14 Dec 2016

Why we can't not love

From Jesse Mulligan, 1–4pm, 3:08 pm on 14 December 2016

We are fundamentally built to love, biological anthropologist and amore-expert Helen Fisher says.

For decades she's been studying the way we fall in, and out of, love and all the delight and distress in between.

Dr Fisher says technology has changed the way we find love but not who we choose to love, and that its foundation has remained unchanged for millennia.

The fundamentals

“It is so basic to the human animal, love.”

Humans have evolved three different brain systems for mating and reproduction, Dr Fisher says. One is the sex drive - craving for sexual gratification; the second is romantic love - elation, giddiness, euphoria and possessiveness towards another person; and the third is attachment - the sense of calm and security you can feel towards a long-term partner.

Helen Fisher

Helen Fisher Photo: ted.com

“The bottom line is the sex drive gets you out there looking for a whole range of partners,” she says.

“Romantic loves enables you to focus your mating energy on just one person at a time and start the mating process.

“And feelings of attachment … enable you to stick with this person at least long enough to raise a single child through infancy.”

People have expressed concern that technology and the internet is affecting love in the modern world but she says she isn’t worried.

Romantic love is rooted in the most primal parts of the brain, right next to the fundamental urges thirst and hunger, Dr Fisher says.

“It cannot change this brain circuitry for romantic love. But technology is changing how we court, no question about that.”

Addicted to love

She says love is an addiction – with the parts of the brain linked with profound addiction the same that are activated when a person is happily in love, or when they have been rejected.

“It is a wonderful addiction when it is going well and a perfectly horrible one when it is going poorly,” she says.

“I mean people kill for love. The amount of crimes of passion – people killing themselves, people killing their partners, stalking, clinical depression –  [because of] romantic love.

“[And] that brain system is much stronger than the sex drive. If you ask someone to go to bed with you and they say ‘no thank you’, you don’t kill yourself, you don’t kill somebody else, you move on. You might be sorry about it but you move on.

“The amount of people who struggle with this addiction of intense romantic love for somebody who has dumped them is extraordinary and extreme.”

She says she has studied more than 30,000 people in the US and has found some differences, and similarities, between men and women.

She found that men fall in love faster, because they are more visual, and more often, because evolutionarily they have less to lose.

Men want to move in with a woman faster, and introduce her to friends and family sooner. However, they are also two and a half times more likely to kill themselves when a relationship ends.

But she also found after looking inside the brains of men and women who are in love that they display the same level of activity.

Slow love

One major change she sees for the future of romance is ‘slow love’ - where the courtship or pre-commitment stage of a relationship extends out, sometimes for years. 

“One hundred years ago you married the person really pretty fast and then you got to know them. These days you get to know somebody for a long period of time before you marry them.

“First you might have a one-night stand that will turn into ‘friends with benefits’, then slowly you begin to tell your friends and family about this person. Then slowly you move in together, and you will live together, often for many years, before you marry.”

People seem to want to learn everything about their partner before they commit, she says, because they are terrified about divorce and all the personal, social and economic costs that come along with it.

But this phenomena is cause for optimism and may lead to more happy marriages because bad relationships will end before people tie the knot.

“I think that’s great.”

And if you have ever wondered what exactly it is that attracts you to someone you just met, it may not be what you think.

“You judge them by three things: their teeth, their grammar and their self-confidence,” Dr Fisher says.