Back on 4th April , when reflecting on Joseph Campbell‘s mythological wisdom on love, I voiced some questions and concerns about romance and marriage in western culture. It’s always great to meet others on the same journey as ourselves, especially when they validate our own perspective! This article articulates the same social concern about the disconnect between romance and marriage.
First, Lord references recent neuroscience research which has begun to map some of the brain activity associated with ‘being in love.’ Helen Fisher is primarily responsible for bringing this research into being, by sticking 40 people who were ‘in love’ under an MRI scan. As a biological-anthropologist she proposes an evolutionary theory to explain the existence of different brain behaviour for the sex drive, romantic attraction, and long-term affection. The human brain evolved a sex drive to get people out there looking to re-create themselves, the attraction drive to narrow down the field to a suitable mating partner, and the affection drive to keep the partnership together long enough to have children. I think Fisher’s distinction between these three basic human drives that function in intimate relationships is particularly helpful – sexual arousal, romantic attraction and committed affection exist separately before they sometimes exist together and I recommend the TED lecture by Fisher if you interested to know more.
Lord then maps the evolution of marriage and romance as social constructs in the last 500 years, singling out the industrial revolution as the most influential development which shifted the need for a social and economic basis for marriage. Taking contemporary American cinema as evidence for the current perpetuating myths of romance and marriage, Lord shows how the former is seen as the exclusive entry into the later.
This is where Lord turns back to neuro-psychology to explain why ‘falling in love’ is a particularly unstable grounds for the establishment of long term relationships. Psychologists consider falling in love to be an addiction: it triggers the same chemical reactions as cocaine and stimulates the brain areas which stimulate obsession, craving, physical dependence, personality change, distorted perspective and loss of self-control!
Interestingly, Helen Fisher’s research included couples who were still in love after 30 years of marriage which revealed that some of this brain activity was still present, whilst the anxiety producing activity had been replaced by seratonin inducing calmness and security – so staying in love long term is possible – it just doesn’t happen very often. (Dr. Earl Henslin reckons in about 8-9% of couples!)
Lord’s response is to suggest that we return to a story about love as an art form. That loving well needs to be learn, practiced, discovered. A bit like a 12 step program for transitioning from the addiction of romance to a healthy integration of sex, attraction and affection! This sounds pretty much exactly where I ended up in my own musings, but with a bit of brain science thrown in with the social anthropology. She writes:
In conclusion, Americans need to realize that although our country allows us more freedom for individual happiness, those freedoms do not necessarily serve a practical function. We are culturally free to marry for love, yet our highly demanding social structure weakens our opportunity to focus on and obtain that romance. While we no longer need extended family support systems, we still need to realize that only focusing on our individual selves can breed lack of self discipline, resulting in such things as romantic affairs. Our strongly individualistic country needs to regain the value of having utmost concern for those we love. Only then will we gain individual satisfaction. This includes the ability and our own willingness to see our beloved as they are, imperfections and merit, rather than continuing a Hollywood romance based on fantasy. This flaw in our country’s values supports Harriet Hawkins idea that society is to blame for the failure of romance (Hawkins 115). While she speaks of Shakespeare’s lovers being situated in a conflict opposed by war and feudal impulses, Fromm speaks of lovers being situated in an economy too demanding for love’s
commitment. This social control, along with the ability of romance to cloud one’s judgment, explains why Othello took not only Desdemona’s life, but his own as well. They were in a situation with no extended support system and Othello’s obligation was to commit himself as a general, while Desdemona was put second. Considering his duty to the state was expected to come first, Othello had reason to put his trust in his men. This took precedence over his duty to Desdemona and her words. Othello’s service to the state caused strain and failure in his marriage. In short, our social system needs to change, while we need to grasp the knowledge and essentials for the success of romantic love, or marriage will continue to suffer.
You can read the whole article here.