Book Review-Anatomy of Love: A Natural History of Mating, Marriage, and Why We Stray

It started simple enough. I wanted to explain to a friend who was struggling how there were different kinds of love. The problem is that I couldn’t figure out how to get to the right words. I knew that there were different kinds and different expressions of love, but I just couldn’t find the words. On the recommendation of a friend, I picked up Helen Fisher’s work, Anatomy of Love: A Natural History of Mating, Marriage, and Why We Stray. Buried in the middle of the work was the important answer I needed, but surrounding it was a rich study of how love works. Drawing from anthropology and neurology, Fisher explains possible answers as to why humans bond in the first place and why those bonds seem to break too easily.

Monogamy

The friends who introduced me to Fisher’s work are polyamorous. Both members of the couple are people my wife and I would consider good friends. While Terri and I are both clear about our beliefs about marriage and relationships, we continue to try to understand the perspectives and beliefs of our friends. The truth is that the couple aren’t the only ones we know who’ve decided at some point to have a kind of relationship that strays from what most people would consider traditional.

With the pieces that I’m about to share from the book, one might reasonably assume that I’m considering a polyamorous life; however, that would not be true. While I recognize that monogamy isn’t the norm for mammals and may not have been designed to last more than the time it takes to rear a child, for me, it’s still the right answer. The good news is that I gained a bit of extra insight as to why and how my friends find themselves with a primary bond and a non-primary bond.

Put Out the Fire

Dual Strategy

The anthropological research shows something odd. Marriages exist in most cultures and adultery is common. It seems that most humans developed a dual strategy for ensuring the survival of our offspring. We find a good mate – a primary bond – and we find lots of others for whom we share a special affinity. In tribes across the globe, it seems like there was a marriage relationship and the expectation that there would be coitus outside of marriage. This is particularly true of men but, in many cases, true of women as well.

In some cultures, men often offer their wives to their hunting partners, friends, and guests. With mutual consent, the wife and the non-spouse have sex. In other cultures, it’s believed that it takes many men to father a child, thus everyone in the village feels as if the child is, at least in part, theirs.

Western Moral Code

It turns out that it’s only Westerners who attach such a stigma to sex in general but also to various sexual relations. The strict regulation of sexual activity may have been necessary to prevent communities from being unduly burdened by children from parents who couldn’t support them, but the result was a sense of shame and guilt about sex in nearly every form.

In other cultures, sex and promiscuity are more openly accepted, with everyone in a village knowing who is coupling with whom. In many cultures, the knowledge is shared in the community but never discussed directly between spouses. Perhaps this approach avoids jealousy and therefore prevents uncomfortable confrontations.

The only sacrosanct prohibitions about sex are that you shouldn’t disrupt the marriage union.

Marriage

The marriage union serves a useful purpose. Humans’ massive heads can’t fit through the birth canal if fully developed, so Mother Nature started kicking out human offspring before they were fully able to care for themselves. The result was an even larger burden on the mother in caring for the child and therefore the greater need for support from another – typically the father or presumed father.

Marriage, then, as a concept provides a framework for support of the development of an offspring. Fisher’s research seems to lead towards the idea that marriages happened for 3-4 years if only one offspring was produced and continued only for 3-4 years after the birth of the last offspring.

One often points to other species to speak of the kind of monogamous pair bonding that we seek to achieve in marriage. However, only about 3% of mammals pair bond like we do. While 90% of birds pair bond, the problem is in how long it lasts – and the degree to which it holds. Scientists have found both that birds will copulate with others outside of their primary bond, and they’ve found in many cases the primary bond is limited to a single mating season.

Birds have a much shorter time until having an empty nest than humans, and their rapid de-pairing after a season means that it’s possible that humans have the same built-in timeclock, but the clock just takes longer to wind down.

When Marriages Fail

From an evolutionary perspective, having multiple suitors makes sense for the female. It’s been widely accepted that males chase and females choose. For a male with limited commitment to the development of an offspring, copulating with as many females as possible increases the chances of their genes to continue. For women, it can increase their chances for the survival of their genes as well. By courting favor with many men, should she become abandoned – or should there be a situation where her husband dies – she’s got a built-in set of potential stand-ins to assist her in raising her children.

Spiritual Evolution explains that baboons with better social bonds improved the outcomes for their children. What better way to form a social bond than to unlock nature’s reward system with dopamine?

