The People's Professor

Psychology 360: A brain-behavior buffet, heavy to lite, A to Z

V Day: Love and Sex—a Sampler

Valentine musings on cupid's causality, love vs horror, the G Factor, and more

Love is our finest feeling. Some people experience the real thing, a center to their lives. Some never do. There is even a psychological science of romantic love, initiated over 40 years ago by Elaine Hatfield and Ellen Bersheid. Now several psychological researchers pursue this science of romantic love. But some people say such love should be left to the poets. The great neuroscientist and psychologist Donald Hebb famously said psychological science is not poetry. I demur from my otherwise hero Hebb. Humanizing this inhumane world, this world of unspeakable horror on the one hand, and wonderfully beautiful love on the other, needs all the poetry we can get.The attempt to decrease the horror and increase the love is the world's #1 challenge. Is the latter a universal antidote to the former? We don't know. It should be. I hope it is. But we don't know.

What can be done to increase the love in each of our lives? FIRSTLY: There is no one formula for love. Most people differ genetically, most differ in their development, and many differ in their feelings and mode of expression of love. So a list you read of what YOU should do to express your romantic side on V Day may or may not actually apply to you. Most such lists are not reliably backed by evidence. So anything I or anyone else recommends about your love-life may or may not work for you. SECONDLY: Personal love needs attentiveness from both sides. It needs, especially, the G Factor, generosity. If you aren't "giving" in your relationships and in your life, love will be elusive and passing. In my view, giving and generosity are foundational to ALL TRUE FRIENDSHIPS and to LOVE. And there will be no need for forgiveness if there was giving in the first place.THIRDLY:  Another ingredient to consider in romance is similarity on significant personal qualities. If you are opposite on many major traits, it is often more difficult to understand the other, to empathize, to find common ground you both can live on together for the long haul, so you may risk love that won't last.

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Love is wonderful, but what about SEX on V Day? Well, its an activity close to the script of Valentino himself--an historic sexy devil. Flowers (roses, red only), dark low-sugar low-fat chocolates, and red wine--the wassail elixir of choice, are excellent (and both men and women can enjoy as givers). But much healthier than the bon bons and booze is full-out sex, the complete V Day package. Sex is natural, healthy and organic. There is a long-time debate as to the causal direction, cupid's causality, of the love and sex relationship. Does sexual engagement lead to feelings of love, or do feelings of romantic love precipitate sexual engagement? Undoubtedly the directionality varies among individuals. And most beautiful of all, sex and love can become entangled in a single golden thread becoming indivisible.

Let me close these musings on romantic love, and sex, and the need for much more of both in this world and especially this month, with a few ponderables of current concern.

* Reducing romance and love to chemical and biological processes is reductio ad absurdum. For example, ocytocin fails to account for a lot of variance in the available studies, most of which have significant problems of research design (e.g., small convenience samples, laboratory-based, questionable questionaires, most conducted far from the bedroom, etc.).

* If gay marriage continues to be legalized state to state, which the White House supports, as do I, what legal barriers could be raised any longer against polygamous and polygynous marriages and possibly other marriage models? These could be interesting times for the researcher of love and romance!

* The traditional parental "birds and bees" talk with one's children is being replaced or supplemented with a "cyber sit-down" to educate kids about sex, especially sex and the internet. The question is who is educating who in this era of total net immersion by our kids? In the digital world of sex and love, the pupil often knows more than the teacher!

* If marriage seems, on average, to not be a reliable source of happiness according to research, what work is yet needed specifically on sex and love within marriage that could be helpful in reversing this situation?

* Reality check: Some of the research on sex and love is subject to criticisms of research design, as noted above,including convenience samples (usually college psychology students), overgeneralization, lack of direct replications, use of questionaires and surveys with psychometric issues such as validity, to mention a few. Before psychopundits expound too much on how to make your V Day the best imaginable, a closer look at the research might be helpful. Clearly, with the intractably high divorce rate that we have in America, and the unsatisfactory sex lives often reported, one day in February won't do it. But the alternative, less love and less sex, is NOT A DEFAULT SOLUTION. Your wisdom on this important problem is invited!

 

Frank Farley, Ph.D., is a L.H. Carnell Professor, Temple University, and former President of the American Psychological Association.

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