What the Dating Lives of Goats Can Teach You About Relationship Expectations

Joe Duncan

The age-old question: should I really get into a relationship right now?

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“Are there any women out there who aren’t on drugs, don’t cheat, and are willing to be loyal with me until the end!?” the post read. My eyes scrolled across it as my heart sank. My friend is going through the single man’s crisis — again. He was having himself a man-outburst.

He’s “got the itch” for a new relationship. He wants a woman to hold in his arms, someone to talk to until the wee hours of the morning before the sun comes up, someone to share his inner world with, and someone to be his companion. Hey, there’s nothing wrong with this.

We all want love. We all want sex. We all want affection. And I’ll be the first guy to tell you that there’s something seriously wrong with a society that’s so aggressive that it reliably deprives large swaths of the population of each, a society that eschews love (and sex) and makes each of them into verboten taboos and things to be ridiculed.

But setting society aside for a moment, is he really doing himself any favors, here?

He wants all of these things so badly that he’s torturing himself over the fact that he doesn’t have them. He’s manufacturing his own stress. He’s setting his expectations way too high. And it’s not hard to figure out why. He doesn’t have a Juliette to his Romeo. And more than that, he wants it right now.

But at the same time, he’s not ready. No, he’s nowhere near ready. He’s living with his mom and job hunting while he tries to get his act together. It’s the same tragic story of countless millions of people. From Millennials to Generation X, a lot of us have been left out to dry in the brutal economy of America. And our relationships, whether we’re in one or not, have suffered as a consequence.

He’s also still very early in sobriety. He’s cleaning his life up after years of hard drinking and occasional drug addiction. Honestly, I couldn’t be more proud of him. But from an objective standpoint, he’s nowhere near ready for the responsibility of a full-blown relationship. He’s got enough on his plate.

He knows it. I know it. We don’t even have to say a word to one another at this point in order for it to be understood. We’ve been down this road many times, him and I, and he usually comes to see the light.

As his bromance, it was my responsibility to tell him how I felt honestly. I waited until he calmed down a bit and the stress subsided…

“You know you’re not ready for a relationship. You’ve got a lot of stresses in your life right now, a lot to focus on, and a lot to overcome. You know as well as I do you’re funny, smart, witty, and motivated, and the best relationship for you will come in due time. You’ve got a ton of attractive traits but now’s not the right time. It’s just a matter of being patient.”

I know how hard that can be. I experienced this conflict a lot, especially when I was young. In my 20s, I didn’t have my life together quite yet. But I felt a persistent and burning desire for a happy relationship with a fairy tale ending. I would close my eyes and imagine myself in it. I would convince myself that if only I was armed with a relationship, all of my other problems would somehow magically disappear.

In my 30s, I got my life together and relationships became much easier. They don’t overwhelm me with stress. I don’t have to juggle insane responsibilities that feel crushing. I’m able to take things much more in stride. And I didn’t cross some magic number at thirty-years-old that gave me some magical gift that fell down from the heavens. I grew as a human being.

For everyone, these age ranges are different. What matters, so long as you’re an adult, is maturity, not the arbitrary numbers of age.

Needless to say, I was surely tickled to find out we’re not the only species to go through this conflict. Certain species of goats employ different strategies when it comes to selecting a mate. That’s right, they make a calculation of when they should seek companions in life. Full disclosure: some of the strategies of goats sometimes seem infinitely more well-thought-through than me trying (and failing miserably) to find and keep love in my 20s.

Chamois are a species of wild antelope-goat that inhabit Europe, particularly in and around the Alps. They live in and around the mountain ranges they climb and these ranges can provide a variety of habitats for their hopefully happy goat lives. And it’s here that researchers have discovered this same plight among them.

A team of researchers name Drs Stephen Willis and Philip Stephens from the School of Biological and Biomedical Sciences, Durham University, conducted research into the mating habits of these goats that sampled hunted goats dating all the way back to 1973. What they found was astonishing.

