The Science of Love, with Dr. Helen Fisher
We all want to have a good stable relationship
with somebody and one of the problems with early stage intense feelings of romantic love
is that it’s part of the oldest parts of the brain that become activated. Brain regions
linked with drive, with craving, with obsession, with motivation. And in fact some cognitive
regions up I the prefrontal cortex that have evolved much more recently begin to shut down.
Brain regions linked with decision making, planning ahead, you know, people who are madly
in love can fall madly in love with somebody who’s married who lives on the other side
of the planet, who comes from a different religion and somehow they’ll say to themselves
we’ll work it out. We can work this out because of all that energy of intense romantic
love and also the shutting down of various brain systems like with decision making. So
one of the things that I say to people is, you know, before you decide to marry somebody
spend some, a good deal of time with them so that some of that early stage intense feelings
of romantic love can begin to subside and you can begin to really see what you’ve
got. As a matter of fact I’m very optimistic
about the future of relationships because we’re spending so much time now getting
to know somebody before we wed. You know a great many people are having these one night
stands and friends with benefits and living together before they marry. And there was
a recent study in which they asked a lot of single people who were living together with
somebody why have they not yet married. And 67 percent were terrified of divorce, terrified
of the – not only the legal and the financial and the economic but the personal and social
fallout of divorce. And so I began to realize maybe all of this hooking up and friends with
benefits and living together is not recklessness. Maybe it’s caution. Maybe singles are trying
to learn every single thing they can about a potential partner before they tie the knot.
And in short marriage used to be the beginning of a relationship, now it’s the finale.
And I think that that is very positive. As a matter of fact I work with Match.com. I’m
their senior, their chief scientific advisor. And we did a study of married people not on
the site Match.com of course of 1,100 married people. And I had reason well if there’s
this long precommitment stage of getting to know somebody maybe by the time you walk down
the aisle you know what you’ve got, you’re happy with what you’ve got and you’re
going to build a long stable really happy marriage.
Maybe we’re going towards a time of happier marriages because relationships can end before
you tie the knot. So within this study I asked these 1,100 married people a lot of questions
but one of the questions was would you remarry the person you’re currently married to?
And 81 percent said yes. And I think that with what I call fast sex, slow love with
this slow love process of getting to know somebody very carefully over a long period
of time it’s going to help the brain readjust some of these brain regions for decision making.
You’re going to get to know how this person handles your parents at Christmas or whatever
holiday, you know. How they handle your friends. How they handle their money. How they handle
an argument. How they handle getting exercise and their own health and your health, et cetera.
You learn a lot about the person. I think we’re in a – I’m very optimistic about
the future because of this concept of slow love.
I’m not really in the advice business or the should business. I think people should
marry when they feel like marrying. But from what I know about the brain if it were me
I’d wait at least two years because in two years you see the full cycle of the year twice.
You see how they handle Halloween, how they handle Christmas or Hanukkah, how they handle
summer fun. And to see that twice is I think important. And by the way, you can sustain
that intense feeling of romantic love for two years. I’ve studied 5,000 people through
Match.com not on the Match.com site. A representative sample of Americans based on the U.S. census
and a great many of them say that they’ve had the experience of sustained feelings of
intense romantic love for somebody for two to five years. So if you pick the right person
and you know now to sustain some of the joy I think you can create a long term attachment
that is full also of periods of romantic love. We all want to sustain a long term happy partnership
and psychologists will give you a long list of smart ways to sustain it. But I’d like
to say what the brain can add. I studied the brain and the first thing that you want to
do is sustain the three basic brain systems for mating and reproduction. Sex drive – have
sex with the partner, have sex regularly with the partner. If you don’t have time schedule
the time to have sex with the partner because when you have sex with a partner you’re
driving up the testosterone system so you’re going to want to have more sex. But you also
have all the cuddling which is going to drive up the oxytocin system and give you feelings
of attachment and having sex with the person, any kind of stimulation of the genitals drives
up the dopamine system and can sustain feelings of romantic love. So basically having – and
of course there can be good jokes about it and relaxation about it that is good for the
body and the mind. So have sex with a person and sustain that brain system of the sex drive.
To sustain feelings of intense romantic love do novel things together. Novelty drives up
the dopamine system and can sustain feelings of romantic love.
And this isn’t just in the bedroom. Just go to a different restaurant on Friday night.
Take your bicycle instead of a car. Read to each other in bed. Sit together on the couch
and have a discussion about something new. Read new books together. Novelty, novelty,
novelty sustains feelings of intense romantic love. You also want to sustain feelings of
deep attachment and to do that you have to just stay in touch. Learn to sleep in the
person’s arms, at least start that way. Cuddle after dinner. Walk arm in arm down
the street. Hold hands together. Put your foot on top of his foot or her foot while
you’re having dinner, gently of course. But stay in touch. That drives up the oxytocin
system and can give you feelings of deep attachment to the partner. So you want to sustain all
three of those brain systems – sex drive, feelings of romantic love and feelings of
deep attachment. But we’ve also found out what’s going on in the brain in long term
happy partners. We did a study, a brain scanning study of people who were married an average
of 21 years. And those people who are married an average of 21 years who are still madly
in love with their partner showed activity in three brain regions. A brain region linked
with empathy, a brain region linked with controlling your own emotions and a brain region linked
with what we call positive illusions. The simple ability but sometimes hard to overlook
what you don’t like about somebody and then focus on what you do. So last but not least
we’ve now known that if you say several nice things to your partner every day – I
would suggest five but if you can only pull off two or three, whatever, saying nice things
to your partner. That actually reduces their cholesterol, reduces their cortisol which
is the stress hormone and boost their immune system. But it also boosts yours. So what
the brain says about a happy, long term partnership is overlook what you don’t like and focus
on what you do. Express empathy for the partner. Control your own emotions. Have sex with the
partner. Do novel things together. Stay in touch and say several nice things every day
and you will – your brain will help you sustain a long-term deep attachment. We’re
built to love.