My secret of 60 years of marital bliss – separate bedrooms and animal instincts! Human behaviour expert Desmond Morris on why his diamond wedding is testament to our primeval urge to find a mate for life
BY DESMOND MORRIS
23:39 GMT, 21 August 2012
00:34 GMT, 22 August 2012
My wife Ramona and I have never been big on celebrations. When we reached our golden wedding anniversary, I suggested we might throw a party. She rejected the idea on the grounds it would be awkward to celebrate 50 years of marriage when she was still claiming to be 49. So we kept quiet about it.
But when, to our great surprise, we reached the next milestone — our diamond wedding — we felt we really would have to mark the occasion in some way.
We decided to take our family — our son, his wife and our four grandchildren — on a voyage to Venice aboard our favourite cruise liner, the Aurora. As they live in Ireland, it was a wonderful chance to spend some time with them.
Desmond and Ramona Morris worked together on Granada TV's London zoo programmes
The couple celebrated their diamond wedding this year on a cruise with their family
Looking across the family dining table at my wife, I found it hard to believe that she has put up with me for more than 60 years.
It can’t have been much fun married to a workaholic. During the time we have been together, I have written more than 50 books, made more than 500 TV programmes and painted more than 2,000 pictures, and she has never once complained.
I think it helps that we are both only children, so we enjoy solitude. We met at a country house party in the spring of 1949 and I have a vivid memory of the first time I set eyes on her.
Don’t tell me that love at first sight is merely a romantic myth. It is not; it happened to me and I set off on a pursuit with an intensity that astonished me.
I had learned a lot about girls when I was in the Army, but that was all light-hearted fun. This was different. Something at the back of my brain had gone click and I was no longer a rational being. I was hooked. But I was shy and had to summon up enough courage to speak to her.
As I hesitated, I saw to my horror that she was being chatted up by a very smooth, sophisticated young art critic from London.
A stupid party game called sardines was announced that involved hiding in different parts of the house and, to my disgust, I saw my rival disappearing with her upstairs.
Then the lights were turned out and I had difficulty in following them to a darkened bedroom, where it seemed they had hidden under the bed.
All I could do was lie down on top of the bed. The two beneath it did not appear to be in any hurry to be discovered, so I decided to take action, and carefully slid my hand down around the bed until I was able to clasp the hand of the girl below.
I was encouraged when, in response to a squeeze from me, she squeezed back. We held hands like this for some time and I was not sure quite what to do next, when, to my surprise, in the moonlight from the window, I saw a dark form standing by the fireplace.
I twisted my head to get a better look, just as the figure exploded into laughter that could no longer be suppressed.
It was the girl herself, who had quietly left her hiding place under the bed and, for some time, had been watching the extraordinary spectacle of the art critic and myself each thinking we were holding her hand and each imagining we were making great progress.
It is the only time I have ever held hands with a London art critic, but it was one of the luckiest actions of my life.
The critic was less than amused and left the scene, while the girl and I formed a bond of humour that has lasted ever since. We were soon spending more and more time together.
As a young zoologist, a small project with which I needed help concerned the wild rabbits that infested many of the local fields, in those pre-myxomatosis days. The problem was catching the rabbits without harming them.
I had noticed that, when we drove slowly down a country lane at night, the rabbits scampering across the road, from one field to another, were momentarily ‘hypnotised’ by the light from the headlamps.
If I stopped and leapt from the car to chase them, it gave them time to dash off into the darkness.
What I needed was someone sitting on the front of the car who could jump off as soon as I braked and grab the rabbit before it had time to come to its senses.
The Morrises married in 1952 on the day of Ramona's finals at Oxford University
This, I explained to Ramona, was where she came in. Most girls would have refused, but she accepted without question, and I think that was the moment I decided we were truly compatible.
We set off down the narrow lane with Ramona perched over the radiator grill, as if someone had replaced an ordinary car mascot with a ship’s figurehead. At the sight of the first rabbit in the road, I jammed on the brakes and Ramona leapt forward in a kind of flying rugby tackle.
I jumped out and found her grappling with a kicking buck rabbit. It seemed to have the strength of ten domestic rabbits, but she held firm. I managed to take it from her and pop it into a grass-filled box on the back seat of the car.
Ramona was pleased at her success, but at the same time insisted that, when my project was over, the rabbit, pest or no pest, had to be released. And so it was; the first of many animals to come under her ‘personal protection’.