Sometimes, these goats would delay the instant gratification of trying to find a mate and they would put off dating until they were older, wiser, and had their little goat lives together. But other times, these goats would mate quickly when they were young, getting it out of the way. They’d hurry themselves to find love and have kids (literally).

So what made the difference? Location. Or, to be more precise, environment.

Their sex lives were a response to the environment they inhabited.

The goats that were studied lived in different locations. And which strategy they chose was dependent upon the life expectancy in the area where they lived. One of the authors of the study said:

“It seems that chamois can have fun in their youth or enjoy their old age but they can’t do both. In one valley, males left it until much later to get involved in the rut but, once involved, they showed a pattern of increasing effort, right up to the end of their lives.”

Some goats live in high-paced environments, where food may be scarce, and predators lurking, and it was these goats who would expend a tremendous amount of energy trying to find a mate to have kids with while they were young.

Sound familiar?

This isn’t too much unlike the high-stress environment of American life. But our human brains, as wonderful as they are, sometimes can’t tell the difference between real, life-threatening stress, and the kind of stress that comes along when people don’t use their turn signals and we have to wait an extra few seconds to turn.

Other goats lived in slow-paced environments, where food was abundant, and predators rare, and these goats would delay their gratification until they were older, ramping up the rut once they reached an age they were comfortable in doing so. No rush, they figure, I’ve got my whole life to get this right.

And if goats can do it, we can do it.

After all, what’s the rush? The average human lifespan is 76.1 years for males and 81.1 years for females. And while we technically have a “biological clock” that runs out, making children an impossibility, are we really going to say that the sole reason we fall in love and have sex is to bear children? I think not.

You see, my friend was acting just like I did was when I was younger.

Back then, I wanted everything right now. My expectations were also way too high. I felt so much pressure from the world around me that I felt like I needed to get into a relationship and find love ASAP.

“With everything else going wrong in my life,” I’d convince myself, “I might as well put some energy into finding a relationship that can make me happy. That way, at least I can convince myself that my efforts are worth it.”

I remember that crushing existential angst that would follow me around all the time when I was under pressure. But I eventually learned to stop and ask myself, “Do I really want to put someone else through all this pressure? Is that really a sensible thing for me to ask of someone?”

Ah-ha! Then it clicked.

That’s when I saw how silly putting so much pressure on myself was.

“What do I really have to offer someone else right now?” I started to wonder to myself. “All of my stresses? All of my debts? All of the confusion that’s led me here? Not a chance!” I replied. It was then I figured out that I needed to build myself into the kind of mature, responsible adult who could take care of a relationship properly.

“What happens if my partner gets sick and all of the financial dread falls right onto my shoulders? What happens if I have to take care of her over the long haul of some brutal illness? Can I really handle that?” These are the kinds of questions I ask myself nowadays. And this is important because we all too often lose sight of the future when we focus our fields of vision too narrowly on the present.

Having known my bromance for as many years as I’ve known him (I’ll let you know when we get into our second decade of friendship), I know he’s just going through a momentary funk, a feeling of insecurity and neediness. Hey, we all have those moments. Don’t lie, I know you do, too. You ain’t gotta lie to kick it.

What really matters is whether or not he acts on those moments, instead of recalibrating his focus and honing in on his quest to be the best version of himself he can be, creating someone better in the future for whichever future partner(s) may come along. And that, you see, is where the magic lies.

The magic lies in being able to admit to ourselves that we’re still a work in progress. It lies in telling ourselves that it’s okay to not have all of our shit together right now, right this moment; and that we can — and should — put in the work to get our own lives together before we try to hop right into the uncertainty of new love and the changing landscape of interpersonal sexuality.

Some men stare at goats. Others learn from them. Be like me and learn from the dating lives of goats.

Photo: Creative Commons license; Fulvio Spada from Torino, Italy

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