The Reward System

Much has been made of the human reward system and how dopamine is the way that we’re encouraged to keep doing something. The Power of Habit perhaps overplays the hand by speaking of anticipation; but other books about addiction, like The Globalization of Addiction, take a more balanced view, explaining how addiction is fueled by the dopamine system and simultaneously explaining environmental factors.

The simple truth is that evolution equipped us with a set of mechanisms that rewarded behaviors that led to the survival of our genes. Simple biases added up to a system where sexual reproduction was rewarded with dopamine – our natural pleasure drug. It’s a quick response that helps us know that this is the sort of thing to do – like eating sugar, chocolate, or salt. Add to that the neurotransmitter oxytocin, and you add to the pleasure a sense of desire to bond – or pair bond. Which is, of course, what we need if our offspring require a great deal of resources to support their birth and growth to self-sufficiency.

It’s Not All About Sex

Despite the powerful neurochemicals in play most people (95% of females, and 91% of males) say that the best thing about love is not sex. There’s more going on than the neurochemical wash associated with sex. It seems like that the need for connection, understanding, and belief of mutual support is more powerful than we would anticipate.

Moving back to the analogy of love as an addiction for a moment, Fisher’s work parallels what we know about addiction. Addicts do receive a bit of dopamine from their addiction – in whatever form – however, the way that we fight off addition isn’t the use of more dopamine at other times. Instead, the way that we combat addictions is through changing the person’s environment and, most importantly, their connection with a community.

The Risks of Sex

One of the interesting changes that came to the way we view sex is the change in the degree of risk that sex entailed. We’ve had condoms as a form of contraception for centuries. The efficacy of this mechanism has varied over the years but has generally become more effective at preventing pregnancy and often the spread of sexually transmitted diseases. As I mentioned in my review of The Normal Personality, the change in views on sex was accelerated by the development of the birth control pill in the 1950s and the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision in the 1970s that legalized abortion.

Within a few decades, the possibility of an unwanted child dropped substantially. Two forms of contraception and the possibility of abortion made it a much lower risk. Add to that a set of new antibiotics and other treatments for sexually transmitted diseases, and you have the foundation for a change in perspective about sexual practices.

While the Western world is still has many cultural taboos about sexual practices, there are forces set against that, and the tide of perspective about sexual practices is changing.

The Attraction

One of the most interesting ponderings is how someone’s love map is formed. That is, why are some people attractive and others are not? What is it that makes someone interesting as a mate? Some of it appears to be due to timing. While it’s possible to be attracted to a childhood friend, it appears as if there’s a period of time when familiarity makes you someone who’s not a reasonable suitor. Children raised together will rarely date or marry – but if they’re not together during a critical phase, there seems to be no such resistance. (It’s estimated between 3-6 years old.)

The opposite is also true. When someone is ready to “mate,” it seems as if the right person will come along. It seems that we tend to be attracted to those who are available – which, of course, would be advantageous if you don’t have that many available options – and it would help to be attracted to someone that actually exists.

That being said, we also tend to be attracted through our noses – and to people who have a set of genetics that broadens our immune defenses. Sweat has been an ingredient in love potions around the world. It’s been found to trigger luteinizing hormone in women – which increases sexual arousal. Sweat was more appealing when there was a genetic diversity in the histocompatibility complex, which drives our immune system.

The Nuclear Family

For the most part, we take for granted that the best family for a child to grow up in is a nuclear family. However, this is largely a new phenomenon. In America’s Generations, Chuck Underwood explains that family structure of the “GI Generation” was multigenerational. While Robert Putnam notes the decline of the nuclear family in Our Kids, the nuclear family that rose during the “Silent Generation” was largely considered a luxury by the time the baby boomers were starting their families. Fisher’s work indicates that, in many cultures and in the prehistoric past, it really did take a village to raise a child – or at least that was the way it was typically done.

So, while our mating habits supported our dual strategy with marriage and adultery, the burden placed on any individual marriage was less weighty. Over time, as our relationships with others eroded (see Bowling Alone), and we removed the societal expectation of collaborative support – a social safety net – we began to put more emphasis and weight on the individual marriage, a weight that it seems evolution didn’t plan for, and we saw the rise of divorces. (For more about divorce in general, see Divorce.)