I realised that the girl I had fallen in love with was not only fascinated by animals, but was also fearless with them.
What could be better (In the years ahead, when we were making TV programmes at London Zoo, she would find herself wrapped in the coils of a huge python, playing happily with a giant spider, riding an elephant bareback wearing only a summer dress, and trying to catch a pet deer of hers that had escaped onto the London Underground, to mention just a few of her exploits.)
We wanted to get married, but had to wait because she had just won a scholarship to Oxford and, in those days, female undergraduates were not allowed to have husbands. The wedding date was set for the day she completed her final exams.
We had no money, but didn’t seem to care. Because we had one another, we felt invincible and flushed with optimism. Our bond of attachment was so strong we felt secure when, in reality, we had no safety net at all.
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The couple pictured with their pet dog, and Ramona with a python wrapped her during filming
Even so, city life put pressure on our relationship because we were working so hard that we didn’t have time to have children at a point when it would have been natural to do so. That would have to wait.
But somehow, despite the chaos of London, our bond of attachment managed to survive.
As a zoologist, I became fascinated by this pair-bonding behaviour that is common in birds, but does not exist among our close relatives, the monkeys and apes.
Why is it that we seem to be genetically programmed to fall in love and stay in love
The answer lies in our hunting past. When our ancient ancestors adopted hunting as a way of life, this change had a profound effect upon the roles of the human sexes. The males became specialised as hunters, the females as food gatherers.
This highly efficient division of labour made two special demands on our species. The males had to leave the females behind at a campsite while they hunted and, once on the hunt, the males had to co-operate with one another if they were to succeed in killing large prey. Such a radical change in lifestyle demanded a new type of sexual system.
If the males were to leave the females behind, without their protection, it became important that the two sexes should have some powerful bonds of attachment for one another.
And if the males were to co-operate actively on the hunt, there could be no conflict in the group.
These demands inevitably favoured one particular kind of sexual system, namely the pair-bond, in which each male had his own female and so was not in constant competition with his male companions.
For the females, the pair-bond meant the males would return to the campsite with the spoils of the hunt and share the feast with them. They, in turn, would share their gathered foods.
This highly successful social system led to the evolution of a powerful, biologically based pairing urge in the rapidly spreading tribes of primeval humans. Each adult became programmed to stay with a breeding partner long enough to jointly rear a ‘serial litter’ of young.
Because these young were not all born together, but one at a time over a number of years, the pair-bond had to be more than just seasonal or annual. It had to be long-lasting.
That was how it worked for more than a million years as our species evolved and developed its special character, but then our small tribes began to swell into super-tribes as villages became towns and towns grew into great cities.
Desmond Morris, wife Ramona and son Jason at their home in 1979
How would the ancient pair-bond survive the pressures of urban life Things were moving too quickly for a new breeding system to evolve to fit the teeming populations.
The pair-bond did survive — young couples couldn’t help obeying their genetic imperatives and found themselves falling in love despite the unnatural conditions of the super-tribal cities.
But there were problems. There were distractions and temptations and, all too often, the ancient family unit collapsed under the strain. Eventually there were as many broken families as happy ones.
This would not matter if we’d had time to evolve a new breeding system, but this has not happened.
The result is that, when a family breaks up, there are heartaches for the parents — or at least for one of them — and for the offspring, who become emotionally confused.
If we had evolved a new system, we would not feel the miseries that these disruptions bring. But we are stuck with the old tribal breeding system, even if we live in a streamlined urban world.
So when people congratulate Ramona and me on having reached our diamond wedding, instead of saying ‘But it’s normal for our species’, I say: ‘Thank you, yes, we’ve been lucky to survive as a tightly bonded pair in this modern world.’
In fact, the bond has never been stronger. If I were to lose Ramona, it would feel more like an amputation than a bereavement.
When we were celebrating our 60 years of marriage on the cruise ship a few days ago, someone asked me what was our secret.
Whatever you reply to such a question sounds smug, and in any case what works for us might be hopeless for another couple.
I replied that our best-kept secret was that, except when travelling, we have always had separate bedrooms. We love our own private space when we are sleeping and don’t want to be disturbed.
Sex is another matter and should never be left until last thing at night, when both partners are exhausted at the end of a long day.
This was not the answer my questioner expected. ‘There must be something else,’ he insisted.
‘Well,’ I replied, ‘it helps if your wife is more decisive than you are, more generous and is better at catching wild rabbits with her bare hands.’