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Does Science Have Anything Useful to Say about Love?

This blog is about the science of love.  To some people, the “science of love” sounds like an oxymoron—two words, “science” and “love” that don’t fit together.  I certainly can see why some people would feel that way.  The late Senator William Proxmire certainly felt that way: He awarded love researcher Elaine Hatfield a “golden fleece award” for fleecing taxpayers with her scientific studies on love.  Yet a few examples might serve to show how science can teach us things about love that we might not sense either intuitively or even through our experiences in loving relationships.

1. What should you do if your partner is not as involved as you would wish them to be?

When a love partner is not as involved as we wish in a love relationship, typically our first reaction is to try to bring them closer.  My mother’s expression was “rope them in.”  So, if your partner is not very committed and you want your partner to become more committed, stress all the advantages of commitment and then try to act in ways that will encourage your partner to become committed.

There is one big problem with this method.  It usually will not work.  People have a certain distance that they feel is comfortable, and if you try to move in on them, they try to move back to establish their comfortable distance. Thus, a more typical result is that, as you try to rope in your partner more and more, the partner will back off more and more.

A better strategy usually is to back off—even more than your partner has.  The partner then may well try to come closer to you to reestablish the distance with which they are comfortable and you then may be in a better position, later, to reduce that distance. The whole deal is a bit like a “Chinese finger trap.”  You push your fingers in the cylinder that comprises the trap.  Then you want to get your fingers out.  The more you pull out, the more your fingers become enmeshed in the trap. You need to do the counterintuitive thing—to dig your fingers more deeply in so as to free yourself.

The point is that love in general and passion in particular can be paradoxical: Sometimes, to get closer, you first have to let go, much like a song by the erstwhile rock group, The Mamas and the Papas, where a lover lets her lover free in order to bring her back.


2. Should you look for someone similar to you or different from you?

An argument among love researchers over many years has been whether you should look for someone similar to you or rather someone who is complementary and thus different in key ways.  But a deeper analysis of the problem reveals that both strategies are oversimplifications. In some instances, you want someone different.  For example, suppose you are a big thinker who hates details.  It really makes sense to pair up with someone who will attend to the details in life that you are likely to miss—paying bills on time, making sure kids are ready for school, keeping appointments at doctors’ offices, and so on.

But you also want someone who appreciates your being a big-picture person.  Here, you may want to be with someone who is different but also who appreciates why that difference is important. You don’t want someone who is a details person who can’t stand big-picture people, and you don’t want another big-picture who will leave you always late in paying bills or failing to appear for doctors’ visits.

Consider another example.  You are a night person.  Should you look for a morning person or another night person? Here, there is no simple answer. If you are a night person with a morning person, you may feel that you have very little time with the partner.  That’s a big minus.  But if you are with a night person and you have kids, who is going to make sure the kids get ready for school?  That’s a big plus.

You see? Simple answers often don’t work.  There almost always are tradeoffs.  It’s fine to find someone different from yourself as long as (a) you both appreciate the differences and (b) can find a way to make things work despite those differences.


3. Is there love at first sight?

Toddler boy and girlPeople have been arguing about the answer to this question for years.  Science answers the question.  Yes, there is love at first sight—passionate love.  Passion is an important aspect of love.  But this is not true love.  True love, involving intimacy, passion, and commitment, only evolves over time. So there is love at first sight, but it is at best a starter love. The question is whether you can move forward from there to find as well intimacy and commitment.


4. Does living together before marriage help to ensure that you won’t end up later split or divorced?

The answer to this one is “no.”  On average people who live together before marriage are slightly more likely to split up. Why?  No one knows for sure.  Maybe the kinds of people who experiment with living together are more susceptible to break-ups.  Maybe such people tend to be commitment-shy.  Maybe living together establishes a certain kind of relationship, which then changes uncomfortably when the people get married.

Of course, it all depends on the couple. The point is that what would seem to be an obvious “yes” actually turns out, most of the time, to be a somewhat qualified “no.”

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