time some men will run a mile – you don’t want them. Some men will love you and your particular quirks and those are the ones you’re interested in.

Get out there and hold your head high. Good self-esteem and confidence, when you have them, are your most powerful tools for finding the right man. The self-esteem means you won’t put up with crap, and the confidence will make you glow.

And when you meet someone, instead of asking yourself “How can I be attractive to this guy?”, it should be “Is this man showing up for me”, “Is he capable of being the kind of partner I need?”

This is how to put yourself in the best position to find a fabulous relationship.

And if you’d like my support with this, contact me or check out my courses and free resources at datingevolved.com.

Mairi MacLeod

Dr Mairi Macleod is an evolutionary biologist, consultant, speaker, and science writer. She is pioneering the use of an understanding of our evolved preferences and motivations to inform how we can change our behaviour, environment, habits and attitudes to better suit our needs in the modern world. She applies this in relationships and in the workplace, and she has a special interest in helping single, older women find a quality partner – having been through this challenging process herself.  

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