How are we to make sense of the swiftly changing world of falling in love? Five experts offer their perspective
Mariella Frostrup, Helen Fisher, Beverly Jenkins, Simon Bruce and Daniel Jones
‘We are shaped and formed, built and broken by our desperate desire to be connected to each other in meaningful ways.’ Illustration: Curt Merlo
The agony aunt
Mariella Frostrup, Observer Magazine columnist
If it wasn’t for love, I’d be out of business. Whether through disappointment, pain, betrayal, abandonment or the ongoing struggle to keep it alive, love fuels every letter to my mailbox. You might imagine that such a job, exposed weekly to the devastated landscape of our broken dreams, would turn a person to cynicism or suicidal thoughts. Instead my correspondents’ agonies offer me comfort: access to the intimate detail of others’ lives consistently proves that our greatest motivator, what we’re consumed by down the decades, isn’t money, success, power or even plain survival, but finding a safe place where we feel protected by the embrace of those we love.
It’s in love’s aftermath that you witness the immense fragility of human beings
I’m not exposed much to the glorious beginnings, the days full of giddy excitement, heart palpitations and hope when we’re reborn in our lover’s eyes and the world takes on an altogether heavenly hue. My business is at the back end of that story, digging about in the emotional debris left in its wake: fraudulent love, dead love, dirty love, broken love, unrequited love, failed love and all the many ways that love betrays our initial optimism.
It’s in love’s aftermath that you witness the immense fragility of human beings – whether a bereaved parent or a broken-hearted lover – and understand that we are shaped and formed, built and broken by our desperate desire to be connected to each other in meaningful ways.
The love doctor
Helen Fisher, biological anthropologist, Kinsey Institute, Indiana University
I’ve spent some 40 years studying the science of love – my colleagues and I have put more than 100 people in a brain scanner, using magnetic resonance imaging to track the brain circuitry of romantic love and feelings of attachment to a partner. I’ve found that it’s not an emotion – although a lot of emotions are involved. It’s actually a drive – a basic mating drive that evolved millions of years ago.
One of the main factories that generate feelings of romantic love lies at the base of the brain, near regions that orchestrate thirst and hunger. We are a species that forms pair bonds, we team up to rear our young. Our basic human reproductive strategy is serial pair bonding, with some clandestine adultery on the side. We also have a big cerebral cortex with which we accept and follow social rules, and many of us fall in love and stay together long-term. I do an annual study in America with the dating site, match.com. We now have data on more than 35,000 single people and I have found that the top five things singles seek are somebody who respects them; someone they can trust and confide in; somebody who makes them laugh; somebody who spends time with them; and someone they find physically attractive. Moreover, over three-quarters also want to marry.
Love is a basic mating drive that evolved millions of years ago
I’ve also studied divorce in 80 societies around the world, and discovered that if a couple is going to break up, they tend to divorce around the third to fourth year of marriage. I think that’s an evolutionary layover from a time long ago when our ancestors had to stay together at least long enough to raise a single child through infancy as a team. I’ve also found that the later you commit, the more likely you are to stay together. But there are many new relationship patterns emerging, polyamory being one, largely among young people who are not ready to settle down. They want to maintain a long-term partnership but also have romances on the side. And they want to be honest and transparent about it. Many people, particularly in the west, seem to be addicted to the initial feeling of falling in love.
People ask me if what I know about love has ruined it for me. Not at all. You can know every single ingredient in a piece of chocolate cake, but then sit down and eat that cake and feel the joy. What I do understand and respect is the power of love. For example, I met someone a while back and really felt attracted to him. But when I discovered that he was madly in love with someone else, I gave up then and there. People who don’t understand the power of love might have continued to pursue. In short, I’ve learned a lot about love – but it has never spoiled the grandeur of it.
Beverly Jenkins, bestselling romance novelist
Love means different things to different people, but I think there is a template. I had a great love affair with my late husband, whom I lost in 2003 after we’d been together for over 30 years. We’d met in college and we were babies when we got together, really. Through my relationship with him, I learned that it’s about give and take and pulling in the same direction. We supported each other’s dreams – he was my biggest fan, before I’d even had a novel published. We were two separate people, but we were a couple. He played golf and did the things he loved and I travelled the country for my writing – we gave each other space, so we could grow as individuals and as a couple.
