As a neuroscientist, I have come to view romance and attachment as survival systems in the brain.
Many people say that they hate dating and looking for romance, and would much rather quickly find a person to “settle down” with, minus all the coffees and dinners, hope and rejection. Some give up, but others keep striving, because finding someone to love often makes for a rewarding life that is efficient and productive — we thrive. We find a mate to pass on our genes, but also a companion to help us experience pleasures, and to help us meet our personal goals. In modern Western culture, dating and romance is often key to winning that special other person, that special sense of well-being. Some cultures arrange the marriage, avoiding the initial angst but risking a lifetime of woe, so we strive at dating.
But striving is hard. It is sometimes the exact opposite of the well-being we seek with a mate. Romance can make us do nothing but work to win the other person and forget about any other sort of productivity. It involves anxiety. Why do we keep at it? As a neuroscientist studying love, I have come to view romance and attachment as survival systems in the brain that exist in all humans across cultures. The brain areas involved in romance are deep in primitive levels of the brain. They are non-verbal, food-seeking, essential reward areas. It is good to strive for a partner in life, and to keep at it. The dating game is not a waste of time. We are literally hungry for a partner. The striving helps our personal and species survival. We have to try to learn from our failures and successes and widen our horizons.
Dating is more fun for some people than for others, and some people can tolerate rejection better than others. It may be in their genes. It may be the way they were taught to interact with others as they were growing up. It may be an interaction of their genes and their environment. What can we learn from these people who don’t mind the dating game so much, even if we don’t have the same genes or early experience? Where do they get their resilience? This is a tough question and one that research hasn’t answered, but working at knowing ourselves, first, may help. At the very least, it helps to know that this dating/seeking is part of being human (a mammalian activity!), part of human survival, an enduring ritual. We are not alone in any of our feelings or flirtatious tendencies. Even the male peacock with his glorious tail outspread is rejected by some females he wishes to impress. He goes on. He doesn’t take it personally. We can learn from other animals and the way they behave, as well as from other humans. We can develop our skills. We can accept our progress or lack of it.
Once we have found someone compatible to share our days and nights with, research suggests that we thrive. Good marital quality is correlated with good physical health, stress-buffering and self-esteem; we withstand physical pain better when our partner holds our hand. Strangely, taking care of someone else, showing empathy, forgiving them their faults, sacrificing for them from time-to-time, an act of random kindness, protecting them, is in all our genes to some degree, and it can increase our feelings of well-being.
We also thrive with a partner by sharing resources and assets to produce a comfortable family life, which may be extremely productive. Having someone else to support our life goals can be critical to working on those goals, and to feeling close to another person, increasing well-being, creativity and accomplishments. Think of all the presidents we have elected. So many world leaders are married. A life partner may not be perfect at all, but they can be crucial to a productive life.
Dating, romance and a long-term relationship is not for everyone. Some of us need to be alone to thrive. One of my colleagues told me that she married a friend. Romance was a disaster for her. But we need not even marry a friend. A circle of friends is a great protective mechanism, too. I am hoping for more and more individual-based medicine, and also individual-based approaches to relationships. We could each use genetic marker profiles for oxytocin and vasopressin hormone receptors, which affect our empathic behavior and marital relationships. We could each use personality profiles that do not limit us but inform us. It is a step towards knowing ourselves better, keeping a non-judgmental attitude, and making the best choices in life for ourselves, because there are no general rules that apply to everyone.
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Originally published at medium.com