Unraveling the Mysteries of Love

by Jean Landphair, LMFT

Unraveling the Mysteries of Love
By Jean Landphair, LMFT

“That Old Black Magic”

That old black magic has me in its spell
That old black magic that you weave so well
Those icy fingers up and down my spine
The same old witchcraft when your eyes meet mine . . .

Darling, down and down I go, round and round I go
In a spin, loving the spin that I’m in
Under that old black magic called love

These verses from the popular 1942 song penned by Johnny Mercer captures well the mystery and allure of romantic love. Sometimes it is viewed as a dangerous thing, because it makes us feel out-of-control, and we fear getting hurt in the bargain. But modern social scientists have begun to unravel the mysteries of love. What they tell us can help us to make better choices and have a more positive outcome with that elusive and wondrous experience called “love.”

For starters, research has given us some clues as to what draws two people together into a romantic relationship. Does the old adage that “birds of a feather flock together” apply here, or is it more accurate to say that “opposites attract?” I reviewed the research on this topic for a project in graduate school and discovered that the answer is “yes” to both. When studying couples with long-term, successful relationships, researchers have found that both partners tend to share the same basic values and world views. This makes sense, as they can better relate to and empathize with each other if they view the world in a similar manner. In addition, if they have similar visions for their lives, they can spend their energies on moving towards those visions rather than constantly having to defend the legitimacy of their own individual goals.

But when it comes to certain personality traits, partners in life-long, committed relationships typically have chosen people with opposite or complementary personality traits. For example, we often see an analytical person paired with a more emotionally expressive person; a morning person with a “night owl;” or an orderly person with someone who is comfortable with chaos. Social scientists theorize that people gravitate towards partners who can cover for their own weaknesses, like two puzzle pieces that fit together. And in healthy relationships, partners often influence each other over time to moderate these opposites and become better individuals for it.

Another factor that causes one person to be attracted to another is simply that one shows interest in the other. This can be dangerous, because not everyone who is attracted to a person will be someone who can meet that person’s needs in a romantic relationship. It feels good to be wanted by someone, and it’s easy to say “yes” to dating that person. However, people who are available and open to romantic relationships are wise to be discriminating and not necessarily date everyone who pursues them.

What factors cause people to “fall in love” with each other? Social scientists view this process as emotional bonding and have found some clues. One thing that causes this bonding to happen is when one person is in a crisis and finds in another an empathetic heart and listening ear. We all long for someone we can count on to be there for us. When another person is consistently available, responsive, and emotionally engaged with us, we feel a sense of secure attachment to them. This dynamic is behind “rebound relationships” in which a friend who helps someone over a bad break-up becomes the next romantic partner. This is a predictable human response. However, that one who is there for us in a crisis is not always a good choice for a long-term romantic partner. So wisdom dictates choosing carefully when looking to a confidante to lean on in difficult times. If a broken-hearted lover is not looking for another relationship right away, it is advisable to confide in trusted relatives or friends of the same sex to help get emotional support.

Sexual connections can also be experienced as love. That’s because sexual arousal produces the hormone oxytocin in our brains. It is sometimes called the “cuddle hormone,” because it makes us feel warm, safe, and valued. But when this hormone is in plentiful supply in our brains, it also blinds us to the negative characteristics of the person with whom we have bonded. We would rather feel the ‘warm fuzzies’ than pay attention to the red flags that come up regarding the ability of the partner to meet one’s relationship needs. Research shows that when people are in this state (sometimes called infatuation), close friends and family members are a better judge of whether or not the match is a good one than the two partners who are involved with each other. Since being sexually active with a romantic partner can cloud one’s judgement in this way, avoiding early sexual involvement in relationships can help a person make a better mate choice.

Social scientists have found many factors that tend to predict success in romantic love relationships. My article “Top Risk Factors for Divorce” explores many of those. Two additional things that impact the outcome are having comparable levels of commitment, and deciding versus sliding.

When one romantic partner is more committed to the relationship than the other, the imbalance is often unsatisfying. The more committed partner typically feels constrained to frequently do what the other partner wants and is in danger of losing his or her own voice over time. The less committed partner is commonly required to give less to keep the relationship going, causing that partner to sometimes lose respect for the more committed partner. The more committed partner is the one who often ends up feeling alone and disconnected with someone who does not meet his or her emotional needs.

An interesting sidebar is that the commitment level to a relationship tends to stop growing when sex enters a relationship. The more committed partner may agree to being sexually active, believing that things will change if physical intimacy becomes part of the relationship, or if they move in together. But research does not bear that out. What typically happens instead is that the less committed partner maintains his or her commitment level, thus continuing the unsatisfying imbalance in the relationships. This may be one reason that the divorce rate is higher among married couples who have lived together prior to making a lifelong commitment to each other.

And finally, making an intentional, rational decision to marry is a higher predictor of marital success than simply sliding into marriage because it seems like the next logical step in a relationship. This “sliding” often follows a time of cohabitation for many couples. They may want children and believe that marrying will provide a more stable environment in which to raise them. They may feel pressure from others to make their relationship “legal.” A more committed partner may feel that marriage vows will motivate their partner to a higher level of commitment. Partners may think that making a more permanent commitment will help them to solve their relationship conflicts. However, none of these assumptions have proven to be true.

When I counsel singles who are desiring a mate, I suggest they make a list of what they want in a mate: which values, what vision for their life, what personality traits that will complement theirs, and what behaviors demonstrate that the prospect can meet their relationship needs. I also ask them to think about any non-negotiables they may have, such as where they intend to live or whether they tolerate pets. I recommend not even wasting time dating anyone who doesn’t meet the vast majority of the items on the list. That prevents one from getting emotionally attached and having clouded vision when making this most important decision of joining one’s life with another.

Furthermore, it is good for a couple to participate in a variety of activities together in groups with a variety of other people while getting to know each other. It is telling to observe one’s dating partner in many different situations to see how they behave, not just in dating situations in which they are putting their best foot forward. Research shows that among long-term happily married couples, the average amount of time they knew each other prior to the wedding was 2 years. That gives a couple plenty of time to truly know each other, but not so long that the romance wears off before they even get to the altar. It is also helpful to get the opinions of others who know one well and who care about one’s well-being.

This is just an introduction into the science of adult romantic love. An in-depth discussion of this topic can be found in Dr. Sue Johnson’s 2013 book Love Sense. Dr. Johnson, clinical psychologist and developer of emotionally focused therapy for couples, has been fascinated by the mystery of love ever since she started doing couple counseling in the early 1980’s. She includes the results of her experiences and research as well as that of many other social scientists in Love Sense. This wealth of information means that people can now make more informed and rational decisions when choosing lifelong partners. Love no longer has to be a mystery.