Valentine’s Day, love songs, romance novels—do they influence falling in love? On the surface it seems like they do, but scientific research suggests that there’s another cupid at work: instinct. Love, specifically the passionate variety, is an emotion that is almost beyond our control. Humans, it seems, are programmed to take this amorous tumble. Forget the roses and heart-shaped box of chocolates—it’s our genes that are on the hook for our addiction to love.
The evolution of love
According to Elizabeth Pillsworth, assistant professor of evolutionary anthropology at California State University, passionate love has been around since the dawn of time. “It’s hard to say with any great confidence when the emotion of love may have evolved,” says Pillsworth, “but given the fact that we haven’t found any human populations in which it seems to be absent, either in modern or historical records, we can assume that [love] is characteristic of humans, like feeling compassion or shame.”
Love is one of our oldest emotions. Our hunting-and-gathering predecessors were just as consumed by it as we are today. Back then, passionate love brought people together for survival, safety and continuation of the species. Today, we might not need a partner to help us stay alive, feel secure, or even have babies, but at the heart of love, the need is the same: the desire to love someone and have that amorous feeling reciprocated. This emotion is universal. It crosses generations, cultures and geographical borders.
Why does love make us do crazy things?
So why does passionate love make us act like we do? Triggered by age-old instincts, modern love has a lot to answer for. “People literally describe spending upwards of 90 percent of their waking energy thinking about the object of their desire, planning ways to inadvertently ‘bump into’ him,” says Pillsworth. We dream about the moment when they tell us they love us back. Passionate love with its first flush of excitement is typically a brief condition. It’s normally restricted to the early stages of a relationship. On the plus side, it’s a very romantic phase, however, it’s also incredibly time-consuming and occasionally verges into obsessive territory—the lovesick behaviour called limerence. “Dorothy Tennov, a social psychologist, coined the term in her 1979 book, Love and Limerence,” says Pillsworth. “[It captured] that aspect of love characterized by intrusive thoughts, emotional roller coasters, desperate desire for deep emotional attachment, and even quasi-stalking behaviours.” Passionate love can make some of us do crazy things, but for the majority it’s a helpful tool.
Take the selection of a mate. Our instincts make us seek out certain traits in a potential significant other. Falling in passionate love is the first step in the process. “In looking for a long-term partner, both [sexes] are most anxious to find someone who is kind, mutually attracted to them, and has a good sense of humor,” says Pillsworth. “Beyond that, men place more emphasis on the physical attractiveness of a long-term partner than women do. Women place more emphasis on the resource-acquiring characteristics of a long-term partner.” These preferences date back to ancient times. Men searched for the curvy, “womanly” body type that signals a healthy mate for child-bearing, while the opposite was true for women. A virile, broad-shouldered male was ideal for a sexual conquest, but not necessarily for a life-long relationship. Women primarily sought providers. Falling in love was a good test to see if the person in question was up to scratch before any further commitment was established. Love today isn’t much different.
Is love meant to last forever?
When the bloom of this initial affection wilts and a strong, but less intense, love takes over, the relationship can hit a turning point. Will it spark a break up, or a lengthy monogamous union? Isn’t monogamy in our genes, too? Scientists remain mixed on the subject. Some research suggests that people in the midst of passionate love seem blind to other attractive individuals. They’re focused on that one potential partner, despite other enticing prospects nearby. Such findings fuel the monogamous point of view, but other studies differ. Contrary evidence indicates that men and women will explore extra sexual and relationship opportunities if given the chance, thus monogamy is just a passing phase. Science has been unable to support either theory completely. What is for certain is that we have an ability to use our instincts in conjunction with our own decision-making processes. “[We] have a highly flexible, responsive mating system,” says Pillsworth. “We take in information about our current circumstances: our age, attractiveness, cultural context, and behave accordingly.” Passionate love with all its benefits—and faults—may be driven more by our minds than our hearts, but at least we’re not alone in acting under its spell. We are all at the mercy of this crazy little thing called love.
Web exclusive February 2011 Best Health magazine