In the last century, love told its story in two acts.
The first half was, for the most part, characterized by couples terrified of being outcast by society and clinging to their marriages, regardless of how much shrapnel they had to take to keep the team together.
The sixties served as a kind of sexy intermission, in which the free-love movement liberated lovers from a death warrant of monotonous monogamy that defined so many misjudged marriages.
This lent such an air of optimism to the latter part of the century that suddenly it didn’t seem to matter how viciously you were kicked to the curb. No soul-wrenchingly wretched break-up was bad enough to stop us stumbling starry-eyed from the wreckage, dosed up on denial and Hollywood romance, ready to let love wreak havoc again and again.
The dawn of the 21st century changed things up again, with Facebook probably summing up the digital age best with their infamous relationship status ‘it’s complicated’.
Today, love’s vicissitudes have transformed it into the golden goose that keeps on giving. There’s no other phenomenon that can lay claim to simultaneously bankrolling cupcake stores and fitness clubs, chocolatiers and diet fads, fashion magazines, florists, self-help books and therapists.
But as the dreary divorce statistics remind us, however many handfuls of dollars we fling about in the name of love, we’ve apparently never been worse at it. As British columnist Charlie Brooker put it, “If love were a product, the queue at the faulty goods desk would stretch right round the universe and back.”
So has history taught us anything?
“For me, the model of modern coupledom is a confluence of a number of influences,” says psychologist, author and couples therapist Esther Perel. “But the most important piece of it has to do with the right of individualism and romanticism because it changes the whole concept of choice. We want the quality of our primary relationship to be deep and meaningful in a way that it wasn’t before. We’ve never expected as much from one person, certainly in the West.
“We want a person who can satisfy our need for stability, security and commitment but also for adventure, mystery and change. We want the same person to be stable and surprising, familiar and novel. We want our partner to be our friend, confidant and lover and we assume those experiences can flow seamlessly from one to another with the same person. We take all that for granted, and now we live twice as long, too.”
John Gray, couples therapist and author of ‘Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus’, agrees: “Ironically, as our work process takes up more of our time and energy, our expectations in relationships have dramatically intensified. The neuroscience is one piece that can help us understand why.”
Helen Fisher is a biological anthropologist, university research professor and love expert who has delved deep inside the brains of people in love and those who are breaking up. In her fMRI brain studies she’s mapped the core brain systems involved in romantic love.
Neuropsychoanalyst Dr Mark Solms and Dr Jaak Panksepp of the Neuropsychoanalysis Association have also been studying these systems in humans and animals. And, outside of a few academic details and debate over what to call the systems, they all agree that there are three key brain circuits linked to love.
The first is all about novelty. Fisher calls it the Reward system, Solms and Panksepp the SEEKING system, and others call it the Wanting system.
“SEEKING,” says Solms, “is essential to relationships – it’s what makes life worth living and a relationship worth having. It’s responsible for all that’s exciting and optimistic – in short, it’s all about desire.
But as we know, desire can just as easily be the enemy of relationships. The exact thing that can keep us infatuated with our partner can be the thing that promotes promiscuity, novelty-seeking, risk-taking and infidelity. The system is governed by dopamine, which is what gives it its addictive tendency, and makes you crave more of what or whoever is helping those dopamine levels go up.”
The second circuit is what Solms and Panksepp call the PANIC system. For Helen Fisher, it’s the Attachment system, and it’s also been termed the Liking system.
Solms continues: “The PANIC system is essential for forging attachment bonds. It basically ensures our survival and reproductive success. We call it the PANIC system because it’s also the system responsible for separation distress – in animals, babies and adults. It’s the system responsible for deep feelings of attachment and love – but it’s also the same brain circuit that can put you into a desperate state of despair when you think you might lose the person you’re attached to. This process also has a highly addictive quality to it.”
Then there’s LUST. LUST, say Solms and Panksepp, is a crafty system in between, which generally recruits the SEEKING or Reward system to do most of its romancing and there’s no prize for guessing what LUST does once it has found its object of desire.
So what the brain science really tells us is that we’re all wired up to find novelty on one hand and security on the other, and that there’s a whole lot of lust going on in between.
“Trouble is,” says Esther Perel, “where the task of meeting all those needs used to belong to our partners, families and our communities, from whom we derived a sense of belonging and continuity, now it’s the job of just one person.”
