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Love Gone Wrong
The problem with romance is that it doesn't always deliver the goods. For all the joy it promises, it can also play us for fools, particularly when it convinces us that we've found the right person, only to upend our expectations later. Birth-control pills that mask a woman's ability to detect her mate's incompatible MHC are one way bad love can slip past our perimeters. Adrenaline is another. Any overwhelming emotional experience that ratchets up your sensory system can distort your perceptions, persuading you to take a chance on someone you should avoid.
Psychologist Arthur Aron of the State University of New York at Stony Brook says people who meet during a crisisan emergency landing of their airplane, saymay be much more inclined to believe they've found the person meant for them. "It's not that we fall in love with such people because they're immensely attractive," he says. "It's that they seem immensely attractive because we've fallen in love with them."
If that sounds a lot like what happens when people meet and date under the regular influence of drugs or alcohol, only to sober up later and wonder what in the world they were thinking, that's because in both cases powerful chemistry is running the show. When hormones and natural opioids get activated, explains psychologist and sex researcher Jim Pfaus of Concordia University in Montreal, you start drawing connections to the person who was present when those good feelings were created. "You think someone made you feel good," Pfaus says, "but really it's your brain that made you feel good."
Of course, even a love fever that's healthily shared breaks eventually, if only becauselike any feverit's unsustainable over time. Fisher sees the dangers of maladaptive love in fMRI studies she's conducting of people who have been rejected by a lover and can't shake the pain. In these subjects, as with all people in love, there is activity in the caudate nucleus, but it's specifically in a part that's adjacent to a brain region associated with addiction. If the two areas indeed overlap, as Fisher suspects, that helps explain why telling a jilted lover that it's time to move on can be fruitlessas fruitless as admonishing a drunk to put a cork in the bottle.
Happily, romance needn't come to ruin. Even irrational animals like ourselves would have quit trying if the bet didn't pay off sometimes. The eventual goal of any couple is to pass beyond serial datingbeyond even the thrill of early loveand into what's known as companionate love. That's the coffee-and-Sunday-paper phase, the board-games-when-it's-raining phase, and the fact is, there's not a lick of excitement about it. But that, for better or worse, is adaptive too. If partners are going to stay together for the years of care that children require, they need a love that bonds them to each other but without the passion that would be a distraction. As early humans relied more on their brainpower to surviveand the dependency period of babies lengthened to allow for the necessary learningcompanionate bonding probably became more pronounced.
That's not to say that people can't stay in love or that those couples who say they still feel romantic after years of being together are imagining things. Aron has conducted fMRI studies of some of those stubbornly loving pairs, and initial results show that their brains indeed look very much like those of people newly in love, with all the right regions lighting up in all the right ways. "We wondered if they were really feeling these things," Aron says. "But it looks like this is really happening."
These people, however, are the exceptions, and nearly all relationships must settle and cool. That's a hard truth, but it's a comforting one too. Long for the heat of early love if you want, but you'd have to pay for it with the solidity you've built over the years. "You've got to make a transition to a stabler state," says Barry McCarthy, a psychologist and sex therapist based in Washington. If love can be mundane, that's because sometimes it's meant to be.
Calling something like love mundane, of course, is true only as far as it goes. Survival of a species is a ruthless and reductionist matter, but if staying alive were truly all it was about, might we not have arrived at ways to do it without joyas we could have developed language without literature, rhythm without song, movement without dance? Romance may be nothing more than reproductive filigree, a bit of decoration that makes us want to perpetuate the species and ensures that we do it right. But nothing could convince a person in love that there isn't something more at workand the fact is, none of us would want to be convinced. That's a nut science may never fully crack.
Reported by Eben Harrell/London, Kristin Kloberdanz/Modesto, Calif., and Kate Stinchfield/New York