Many people are asking themselves if their relationship has staying power. In a recent post, I asked whether marriage itself is on the ropes. If marriage is really destined for the slag heap of history, what will that do to romantic love?
In the old days, love and marriage went together like the horse and carriage, the enthusiasm of the one pulling the dead weight of the other. This was convenient for romance novelists who might bring their couples to the altar and consider their work done.
Such neat endings are scarcely possible in places where most couples live together before marriage. Fewer people are marrying today and those who do spend an ever shorter proportion of their lives as married people. If the time comes when virtually no one marries, will couples continue to fall in love?
Logically, there are two possible answers to this question. The first is that romance is baked into humans in much the same way as pair bonding is baked into ring doves and other monogamous species. The second is that romantic love is little more than a convention that helps couples to make their peace with the prolonged monotony of monogamous unions.
Answer A: Romantic love endures as part of our biological heritage
Some form of marriage is found in all human societies. Marriage is not always permanent, of course, but generally involves a long term commitment sufficient to raise a child to the age where it can feed itself.
Students of marriage find that there is a seven-year itch when first marriages are likely to end in divorce. This period is analogous to a breeding season for birds and some species change their mate from one season to the next.
Other evidence for human pair bonding comes from courtship (1). Flirtatious glances, body movements, high-pitched laughter, and so forth are unlearned in the sense that they develop similarly in different societies. Courting couples manifest ritualized body movements such as mirroring of gestures, synchronized drinking, and so forth that resemble the courtship rituals of other pair-bonded species.
If come-hither signals, and the antics of couples falling in love are quite similar around the globe, there are also the gestures that warn interlopers to stay away. Couples may lock their gaze for 20 seconds at a time or go about with their arms entwined.
So Answer A sees humans as a pair-bonding species with deep attachment between mates similar to other pair-bonding mammals from meadow voles to gibbons. Interestingly, romantic love is mediated in humans by the same brain chemicals as for meadow voles (principally oxytocin and angiotensin 2). Oxytocin promotes relaxation and likely contributes to the health premium of marriage (3).
Answer B: Once marriage marches out the door, love flies out the window
An entirely different view of romance is that sex is merely an appetite like any other. It can be satisfied with relative strangers and does not require a prolonged bonding sequence as is true of monogamous animals. Romantic love is a fiction that helps keep married couples together for economic reasons.
This approach to sexuality is reflected by the prostitution industry and by the current habit of “hooking up” with relative strangers in brief exchanges of sexual intimacy. So many women express the casual sexuality previously seen as more typical of men.
In the modern world, women are economically independent of men and no longer need to marry. Marriage is beginning to die out. As soon as most people give up marrying, romantic love will disappear.
Are we tortured by uncontrollable biological urges, or cold-hearted operators who merely make the most of our social opportunities? Both answers may be partly correct.
Men may be interested in casual sex but they are also prone to falling deeply in love with “casual” partners. Women often select men on the basis of their social status but end up getting emotionally committed to them anyway. Both are prone to romantic bonding.
Formal marriage may well disappear in time but romantic love cannot.
1. Barber, N. (2002). The science of romance: Secrets of the sexual brain. Amherst, NY: Prometheus.
2. Young, L. J., Murphy Young, A. Z., & Hammock, E. A. (2005). Anatomy and neurochemistry of the pair bond. Journal of Comparative Neurology, 493, 51-57.
3. Uvnas-Moberg, K. (1998). Oxytocin may mediate the benefits of positive social interaction and emotions. Psychoneuroendocrinology, 23, 819-835.