John Gray believes that it’s exactly these types of extreme expectations that can heighten romance in the short term, by raising our dopamine levels (which govern our SEEKING/Reward/Wanting system), and sabotage relationships down the line.
“When you first meet someone and fall in love,” says Gray, “the novelty of it all stimulates drug-like levels of dopamine in your brain, which makes the whole experience heightened. The hope, anticipation and lack of history allow your of dopamine, serotonin and GABA to be produced, all of which make you amazingly happy.
“Once the novelty has worn off, your brain chemistry regulates and dopamine and serotonin levels drop. Now your mind is left thinking, ‘Hey, he can’t make everything OK for me now, but it was perfect before, so what’s changed?’ And his mind is doing the same thing: ‘She did make me feel energized, motivated, attentive, and now suddenly I’m not feeling that way.’”
And as if it weren’t enough that the dopamine/SEEKING part of your brain is failing you, there’s a whole other set of complications in the attachment camp.
“In most relationships,” says Perel, “there’s usually one person who’s afraid of losing the other and one person who’s afraid of losing themselves. We all come out of our childhood with both needs – separateness and connection. Some of us come out of our childhood needing more connection and protection, and some of us more separateness and space. We tend to partner with the person whose proclivities match our vulnerabilities.
“But,” says Perel, “in the need to find that perfect sense of completion, we often get a little bit more than we bargained for. And that’s when the work has to start.”
“For romantic relationships to be both fulfilling and lasting,” says Solms, “both SEEKING and PANIC (Attachment) systems must be engaged, which means that their conflicting demands must be reconciled with each other. And to make things even more complicated, the brain mechanisms for attachment are stronger in women than men.”
This tiny piece of neuroscience has played a major role in John Gray’s work and resonates again and again through the pages of his books as he attempts to educate the sexes on their emotional idiosyncrasies. One of Gray’s angles on women is that they need more reassurance and cajoling than men, particularly now that they’re operating in a business world that was originally developed by men for men – a factor that he says is making women four times as stressed as men when they come home in the evening. Following his research on a group of 100,000 employees, he found 80 per cent of the women he interviewed felt underappreciated at work, while more than 80 per cent of the men said they appreciated women in the workplace.
“A serious disconnect,” Gray calls it, and goes on to discuss the other major blind spots we have in dealing with each other. Women, he says, tend to need more acknowledgment and understanding as part of the overall process of getting things done. Men, on the other hand, need straight talk, direct questions and congratulations on their achievements.
So how exactly do we manage our partners’ needs? How do we stay novel, grounded, sexy, stable, exciting, reliable, unemotional and reassuring, and all the while never underwhelming or overwhelming our loved one? Well, that’s where ‘it’s complicated’.
The first step, all the experts seem to agree, is to dispel any God-like notions we’re tempted to project onto our potential perfect partner.
“I definitely encourage couples to have rich social and family lives, together and alone,” says Perel. “To have other places where they experience a sense of recognition and belonging so that all those needs don’t have to be met by just one person. It’s about having your life and bringing the fullness of that back home. Couples who are more socially anchored often fare better.”
Gray believes that the answer lies in educating the sexes in the community – which, in the 21st century, means at work. And perhaps, if the world sucks up his new book ‘Work with Me: The 8 Blind Spots between Men and Women in Business’ with as much vigor as they did his first, Gray’s gender-intelligence concept could transform our drab, dreary and dysfunctional work- lives into a nirvana of rewarding exchanges where Adam and Eve do business in perfect harmony.
In the meantime, while we’re passing the book around the office and hoping that those who need it most get beyond the first page, there are other techniques we can try to help our brains get the satisfaction they crave from a loved one.
“There are a few things that my brain- scanning can tell us about improving our relationships,” says Helen Fisher. “First of all, doing novel things together drives up the dopamine system and can help to foster feelings of romantic love. Having feelings of romantic love in their relationship is the definition of happiness for many people.
So, ‘Novelty, novelty, novelty’ is what I tell them.
“People also want to sustain feelings of attachment. To do that you have to literally stay in touch, hold hands, hug, kiss, walk down the street arm in arm and learn to sleep in each other’s arms – or at least start the night that way. Any kind of touching or kissing drives up the oxytocin in the brain and can give you feelings of attachment to a human being.”
In her book ‘Mating in Captivity: Unlocking Erotic Intelligence’, Esther Perel explores the age-old issue of how to keep the passion alive in long-term relationships.
