The Frontal Cortex

Marriage

One of the hazards of writing a book on decision-making is getting questions about decisions that are far beyond the purview of science (or, at the very least, way beyond my pay grade). Here, for instance, is a question that often arrives in my inbox, or gets shouted out during talks:

“How should we make decisions about whom to marry? If the brain is so smart, why do half of all marriages end in divorce?”

Needless to say, there is no simple answer to this question. (And if I had a half-way decent answer, I’d be writing a book on marriage.) But I’ve been recently been reading some interesting research on close, interpersonal relationships (much of it by Ellen Berscheid, at the University of Minnesota) and I’m mostly convinced that there’s a fundamental mismatch between the emotional state we expect to feel for a potential spouse – we want to “fall wildly in love,” experiencing that ecstatic stew of passion, desire, altruism, jealousy, etc – and the emotional state that actually determines a successful marriage over time. Berscheid defines this more important emotion as “companionate love” or “the affection we feel for those with whom our lives are deeply intertwined.” Jonathan Haidt, a social psychologist at the University of Virginia, compares this steady emotion which grows over time to its unsteady (but sexier and more cinematic) precursor: “If the metaphor for passionate love is fire, the metaphor for companionate love is vines growing, intertwining, and gradually binding two people together.”

What’s wrong with seeking passion? Don’t we need to experience that dopaminergic surge of early love, in which the entire universe has been reduced to a single person? (“It is the east, and Juliet is the sun.”) The only problem with this romantic myth is that passion is temporary. It inevitably decays with time. This is not a knock against passion – this is a basic fact of our nervous system. We adapt to our pleasures; we habituate to delight. In other words, the same thing happens to passionate love that happens to Christmas presents. We’re so impossibly happy and then, within a matter of days or weeks or months, we take it all for granted.

I can’t help but think that Shakespeare was trying to warn us about the fickleness of passionate love even as he was inventing its literary template. Romeo and Juliet, after all, begins with Romeo in a disconsolate funk. But he’s not upset about Juliet. He hasn’t even met Juliet. He’s miserable over Rosaline. And so, while the rest of the tragedy is an ode to young lovers and impossible passions, Shakespeare has prefaced the action with a warning: passion is erratic. The same randy Romeo who compares you to the sun was in love with someone else last night.

What makes this mismatch even more dangerous is our tendency to confuse physical attractiveness with personal goodness. In a classic 1972 paper, “What is beautiful is good,” Berscheid and colleagues demonstrated that we instinctively believe that prettier people “have more socially desirable personality traits” and “lead better lives”. Furthermore, this phenomenon works in both directions, so that people who have been “prejudged” to be more or less physically attractive, but don’t know they’ve been judged that way, still behave in a more “friendly, likeable and sociable manner”. This suggests that our emphasis on attractiveness, lust and beauty – these are the variables that we associate with passionate love – can actually distort our perception of more important personality variables. Because we’ll habituate to those hips, and that sexy smile won’t be sexy forever. And then we’ll no longer confuse beauty with goodness, or believe that our attractive boyfriend is also really nice.

The point is not that passionate love isn’t an important signal. It surely is – that rush of dopamine is trying to tell us something. But a successful marriage has to endure long past the peak of passion. It has survive the rigors of adaptation and intimacy, which are features of romantic relationships that don’t get valorized in Hollywood, Bollywood or Shakespeare.

Comments

  1. #1 Was Once
    March 8, 2010

    Yes, we fall in love with being in love..knocking out all common sense feedback we might have ever had. So caught up, we only see what we want to see, until we wake up one day and finally realize we married a pathological lier(or they do). We really want is a feeling that transcends our fear of death.

  2. #2 royniles
    March 8, 2010

    “If the brain is so smart, why do half of all marriages end in divorce?”
    Maybe because the brain IS so smart. If primates bonded for life, it could be argued that the human variety wouldn’t have evolved. Just for starters.