The Rise of Divorce

In Islam, it was easy to divorce a wife. In some cases, it meant saying that you divorced the other person three times and waiting out the waiting period, and it was done. However, divorce was also different. People’s possessions weren’t really up for grabs in a divorce. It was simply the end of the pair bond. The man kept his tools, and the wife kept her things, and both went along their merry – or not so merry – way.

However, the greatest influence on the rate of divorce in the Western world was World War II. During World War II, there were many changes that created a greater competition for men. More important, the labor shortage moved women into jobs that generated income, and suddenly their dependence upon men for their material needs vanished.

That is not to say that women didn’t work before; they did. However, they worked in “pink collar” jobs that allowed them to buy the modern conveniences that they wanted. After World War II, they were making real incomes – and realizing they weren’t dependent upon their men for money.

That is not to say that they didn’t make room for the returning men or that anyone did anything wrong. It’s just that, in the Western world, the illusion had been broken, and it became more of an option to divorce. Additionally, the introduction in the law of “irreconcilable differences” reduced the friction of getting a divorce – and released some of the couples from marriages that weren’t good but for which it was too difficult to escape.

Despite the focus on the United States, divorce rose in all places where women became less dependent.

God and Marriage

Many of the sexual acts that we would describe as immoral today were commonplace in the ancient past. The Greeks were notorious for their sexual practices – including homosexuality. In the Jewish faith, there were relatively few rules for sexual conduct. Though the Genesis account of Sodom and Gomorrah is often used by Christians for the condemnation of homosexuality, there’s a great debate about whether that’s the true reason for God’s decision to destroy the two cities. In fact, it’s in this story that we see perceptions of sexuality, as Lot offers his two virgin daughters to the men – rather than the two male guests. One interpretation of this recounting (one I admittedly favor because it fits within the broader story arc of the Bible) is that it’s not the homosexuality which is the root of God’s anger but is instead the lack of concern for others’ willingness or beliefs that plagued the towns.

Fisher reports that the change in the relationship between Judaism and sex started somewhere after the exile period (516 BC) through to the follow of Jerusalem in about (70 AD). Suddenly, God was much more concerned about what people did – and didn’t do – sexually.

While contemporary Christians believe that the current interpretations about God’s position on sexual relations were always the case, there’s evidence that things have changed – and that they’ve been distorted. (Another serious distortion not covered by Fisher is the idea of whether sex before marriage is prohibited by the Bible or not. My reading doesn’t show any such prohibition on sex before marriage, but it’s become a well-established perspective in Christian circles.)

Why Do We Cheat?

If the system that we’ve created is one that is dual with both commitment and adultery, then why is it that we have adultery at all? The traditional explanation is that the marriage is bad or that one party is unhappy. The problem is that it can’t explain every case. Of those who admitted to adultery, 56% of men and 34% of women rated their marriages as happy. In short, the “party line” doesn’t work. They’re happy in their marriage, and they had a paramour. While the degree to which women admitted to having a paramour jumped from 9% in the 1950s to 25% in the 1970s, there’s no reason to believe they were substantially less happy in their marriages. Either they were more open about their dalliances, or they felt more free to have them.

While Fisher’s subtitle offers the idea that we’ll learn “why we stray,” it would be more accurate to say that we’re presented with a series of reasons why we might stray rather than a straightforward, linear, step-by-step, progression, perhaps indicating that there isn’t one reason but instead many. Factors like higher income increased the probability, while religious affiliation seemed to have no impact.

Perhaps the most strenuous statement about adultery is that these has never been found a culture that didn’t know of it, nor has there been a culture where societal rules have extinguished it. There are, however, many societies and communities where there is a strong pressure to stay in marriages as long as possible.

How Long Can One Be in Romantic Love?

Before fully explaining the various types of love, it’s important to recognize the factors that tend to lead towards the idea that chemically dependent kinds of love must be short lived. If we derive our feelings of attraction solely through a neurochemical, and love makes us feel this more intently, then eventually our brains will habituate or adapt to this heightened level of neurochemical and establish this as a new normal – thereby depriving us of the infatuation kind of love that we expect. From our study of drugs, we know that it takes more and more of the same drug – chemical – to derive the same result. What is called “tolerance” in alcoholics might be called “expectations” in those who are in love.

If we look at love as a set of different chemicals and mental processes, we have the option to find paths that lead us to a permanent, enduring love. Yes, we can develop greater production capacity for these chemicals, or we can release the chemicals in patterns that don’t increase tolerance while still giving us the intense feelings of attraction and infatuation that we associate with love.