“Attraction is a moving target,” says Perel. “It isn’t a static concept, it’s flexible. You feel more attracted when you’re more fond of someone. And it’s not always about the other person – sometimes you’re blind. You’re down and depressed, so you’re not seeing anything clearly and you’re not attracted to anyone.
“Sometimes it’s because you’ve made your relationship too familiar and you see your partner as your brother, your mother, your sister, your father or your best friend. And none of these bode well for an erotic relationship.
“People often say, ‘I love my partner but I’m not in love with them.’ What do they expect? Being in love is something that you have here and there in certain moments, but that isn’t the constant state of a relationship. Every once in a while you want to jump on or hug that person with a total intensity. But most of the time it’s something that exists at a different temperature – you don’t need it hot all the time, you need it warm.
“And most of the couples that have a spark are couples who don’t just love each other – they admire each other, too. That admiration is enormously connected to desire, because the biggest turn-on is confidence.”
But while we’re all busy trying to turn ourselves into someone that our partner will admire, what happens if we find ourselves unable to admire our partner? The answer, according to Helen Fisher, is to look harder.
“We did a very interesting study in China,” says Fisher. “We put 20 people into the scanner, then went back three-and-a-half years later and looked at the scans of those participants who’d stayed together and maintained long-term relationships. There was only one real difference, and it was a part of the frontal cortex where you do your thinking. It was a brain region linked with the ability to overlook the negative and accentuate the positive – it’s called positive illusions. When there’s less activity in that brain region, you have an increased ability to overlook what’s rational and realistic and just go with the positive.
“The bottom line is – it’s five years later, your partner’s got fat, you’ve got old, you’ve lost most of your hair and she’s not as funny as she used to be. But if you can try to overlook the negative and accentuate the positive – ‘she’s still so kind to me’, ‘he’s a great cook’, ‘I still love dancing with her’, etc – you’ll maintain a positive relationship.”
Mark Solms agrees: “The emotional systems in the brain for SEEKING, LUST and PANIC (or Attachment) are highly primitive systems that we share with all other species of mammal. Humans aren’t simply at the mercy of these systems – we’re endowed with an override mechanism in the brain, behind our forehead, called the prefrontal lobes. It’s here that we rationalise and make executive decisions. We aren’t always aware of the emotional patterns that drive us, though, and that’s where psychotherapy can help – by attributing meaning to our compulsive patterns of behaviour.” But what does this all mean for the future of long-term lovers? Where will relationships end up 50 or 100 years from now?
Perel believes that we could be at risk of isolating ourselves in our quest for coupledom. “The worst thing for any
couple is to be isolated, and the worst thing for any individual is to be isolated – and that can often mean simply being overly focused on being part of a couple. One of the most important things about sustaining a relationship is how it’s sustained by the people around it – not just what happens between the two people.”
Helen Fisher agrees: “The loss of local community can be very detrimental to relationships. The more we live in a world of romantic isolation in which these pair bonds aren’t reinforced by the local community, the more likely those bonds are to be rather fragile. For example, for years I worked in publishing in New York City with this guy but I never met his wife, never saw his children and didn’t know where he lived. And yet he and I were working together 10 hours a day and we probably had more in common than he and his family did – certainly, I saw more of him than they did. Under those circumstances there are far more opportunities for adultery and far fewer for the bolstering of a partnership.
“But I actually think we’re in the most exciting and optimistic time yet for relationships. Yes, there are great risks in our modern world, but there are also great opportunities. And the great opportunities include being able to walk out of a horrible relationship – where there’s battering, alcoholism, drug abuse, adultery or whatever- in order to make a good relationship. We’re living in a time where we’re seeing growing economic equality for the sexes. We’re seeing more happy marriages because bad marriages can end.”
So here we all are, in 2013, in varying states of love and loneliness, living in an era when our SEEKING systems are finally free to go out and hunt for the perfect partner. And assuming, of course, that our Attachment
system ‘Likes’ its choice and doesn’t go into too much of a PANIC, we may now – having had the lowdown from the experts – be ready to employ a little gender and social intelligence and stir up a cocktail of brain- chemicals that would put a New York City mixologist to shame.
And even if that sounds like too heady a plan, you can rest assured that modern life will find a way to throw some curve ball into your future. So, perhaps simply accentuating our partner’s positives and holding their hand a bit more along the way could kick-start the next era for relationships. And who knows, we may even give the next generation a brand new relationship status -‘we’re working on it’