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Published 10:14 a.m. ET Feb. 10, 2017 | Updated 10:30 a.m. ET Feb. 10,
With Valentine’s Day fast approaching and love in the air, we turned to “Love Doctor” Helen Fisher and psychologist/marriage counselor Alan Zwerdling, both of whom have made careers out of studying, and working to improve, relationships, for some insights into what love is all about. How has it evolved over time, how do you find it and how do you keep it alive? Read their ruminations on sex, romance and emotional attachment, then click the links to take Dr. Fisher’s four tests on love, relationships and personality.
Is there any such thing as love at first sight? How common is it for couples to describe their initial interaction this way?
Fisher: Yes, definitely. More than 50 percent of Americans believe in love at first sight, and about 50 percent have had that experience. Men fall in love faster than women because they are more physically oriented. The brain system is like a sleeping cat; it can be activated so quickly. It probably evolved for important reason. Our ancestors didn’t have a lot of time to court, and when they met someone who was appropriate, it was adaptive to be instantly attracted. You see this in other animals.
Zwerdling: Many of us have had the sweet, impassioned, intoxicating experience of love at first sight, an experience that gets our hearts pounding and drives us to pursue a connection with the desired other with incredible intensity. A recent sample of 5,000 singles ages 21 to 70 revealed that 41 percent of men and 29 percent of women have personally experienced love at first sight, and even more believe in it. This is a love rooted in the biology of evolution, as we are wired to seek romantic attachment for our survival, and the psychology of projection, as we attribute positive characteristics to those we find attractive. Whether or not this love grows and endures as we experience the reality of the desired other over time, that intense initial experience is surely love to any who have felt it.
Are love and sexual attraction mutually exclusive? Can there be one without the other?
Zwerdling: Love and sexual attraction are by no means mutually exclusive. They may be experienced separately or together, and both are important components of relationships. Sexual attraction and desire is the lustful, passionate, intense longing to connect physically and sexually with another person, and should not be confused with romantic love, which is more emotional, and involves caring, concern and a desire for emotional closeness and intimacy. A third important component to relationships is commitment, the desire and decision to be faithful and to maintain a secure, lifelong bond. When all three components are present — intimacy, passion and commitment — that is considered consummate love, the strongest and most enduring love there is.
Fisher: Easily. I think we’ve evolved three distinctly different brain systems for mating and reproduction: the sex drive, feelings of intense romantic love and feelings of deep attachment. You can have sex with someone you are not in love with and feel no sense of attachment. Generally, when you are madly in love, you do went to have sex with them, but not always. The brain systems don’t always go together. They mix and match in all kinds of ways.
Is it true that opposites attract?
Zwerdling: Nope. We are attracted more to partners whom we perceive to be similar to us, or who will complement and balance us, than we are to opposites. We are typically attracted to people like ourselves in physical attractiveness, education, religion, culture and desire for children. We like people who like what we like, who share our interests, who are comfortable with the same pace and direction of life. We are also attracted to people who can make up for some of our limitations, who fill in the gaps for us. One partner may be more emotional, the other intellectual. One may be more creative, the other more structured. Overall, the more similar and complementary our partners, the more in line our values and life views, the more we are compatible and the fewer our relationship conflicts.
Fisher: In some ways, similarity attracts and in other ways opposite attracts. People tend to be attracted to someone from the same socioeconomic backgrounds, with the same level of intelligence and good looks, the same educational, religious and social values and the same reproductive and economic goals. I study personality and I’ve proven that we have evolved for broad styles of thinking and behaving, linked with the dopominic, serotonin and estrogen/testosterone systems in the brain. People who are very expressive of traits linked with dopamine tend to be drawn to people like themselves — people who are risk taking, novelty seeking, curious, spontaneous and mentally flexible. People expressive of the serotonin system also go for people like themselves — traditional, conventional, respect authority and are calm. They tend to be concrete thinkers and more religious. But those who express traits linked with testosterone seek opposites. People who are high in testosterone tend to be decisive, skeptical, analytic and tough-minded. Hillary Clinton is a good example, as well as Margaret Thatcher and Steve Jobs. Hillary went for her opposite. Bill Clinton, who expresses the estrogen traits, is a contextual thinker, verbally skilled and nuanced. He’s empathetic, and cries easily.
Are relationships doomed if couples don’t have common interests or backgrounds?