Love is hard work. As much as I loved my husband, there were days when I wanted to bury him in the backyard
The way we fall in love and commit now is very different to when I was growing up. Back then, you didn’t jump into bed together so soon. There was courting and romance and I suppose older people wonder how much of that exists for young people now. I don’t necessarily believe romance is dead – it can’t be – it’s just changed shape. We are all looking for love. My parents had a good relationship and I was surrounded by strong relationships around me growing up. I loved romantic movies, even though the people in them didn’t look like me. I think those things laid the foundation for me becoming a romance novelist. When I began writing novels, whose characters are all African American, I was told by many publishers that there was no market for African American stories that weren’t based on slavery. But there has been a huge change over the years – very slowly, they’ve recognised that African American women have been reading for ever, and that women want to read these stories. Love is hard work. As much as I loved my husband, there were days when I wanted to bury him in the backyard, and I’m sure he felt the same about me sometimes, but I believe in love. We have to, don’t we? It’s a part of what makes us human.
Simon Bruce, divorce specialist, Farrer & Co
I’m acutely aware of my responsibility as a family lawyer. I see people at their lowest, when a relationship has broken down and they think there is little to zero chance of salvaging it. The first thing I say to my clients is, “I hope I never have to see you again after this”, and I genuinely mean it every time. Divorce is one of the hardest things human beings go through, and it should be seen as the absolute last resort. There have been many times when clients have come to see me and I wonder whether it’s a cry for help rather than a true desire to end a union. I see my job as a mediator and in many ways a counsellor, so where I can, I advise a client to go through a mediation process, and sometimes that process works very well. It’s my job to take a holistic view, and sometimes couples will work through their issues and end up staying together. I find that really satisfying. Although if it happened all the time, I’d be out of a job!
I see my job as a mediator and in many ways a counsellor
Human beings can very easily lose their way and lose sight of what’s truly important. The single biggest issue I see ending a relationship is selfishness. That is ultimately what breaks a couple down. Putting yourself before your partner over a sustained period of time, whether consciously or subconsciously, is bound to tear people apart. Being a divorce lawyer has not affected what I know about love. On a personal level, it’s the most precious thing in the world. My job hasn’t made me cynical. I’m good at switching off. I’m a spiritual person and don’t let my work corrode me. If anything, my job has made me appreciate all the more my love and respect for my wife, Emma. We celebrate our 30th wedding anniversary this year and have four children. I really believe in love and romance and everything that goes with it. But I also believe that there are times when things just don’t work out, and that’s where I come in.
Daniel Jones, the New York Times’s Modern Love column editor
The wonderful and terrible thing about love is our complete inability to master it. Highly educated people seem to fail at love as easily as poorly educated people do. But if there’s one dominant pattern of the last decade, it’s how we are using technology to protect ourselves against vulnerability. These glorious tools that allow us to communicate as never before have turned, in many cases, into shields that we use to fend people off and manage our love lives in self-protective ways. Vulnerability is terrifying but necessary, and the more we do to avoid it, the more emotionally damaged we make ourselves. On the positive side, we have become more accepting of different kinds of love, and different relationships, and new ways to form families.
‘I’ve learned that love is more about caring and kindness than romance and passion
But with new ways of finding love and keeping it, there’s also a lot of doubt and uncertainty. One constant about love is how aspirational it makes us feel; we always think we can do relationships better than previous generations. We’re going to have a better marriage than our parents did. We’re going to be better parents than they were, etc. And how are we going to be better? By doing it in new ways, being more open-minded and having better communication. Being kinder.
In editing stories about everything from new relationships to broken marriages to couples that have lasted for 50 years, I’ve learned that love is more about caring and kindness than romance and passion. Personally, I’ve always been as confused about love as anyone – probably more so. I think editing the column for 14 years has in some ways caught me up to where some people’s understanding was already! And I’m only partly joking about that. Overall, the stories have made me feel grateful about what I have and make me want to aspire to do better. Stories teach us how to live.