  3. #3 Lab Rat
    March 8, 2010

    One of the best quotes I’ve ever heard about love and passion comes from “Captain Correlli’s Mandolin”:

    “Love is a temporary madness. It erupts like an earthquake and then subsides. And when it subsides you have to make a decision. You have to work out whether your roots have become so entwined together that it is inconceivable that you should ever part. Because this is what love is. Love is not breathlessness, it is not excitement, it is not the promulgation of promises of eternal passion. That is just being “in love” which any of us can convince ourselves we are. Love itself is what is left over when being in love has burned away, and this is both an art and a fortunate accident. Your mother and I had it, we had roots that grew towards each other underground, and when all the pretty blossom had fallen from our branches we found that we were one tree and not two.”

    [And Shakespeare did cover mature love in “Antony and Cleopatra”. Despite the fact that she has the worlds worst temper and he gets married to various other people, they maintain what is very clearly a long lasting love throughout the play]

  4. #4 jb
    March 8, 2010

    Thanks for this Jonah. And thanks also to Vajrayana Buddhism which recognizes such passion as our life force energy kneaded with concepts and misdirected as is anger and the other negative emotions. Meditation allows us to separate the concepts out from the good stuff and use that to invigorate our lives.

    Thanks also for the intertwined vegetation as metaphor for mature love. Ovid’s story about Philemon and Baucis also uses this. We’re mounting the story as a play in Baltimore.

  5. #5 Michael Buitron
    March 8, 2010

    What a great post. I happened to stumble upon the Wikipedia page for Interpersonal Relationships the other day and some categories I had never even heard of. A Cicisbeo? Who knew? Perhaps that’s why so many cultures have created structured outlets for other types of relationships, from the passionate to the companionate. I would venture that the modern era’s conflation of the two is what causes problems.

  6. #6 george.w
    March 8, 2010

    Lots of things feed into our divorce rate, but unrealistic expectations may be the most important. The other is which body part is in charge.

    To stay married, you have to want to stay married, be realistic about what you expect in a relationship, be willing to delay gratification (of all kinds), and be willing to adapt your passions to current conditions. How to reconcile all that with passion, I don’t know.

    Are there any studies on the stability of marriages rationally arrived at? As, through a decision tree on both parties? Of course, that limits one’s partners to “the set of all people who would decide a marriage based on a decision tree.”

  7. #7 joyous
    March 8, 2010

    a friend’s Buzz linked to this article, and I’ve enjoyed reading it. thank you for pointing out Shakespeare’s “preface” of Romeo–interesting that he also spends one of Merchant of Venice’s plot points to deal with the subject of “fancy”, the term he used for being attracted to someone, and with the subject of inward and outward beauty. stuff to ponder . . . =)

  8. #8 Clare Mann
    March 8, 2010

    Marriage is certainly an emotive topic for many. I think Marilyn Yalom’s book ‘The History of the Wife’ charts very cleverly the history of this institution and how the myth of romantic love (certainly in western culture) was born out of the analogy of marriage between two individuals like Christ’s connection the church.

    In my experience working with clients over many years, I believe so many people try to find ‘the missing piece’ in a partner. Their partner often ends up being no more than a projection of their own stereotypes of what they ‘believe’ is ‘the one’. ‘Another’ can certainly allow us to access parts of ourselves we can’t bring to the fore alone – and if we embrace our own ‘otherness’ (and often that we would prefer not to own), I believe we can be more open to others as the unique beings they are – not sterotyped projections of our own.

    Clare Mann
    Marriage Counselling Sydney

  9. #9 Nunzio X
    March 8, 2010

    Wish I could remember what comedian said this, and I’m paraphrasing, but the gist was:

    There ought to be mandatory pre-marital counseling.

    COUNSELOR, TO ENGAGED MAN: Einstein, arguably one of the smartest men ever, saw his first marriage end in divorce.

    MAN: So?

    COUNSELOR: So, do you think you’re SMARTER THAN EINSTEIN?

  10. #10 Huzaifa Zoomkawala
    March 8, 2010

    I like vines; they too catch fire every now and then.

  11. #11 Rob R
    March 9, 2010

    Great topic Jonah. What do you propose trumps the ability for the frontal cortex to inhibit limbic structures, as current thought holds? Normally the frontal cortex is thought to dampen emotional responses to stimuli so that the organism can behave rationally. What is special about passionate love? Can pheromones override the frontal cortex?