Fisher’s research has shown while romantic (attracted or infatuated) love typically fades, it doesn’t have to fade. She found couples who had been madly in love for decades. The sight or thought of their mate still triggered the same areas of the brain and elicited the same kind of response. So, while it’s not the norm to remain infatuated with a mate, it’s certainly possible.

Four Kinds of Love

When C.S. Lewis spoke of love in The Four Loves, he did so more or less metaphorically. When Fisher describes her four different kinds of loves, she does so from the perspective of the four neurochemicals involved in the process. They are dopamine, serotonin, testosterone, and oxytocin (estrogen). Dopamine, as has been previously addressed, is associated with infatuation, attraction, and lust. Fisher describes them as potential romance junkies. It’s the first kind of love.

Serotonin-driven love, Fisher proposes, may be disposed to becoming attachment junkies. Serotonin as a neurochemical is most well-known through the class of anti-depressants called selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors. The short of this is that low levels of serotonin are connected with depression, and some love increases natural happiness – or at least protection from depression.

Testosterone-driven love are those prone to feeling as if they’ve accomplished something. It’s the kind of love where you guard your mate from being interested in others. Perhaps that’s why men (who have naturally higher testosterone) are two-to-three times more likely to commit suicide after being rejected. They’re also more prone to violence.

Oxytocin is known as the cuddle drug and drives people to want to be together and in physical touch with one another. This type of love is driven by physical closeness and touch.

Intimacy, Privacy, and Trust

Today, we desire greater intimacy in our relationships. We want to know more completely those whom we are committing ourselves to. Perhaps our changing expectations of intimacy are why we are considering ideas like people having Intimacy Anorexia. We expect greater degrees of intimacy – and not everyone has adapted to this greater need for and expectations of intimacy.

At the same time, we’re also fiercely protective of our privacy. We believe that we should be able to keep some things private – even from our committed spouse. We’ve grown up with private bedrooms and the expectation of privacy from even the rest of our family. In the 1940s it’s estimated that a home averaged about 1,000 square feet with only roughly half having indoor plumbing. The 2015 US Census places the average single-family home at 2,687 square feet. That’s with the trend in the number of people who are living in each home declining.

We talk to our neighbors less as Robert Putnam explains in Bowling Alone. No longer do we chit-chat with our neighbors coming home from work. We drive our cars into our enclosed garages and hit a button to close the garage door behind us before anyone can intrude upon our space.

In Alone Together, Sherry Turkle explains how we’re not as connected as we once were despite having faster, and richer communications options than have ever been present before. We feel hollow as we use these new technologies to try to form connections. We overexpose ourselves via social media and long for privacy from others.

As I explain in Trust=>Vulnerability=>Intimacy and Trust=>Vulnerability=>Intimacy, Revisited, intimacy comes from trust, which leads to safety, which leads to vulnerability. One of the great challenges of our modern world is the belief that even among married couples there should be privacy. I disagree. I see the need for privacy as the result of a lack of feeling of safety. In some way, we believe that our marriage partner will judge us, and we will be harmed.

I know too many married couples who aren’t willing to allow their partner to see them naked – or at least they avoid it. There are those who don’t know the lock code for their spouse’s phone. In some of these cases, it’s because they don’t want to feel judged for what is on it. If we long for intimacy, we cannot rely on privacy and secrets.

Broken Homes

At some level, all our families of origin are broken. Whether they were fraught with a denial of emotions, bouts of rage, alcoholism, prison sentences, or other factors, we’ve all received our training for how to do love and family in incomplete or dysfunctional ways. This is just a part of growing up.

One of the key challenges that is often overlooked is the degree of enmeshment or fusion between parents and their children. Some parents cannot separate their children’s successes and failures from their own. Some are trying to relive parts of their lives they feel they missed though their children – and it’s unhealthy.

It leads to a potential pattern where privacy may be necessary in a marriage relationship. In every relationship, there must be a you, a me, and an us. In healthy, committed relationships, the amount of you and me can be small but well protected by both parties. An unhealthy relationship – driven by challenges during our upbringing – may require a larger amount of you and me to ensure that they don’t disappear. In general, these should only be large in as much as they are necessary to protect each individual from disappearing all together.

If you’re looking to better understand relationships and love, a good place to start may be the Anatomy of Love.

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