Zwerdling: Having common interests and backgrounds can be important and certainly makes things easier. But with or without common interests, true compatibility is only possible when partners bring mutual respect and acceptance to the relationship. Partners who judge or criticize one another for their differences become adversaries and end up with more conflict. Partners who accept and appreciate their differences can work together at a team to make sure they are both getting enough of what they want and need. Some couples thrive in their differences and enjoy the energy of opposing interests and passions. These couples may spend more time apart and engage in more separate activities, and while they report a somewhat lower level of emotional intimacy, they indicate feeling satisfied with their relationship.
Can people who don’t initially love each other develop a loving relationship? Which is more common: falling in love or falling out of it?
Zwerdling: Love can begin in so many ways — with a smile, a kiss, a tender moment or a common cause. It can startle us like the sudden sound of thunder and last long after the echoes have faded, or it can develop slowly over time from a friendship or casual relationship. Falling out of love is rarely so sudden, although major life events, illness or trauma can trigger abrupt emotional changes. More often, falling out of love follows a predictable course. Partners stop communicating and start taking each other for granted. We stop doing those things that make our partner feel special, loved, valued and adored. We get busy with kids or work or parents or Facebook, and we stop making our partner our priority. We stop showing our partner that we are attracted to them, and we stop being available emotionally and sexually. These are all warning signs that our relationship is in trouble, and thankfully, we can usually rekindle love by nurturing our connection and re-establishing its priority in our lives.
Has the concept of love in America changed at all over time?
Fisher: Yes. One hundred years ago, if you asked a girl who she wanted to marry, she would hope to marry someone from her community who believed in her religion, who was acceptable to her extended family and hopefully lived in the farm next door. Women are not looking for that these days. We’re looking for a very private, personal, exciting relationship with another person. Women have careers now. It’s a very different structure. People are looking for different things in a partner. Today, there are changes with millennials. I call it low love. It’s an extension of the pre-commitment stage. In the past marriage was the beginning of relationship; now it’s the finale. So today, 34 percent of singles have had sex with someone before their first date — having one-night stands, then moving into friends with benefits, then slowly telling friends or families about the person, then living together for years before they wed. I think that’s an improvement, because bad relationships can end before you tie the knot. Presumably, by the time before you do marry, you know who and what you’ve got, and you know you can keep who you’ve got.
Zwerdling: Not so long ago, people did not marry for love, they married for survival, to have a partner with whom to share the workload of a farm or business and build a family, and love was sometimes a happy coincidence. Marriage was mostly an institution for power, politics or economics. America’s prosperity of the 1950s made it possible for a man to financially support a family without help from his wife, and wives were typically left with rigid, gender-determined roles and responsibilities that left them few options when it came to love. It was only in the 1970s, when the women’s rights movement allowed more women to establish financial independence, and birth control gave couples a choice about having children, that drastic change was possible. Now marriage could be a contract between equals, both of whom had choices, and couples could seek a union based upon love, sexual and romantic attraction, happiness and fulfillment.
Are there any race, gender or age differences in how love is defined or perceived?
Zwerdling: Men and women are remarkably alike. We both have the same basic need for a loving and secure attachment, someone who cares about us, someone we can count on, and this is true for us at any age. When this is present in our lives we are healthier, happier, live longer and are more satisfied. In fact, the determining factor in whether spouses feel satisfied with the sex, romance and passion in their marriage is, by 70 percent, the quality of their friendship, and this is equally true for men and women. Real differences are few. Women, in general, use more words than men and are better able to express their feelings. Men are quicker to anger and are slower to calm down when emotionally distressed, and faced with relationship anxiety, are more likely to become physically antagonistic or to withdraw and evade. Perhaps because they are less adept with words, men turn to sex more commonly as their method for creating emotional closeness. As for cultural differences, research has found remarkable similarities in our conceptions of romantic love across diverse cultures, suggesting that passionate love is universal and equally intense around the world. Differences in how we express and experience love have been found, determined by one’s cultural values and the society to which one belongs.
How do you define “love.”
