Love is patient. Love is kind. Love is...detectable on an fMRI scan? Poets have written about love for millennia, but only recently has it become a subject of serious scientific pursuit. Psychologists, biologists, economists and anthropologists are all investigating the role of love in our lives and our culture. The poets, it turns out, have gotten a lot right (for example, the metaphor of love as a kind of madness gained credence when one study found a chemical resemblance between romantic love and obsessive-compulsive disorder ). But we still have a lot to learn. Maybe love will always be part myth, but it’s worth debunking a few of our more outdated ideas.
1. Women are more romantic than men.
But the research tells a different story. Match.com’s Singles in America study found that 59 percent of men believed in love at first sight, compared with 49 percent of women. Biological anthropologist Helen Fisher says this is because men are so visually oriented: “They see a woman who appeals to them physically, and it will trigger the romantic love system faster.”
Another study found that men were more likely to agree with statements like “There will only be one real love for me” and “If I love someone, I know I can make the relationship work, despite any obstacles.” According to the researchers, the fact that men are more likely to idealize their relationships and romantic partners “may reflect the different roles men and women have in the larger social structure.” In other words, men, who’ve historically had more social and economic freedom than women, could also be less pragmatic about love and marriage.
2. Monogamy is a social construction.
Everyone has that friend who’s dated a string of great guys but just can’t seem to stay faithful. “Monogamy is made up,” she’ll protest. News outlets back her up. Psychology Today asserts that “there are faults with the practice of monogamy today; problems covered by a culture unwilling to ask critical questions about it.” Salon jauntily posits that “maybe monogamy isn’t natural!” Even sex advice columnist Dan Savage has famously made that claim.
But “natural” is a bit of a slippery word. The truth is that our relationship to monogamy is complex. Biologists believe that about 3 to 5 percent of mammal species are monogamous, a figure that includes humans. The most famous monogamist in the animal kingdom is a fluffy rodent called the prairie vole. Prairie voles mate for life and are affectionate parents, but their close cousins, meadow voles, are promiscuous. The similarities between these two creatures have helped scientists pinpoint a biological basis for monogamy that is also found in humans.
But Savage isn’t totally wrong: Prairie voles are socially monogamous, but, like us, some aren’t suited to sexual monogamy. About 10 percent of prairie vole babies are born to fathers that don’t live in the nest. The data on human sexual monogamy is notoriously unreliable (as non-monogamy can include situations from infidelity to polyamory), but in one study, 5 percent of participants practiced consensual non-monogamy.
Most likely, our preferences are determined by both our biology and our culture: “The human mating system is extremely flexible,” says anthropologist Bernard Chapais, pointing out that many romantic arrangements — from serial monogamy to polygyny — have worked for our species over the years.
3. Intense romantic love lasts only a year or two.
For years, evolutionary biologists suggested that intense romantic love lasted only long enough for partners to meet, mate and raise a baby into toddlerhood. Fisher referred to this as the “four-year itch.” After that, excitement and sexual interest waned and partners either separated or developed a more moderate, companionate love.
But recent research co-authored by Fisher suggests that for some of us, intense romantic love can last for decades. Neuroscientist Bianca P. Acevedo and psychologist Arthur Aron put 17 volunteers into an fMRI machine. All were in long-term, sexually monogamous relationships, and all reported that they’d never lost that initial spark. According to the scans, the brains of these long-term lovers closely resembled those of newly-in-love couples, but with one major benefit: The long-term partners showed no activity in the parts of the brain associated with the obsession and anxiety we experience when we first fall in love. The scientists aren’t sure why that’s the case, but it may be because the couples in this study had particularly high serotonin, the neurochemical credited for mood management.
4. Opposites attract.
Romeo and Juliet fell hard, despite the fact that their families were at war. A Los Angeles businessman gave up his vices for a prostitute with a heart of gold. A beautiful, bookish beauty learns to love a literal beast who imprisoned her father. Some of our best stories depict love that transcends the boundaries of class, race or even species — but how often does this happen in real life?
While there are some examples of against-the-odds love, the odds actually indicate that you’re most likely to get together with someone who’s a lot like you. In her book “Falling in Love: Why We Choose the Lovers We Choose,” Ayala Pines says the biggest predictor of who we love is proximity. She cites a study that found that “54% of the couples were separated by a distance of 16 blocks or fewer when they first went out together.” A Pew Research Center study found that, though interracial marriage is increasing, as of 2008, only 8 percent of U.S. marriages were between members of different racial or ethnic groups; interfaith marriages are also on the rise, but 61 percent of us choose spouses of the same religion. The Economist points out that we are increasingly likely to pair off according to income and education levels.
All of this makes sense: We like people who are like us. But psychologist Ty Tashiro argues that we should be “rethinking our views about what really matters in a romantic partner.” He points out that personality traits (such as agreeability and kindness) have a much bigger influence on long-term happiness than demographics.
5. When you meet the right person, your life will feel complete.
Jerry Maguire was certainly not the first to suggest that true love means finding someone who “completes you.” But he might be the voice of a generation that expects more from relationships than ever before. As psychologist Eli Finkel explains, we have entered an era of the “self-expressive marriage,” whereby we rely on our relationships for self-esteem and personal growth.
In truth though, most of us don’t find a “perfect” pairing. And that’s okay. In fact, being with your “soul mate” might make you less happy in the long term. One study suggests that people who believe in the concept tend to be less committed to their partners. They’re also more anxious in relationships and less forgiving of their significant others. Additionally, we don’t need a partner with whom we never argue: Fighting is inevitable. Psychologist John Gottman points out that even the happiest relationships have unresolvable conflicts. According to Gottman, conflict is okay as long as it’s supplemented by kindness and empathy.
The data is pretty clear that the search for the perfect partner is likely to leave us disappointed, but the takeaway is simple: Real love requires real work and deep empathy. And those of us who seek fulfillment both within and beyond our relationships are likely to be the luckiest in love.