After Valentine’s Day last week, I started thinking a lot about marriage. About yours, mine and those that surround us. About the neurochemistry in our brains that causes two people to click. About how marriage looks in the suburbs. About the future of marriage as we know it. I mean, is it important at all to even be married? And most importantly, to me anyway, what it takes to keep a good thing going.
Recent brain science tells us some pretty cool stuff about coupling and why we are drawn to our partners. There are four personality types as defined by preeminent “love” researcher, Helen Fisher, a bio-anthropologist at Rutgers University. There are builders, who are focused on family and who they know. There are explorers, who thrive on adventure and doing. There are negotiators, whose passion is introspection and who are interested most in feelings and finally, directors whose focus is intelligence and thinking it through. (Single ladies! Or not! Find out which you are here). Mostly we are drawn to others of the same type but apparently any type can match up and be successful if you are willing to do the work you need to do. Like swallowing the fact that you are not right all the time. And ignoring that irritating little thing he does with his lip when he’s looking for a parking spot.
Does it sometimes feel like things are fucked up in marriage land? When I was growing up, people waited to have kids until they got married. Not many parents were divorced, but the numbers seemed to go up and up as I got older. A lot of people waited until they got married to have sex. (I don’t know many of those people, but I know they existed.) Also, “cougar” type couplings were pretty rare and, at the time, men were still the expected breadwinners. None of this seems to exist anymore, which mostly is a good thing. Nowadays (do only old people say “nowadays?”), it seems, people have babies without getting married. Or ever planning to get married. They get divorced and remarry all the time! It’s not even a big deal. Women are heads of households all over the place! In terms of female sexuality, it’s actually women who are more turned on by novelty than men. Really! Is everything I was taught about marriage passe? Am I, in fact, a dinosaur? Are my notions of marriage quaint? While I think lots of these things are great, why do I cling to the whole “til death do us part?” When I look at my wedding photo, I see a much less worn version of me: my hair it’s natural brunette without a hint of gray, my smooth skin, flat pre-baby belly and my lovestruck eyes. Hell yes, I can see how my perspective is a little, well, dated.
Now, I am going to do some cheerleading here for long-term romantic relationships, so be prepared. Yes, “hook-ups” with someone new are exciting. Ah the stomach flipping, the obsession, the constant checking of your messages, the staring at each other for hours. There’s nothing like new love. Except, as it turns out, old love. In new studies on long-term pairings, Helen Fisher has discovered that some of the feelings we have when we are hot on that new stud are interpreted by the brain in the very same manner as those of us who remain with our tried-and-true. This area, known as the VTA (ventral tegmental area) , is responsible for how we respond to food, money, drugs and other highly addictive goodies. That’s right, babe. Everything old is new again.
In the study, people were shown photos of their long term partners. Their brains were hooked up to see which areas lit up and bam! Neural activity jumped in areas of the brains that process rewards, motivation, reinforcement learning and, get this, survival. This means that the same guy who can’t get a dirty shirt into the laundry basket to save his life actually sustains your life. Wow. The studies also showed that these partnerships were associated with proximity seeking (wanting to be together), alleviating stress, greater calm in face of adversity and improving responses to pain. As far as sexual frequency, the long term couples’ brains equated cravings like hunger with a need for sex. So whether you get hungry once, twice or 7 days a week, you want it. Bad. Now, it should be stated that the couples involved in the study were actually in love and not in one of those marriages where you wonder, “how the hell did that happen?”
Anyone who has been in a relationship for an extended period of time knows that there are ups and downs. Sometimes the spark gets dull. And sometimes it is hot. All long term relationships go through this, and it’s part of the natural ebb and flow of a relationship that stands the test of time. After all, don’t the lows make you appreciate the highs even more? Sometimes I think how great it would be if we were back to the time when we first met, with all the new gooey love. Not being able to sleep or eat! Sheer in-loveness! Staying in bed all day! Starting a movie at 10 pm! Sometimes I feel nostalgic for, even envious of new love. But I wouldn’t trade our now for our then; looking at the fabulous humans we created, the home we built together and the wool socks-flannel wearing-cozy-newspaper reading on a Sunday morning-kind of love we have now. So what that we are relics? I’d do it all again.
Thanks to Barbara Paulsen for the beautiful photos in this post.