Today's woman has to listen to her genes

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ANYONE WHO happened to be watching television last night, in the company of their fifth husband, probably swelled with pride. On BBC 1's Everyman, anthropologist Professor Helen Fisher told us that the woman who changes husbands every four years isn't fickle, faddish or infantile, she's just following her genes. As a serial monogamist, she is acting as a saviour of the human race. And to think we thought Elizabeth Taylor was just a good-time girl.

Professor Fisher claims that women are genetically programmed to seek brief relationships. This is because their genes dictate that children fathered by a series of men, create, "a multiplicity of talent" which gives a better chance of survival. So, forget the seven-year itch, it's the fourth-year female flit that really carries clout.

Fisher argues that shortly after marriage, a woman begins to consider moving on. The brain chemicals that make us fall in love last three years. The fourth year is spent seeking an alternative spouse, presumably in ignorance of Dorothy Parker's advice that, "Every love's the love before/In a duller dress". Or, as some of us older pea'-hens might put it, if you've seen one peacock's tail, you've seen them all, give or take a feather or two.

The professor first articulated her views seven years ago in her book, Anatomy of Love. It's a hugely enjoyable read not least for seeing how she manoeuvres round those tight genetic corners. In the Fifties, for instance, nurture won in the battle against nature - a good woman married for life, "Til death do us part", tied to her husband not necessarily by passion but out of financial dependence.

Now, in the 1990s, the evidence is more contradictory. Some marry young and divorce before they hit their mid twenties, presumably moving on in search of fresh fathers. But an even larger proportion are marrying later - and six out of ten will stay hitched.

According to the Fisher theory, the four out of ten women seeking a divorce should be citing PMB - post-matrimonial boredom. They might even mention the better looking bloke next door (appreciated, naturally, only for the opportunity he offers to widen society's pool of creative genes).

Instead, what seems to be the most common complaint amongst departing wives, is that they want more of the old man - not less. They want him emotionally more intimate, more sensitive, as much a soul mate as a body in the boudoir.

Fisher, a 53-year-old divorcee, argues that cultural conditioning has artificially extended marriage but, "the increasing economic independence of women will ensure that genes will out". In short, we will soon witness serial monogamy on a grand scale. So how come, in Britain, divorce is on a plateau?

I suspect the woman who holds her own purse strings now, can and is taking her time to choose the man whom she wants to father her children. (Ironically, a la Bridget Jones, this search may be taking a damn sight longer than desired not because of the abundance of suitable partners who possess Fisher's "multiplicity of talent" but because of their dearth.) A woman who cohabits or who goes up the aisle older, wiser, and with a lot of living already done, may be prepared to work harder at a relationship, aware that what's wrong with Mr Right isn't likely to get fixed in a day (or, for that matter, 48 months).

Margaret Mead, the American anthropologist, once said: "The first relationship is for sex; the second is for children; the third is for companionship."

Perhaps in the millennium there'll be increasing recognition that all three shifts of gear can be incorporated in one relationship. Whether that's a victory for nature or nurture, who cares, so long as it keeps the lawyers, estate agents and therapists out of business - and the children happy.