A quote from anthropologist Helen Fisher got me thinking about how sex impacts our well-being and depression. “I don’t think, honestly, we’re an animal that was built to be happy; we are an animal that was built to reproduce. I think the happiness we find, we make.”
To minimize the chances that our natural drive to reproduce makes us unhappy, the authors of the original mindfulness manual suggested ruling out certain potential partners who are:
- Protected by a parent or guardian.
- Have a spouse.
- Are engaged.
Since the authors separately cautioned against drinking or drug use that lead to impaired decision making, and extra-marital sex was more of a cultural taboo than it is today, we might also infer exclusion of partners who are:
- Temporarily or permanently unable to consent.
- Currently in committed relationships.
What Brain Scans Tell Us
Helen Fisher studied how romantic love affects the brain and shared her findings in her Ted Talk “Why We Love, Why We Cheat.” She also joined On Being host Krista Tippett in a conversation about how we might use our current understanding about sex and brain function to promote happier relationships.
Sex and the Brain
Lust, libido, or sex drive can be traced to the hypothalamus, where testosterone and estrogen are produced. It’s helpful to think of this as a basic need, like a low level hunger, and common to every organism that reproduces sexually. Lust motivates us to search for a sexual partner.
Romantic Love, according to Fisher, activates the pleasure center of the brain, the same region that responds to the rush of cocaine. In the reproductive process, this occurs when we zero in on a particular individual with whom to attempt to mate.
Attachment occurs when oxytocin (produced through orgasm, breast feeding, or touch) calms the amygdala, where our fight or flight response gets triggered. This encourages partners to tolerate one another and their screaming offspring until they can viably fend for themselves.
The Reason for Safeguards
All societies have developed rules and institutions to rein in lust and romantic love, and for much of human history, many subscribed to arranged marriages. Though our current understanding of the brain pinpoints the cause, anyone who isn’t currently in love has always been able to observe the effect. Lust and romantic love shut off the prefrontal cortex of the brain, and with it, our rational decision making.
Addicted to Love
The brain on romantic love is an addicted brain.
An individual takes on “special meaning.” We idealize all positive qualities and block out any negatives.
All interactions with the individual are highly charged. Intense mood swings are common. We’re elated when things appear to be going well and despondent when they’re not.
We become increasingly dependent on the individual, crave their company, and think about them all the time. Rejection can lead to suicide. We become extremely sexually possessive and engage in “crimes of passion.”
Romantic Love and Depression
Because most depression sufferers tend to be overly self-focused, the fact that romantic love redirects their attention to another is potentially beneficial. But, it can be a problematic form of treatment in a couple of ways. Rejection by a potential mate can activate rumination on all the reasons we weren’t good enough, and the exhilaration of romantic love doesn’t last.
Since romantic love is a function of reproduction, it’s only practical that it fades after around eighteen months. That way, if an offspring is produced, the lovers can settle down, re-engage their prefrontal cortex to make the rational decisions necessary to keep their child alive. If an offspring is not produced, they can, released from their obsession, break-up and try again.
Any new parents who can’t afford a full time nanny will tell you that caring for a newborn is incompatible with sleep. And insufficient sleep, coupled with a cold turkey-like recovery from the addictive intensity of romantic love can lead to postpartum depression.
Fisher’s work as scientific advisor to Match.com led her to discover what people find important in a partner.
- Someone who’ll spend enough time with them.
- Physical attractiveness.
- Total transparency, including access to their partner’s cell phone.
- Someone they can trust and confide in.
- A partner who makes them laugh.
Expectations and Happiness
To increase the odds that spending enough time with a partner will lead to happiness, it helps to have multiple interests in common. When in the throes of romantic love, it may seem like an eternity to wait eighteen months before committing to marriage or having a child. But, if spending time with your partner is important, it’s nice if you actually enjoy spending time together. That’s difficult to predict when under the influence of romantic love.
Physical attraction is pleasurable, but not just to you. Physical attraction may go hand-in-hand with the desire for access to your partner’s cell phone. How often will you be checking to see whether they’re cheating on you? Will this lead to guilt if they’re found innocent, or furor if they’re not?
Someone to trust and confide in is conducive to a sense of well-being. So is someone who makes us laugh.
The idea that there’s one person out there who shares all our interests, that we’ll want to spend all our time with, is physically attractive but only has eyes for us, who is completely open and transparent, who we can trust and confide in, and who’ll make us laugh, is a good reason that more and more people become lonely.
One of the insights that Fisher and Tippett arrived at during the course of their conversation was that it is possible, and maybe even preferable to cultivate rich, fulfilling relationships without linking them to the evolutionary imperative of reproduction.
They noted that as more and more of us have physically separated from the villages where we were born and the folks who bore us, we are now building families of choice based on common values and interests instead of DNA. Fisher calls these families “associations.”
Platonic non-sexual touch, like good, long hugs can provide a sense of closeness through oxytocin, without the attendant obsessiveness or jealousy created through a dopamine rush.
Cultivating these associations can help make us happier people, and happier partners.
Ten Minute Exercise
I’ve selected eight questions to create a ten minute version of the forty-five minute exercise called 36 Questions for Increasing Closeness from the Greater Good Science Center website.
Choose someone you’ve identified as a potential mate (either for a sexual relationship or platonic friendship). Ask if they’re comfortable sharing personal thoughts and feelings with you. (This one question can be quite an effective sorting tool to determine whether they’re someone you can trust and confide in!)
Find a time when you both have at least ten minutes free and are able to meet in person. Then take turns asking the questions below. Each person should answer each question, but in an alternating order, so that a different person goes first each time.
- What would constitute a “perfect” day for you?
- Name three things you and your partner appear to have in common.
- For what in your life do you feel most grateful?
- What is the greatest accomplishment of your life?
- Alternate sharing something you consider a positive characteristic of your partner. Share a total of five items.
- Complete this sentence: “I wish I had someone with whom I could share…”
- Share with your partner an embarrassing moment in your life.
- Share a personal problem and ask your partner’s advice on how he or she might handle it. Also, ask your partner to reflect back to you how you seem to be feeling about the problem you have chosen.
Two helpful videos for getting love and friendship right:
PHILOSOPHY – Epicurus Don’t let the title scare you. It’s all about fun! (5:25)