Zwerdling: From Shakespeare to Springsteen, Dickenson to Didion, humans beings have wrestled with the concept of love and how best to define it. Each of us brings our own strengths and limitations, sensitivities and histories and fantasies to love, and so no one definition can fully describe its complexities and nuances. Using fMRI technology, we can now actually see the specific regions of the brain that become activated in love, while our fear centers become quieted just by holding our lover’s hand. Neurochemistry can measure the release of oxytocin and dopamine that heightens our emotional attunement to our lover and opens us to empathic connection and emotional vulnerability. Evolutionary scientists and attachment psychologists see love as nature’s way to create emotional and physical bonds necessary to promote our survival as individuals and as a species, while poets describe its mystery, its magic and its majesty. To reduce love to any one definition is to miss entirely its essence, its urgency, its influence and its uniqueness.
What are the two most important reasons for breakdowns in relationships?
Zwerdling: The most common complaints of the couples I see in my office are problems with communication and connection. Couples report that while they long for happiness and intimacy, they get stuck in cycles of conflict or distance. This makes sense when you look at relationships through the lens of attachment theory, the new science of love. We are born with the biological imperative to develop a secure attachment to another. This is easiest to see in infants, who depend on their primary caretaker for their very survival. It is no less strong a need in adults, who are happiest and healthiest when they have a secure partner they can depend on. When our primary relationship becomes distressed, our emotional survival is at stake, and we typically respond by fighting (conflict) or fleeing (distance). Once we understand our partner’s emotions and behaviors as a reflection of attachment distress, we can start to communicate in a new way that invites connection, affection and intimacy.
What are the two most important things to keeping a relationship strong?
Zwerdling: To create an intimate, secure relationship that will grow and endure the test of time, several things are important. First, we need to be responsive to our partner’s emotional and physical needs, for them to be able to count on us and know that we are there for them, that we will show up for them and have their back. Second, we need to be engaged in their life, caring about their successes and failures, walking along side them as true partners in their daily struggles and emotional ups and downs, showing them by our words and deeds that they matter to us. Third, we must give them access to our inner selves and risk vulnerability, sharing our fears and longings, standing before them emotionally unguarded and exposing our blemishes and imperfections. These are the ingredients that create the most intimate, secure and lasting bonds, and create loving partnerships that can work together to overcome life’s challenges.
Do most people ever find true love? How many people think they have found it multiple times?
Zwerdling: We don’t find true love, we create true love. And how many loves we experience in our lifetime depends on how open we are to love. When we love and aspire to greatness in anything, we must make it a priority, reserving time for it, being patient with it, learning from our mistakes, and striving for excellence, not perfection. None of us is perfect and there is no such thing as the perfect partner. Relationships require compromise, respect and acceptance of our flaws and our differences. What determines long-term successful relationships is not the ability to always get it right, but to recover quickly and reconnect fully when we get it wrong. Those who are searching for perfection may be destined to keep searching.
You often hear that having children puts additional stress on relationships, particularly those that aren’t strong to begin with. Is that true? Or can the arrival of children strengthen relationships?
Fisher: Throughout evolution, the point of marriage was to raise babies together. And in many societies where there are no children, it weakens marriage. If people are going to divorce, they tend to do so after having no children or one child.
Zwerdling: Young couples commonly romanticize the reality of having a baby and believe it will bring them closer together. Yet studies routinely show that marital satisfaction and happiness decrease, sometimes sharply, when couples have a child. It makes sense that adding a baby changes everything, as parenting absorbs the time, energy, emotions and finances previously available for either oneself or the relationship. It is hard work and puts a lot of stress on the relationship. Despite these detriments, 94 percent of parents say it’s worth it. Most mothers and fathers report that having children is their greatest joy, and feel that their lives have more meaning compared to childless couples. Parents with children report more positive emotions throughout the day when caring for their children, and are less likely to divorce than childless couples. Being a parent, loving a child and being loved by a child is a love with its own passions, wonders and gratifications that couples can share and few would sacrifice despite the costs.
Alan Zwerdling is a licensed psychologist in Red Bank. He has specialized in marriage counseling and couples therapy for more than 30 years. He is the first local therapist to be certified in Emotionally Focused Therapy. He will be holding a weekend retreat for couples in Princeton on Feb.24-25.
Helen Fisher, popularly known as the “Love Doctor,” is a member of the Center for Human Evolutionary Studies at Rutgers University, a senior research fellow at Kinsey Institute and chief scientific adviser to Match.com. She has written six books on love and relationships. Her latest, the second edition of “Anatomy of Love,” was released in hardback last week.
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