  12. #12 NDP
    March 9, 2010

    I think that this is the stereotypical view; that there’s “passionate love” and “mature love”; and those words carry a lot of spin, and that spin is tied up in our cultural mythology of how relationships are supposed to work. At least, in order to support the ongoing structure of our civilization.

    That there is infatuation, attraction, is certainly not a myth. But sometimes – people want to be in a relationship for reasons that have nothing at all to do with infatuation or attraction. Those can be elements, but there’s also, security, fear of abandonment, wanting to fit-in socially, duty to family, duty to perhaps a sense of responsibility; even a duty to a mythology of “love”. (for example, a person likes the notion that there is some magical, universal bond, between two people in the world who are ideal “soul-mates”, and the idea appeals so much to that person, they want to believe this mythology so badly, that they project that onto any suitable partner. “Is he THE ONE?”)

    None of these have anything at all to do with how well two people will relate, emotionally or personally, over the long term of decades that a lifelong relationship may last. Through childrearing, illness, hardship, joyous occasions, one-sided triumphs, loss, etc.

    People make the decision to get into a relationship and may have no clue how they themselves, or their partner, may weather that long-term time period. Maybe they’re weather it well. Maybe they’ll weather it poorly, and divorce. Maybe they’ll weather it poorly, and cope anyway, and simply be unhappy.

    In any case – when two people end up in a relationship, and they relate well, and manage the long-term issues well, and communicate, and respect each other, is it necessarily love? I think we instinctively know it’s a whole different set of feelings and skills than are involved in infatuation. Sometimes THAT kind of love comes first (example: cases of arranged marriages), and attraction follows later; perhaps as a biological imperative, or perhaps, as the person allows themselves to CHOOSE to be attracted.

    That’s the thing about the wild infatuation type of love. It’s a very curious choice, that feels like it’s not a choice. It feels very compulsory. The more imperative, the better it feels.

  13. #13 Sharon Astyk
    March 9, 2010

    It is of course the case that historically speaking, there have been periods where romantic love was viewed as an unnecessary and even undesirable thing in marriage – a good marriage was one based on economic and social merits, and love was assumed to follow. As the historian John Boswell has observed, in its early stages love for most of pre-modern european history (and really for most human beings through most of history) was at its outset mostly about economic and family factors, in its mid-stages mostly about raising children, and in its late stages largely about love (he bases this upon historic records of epitaphs and post-death marital accounts that express considerable affection). He then observes that in the modern era, marriage is at its outset mostly about love, at its early stages mostly about raising children, assuming there are children, and in its late stages (ie, its ending) mostly about economic and family considerations. He rather dryly observes that this rearrangement does not necessarily constitute an improvement.

    Sharon

  14. #14 Emma
    March 9, 2010

    The fire and vine metaphors are so true. If only I had known more when I got married the first time!

  15. #15 sharongilo
    March 9, 2010

    This is a very good article with lots to reflect upon for those considering marriage …

    http://www.ashortguidetoahappymarriage.com

  16. #16 susan ardis
    March 10, 2010

    Please remember that half of all marriages don’t end in divorce. This statistic comes from taking the marriages in one year and comparing them with the divorces in the same year. Since most marriages last a period of time–say 24 hours to 60 or so years–this means that 1/2 of all marriages don’t ever end in divorce. In fact all marriages end in one of two ways–death of one of the partners or divorce. In every year of a marriage either of these two things can happen. The actual divorce to marriage statistic is too difficult for most people to to since it involves predicting the length of marriages and then figuring out how they ended-death or divorce in a specific stated length of time.

  17. #17 Rob Monkey
    March 11, 2010

    Sharon, did you intentionally use the word “love” when referring to the historical account and “marriage” when referring to modern times? I’m not sure if we should page Dr. Freud ;)

    I would point out though, that there’s a lot of history of marriage (or a near enough equivalent) in societies that are a lot older than pre-modern Europe. Not that I’ve studied pre-modern Europe a whole lot, but the impression I got is that there’s not a whole lot of things I’d want to emulate about that society (bathing more than once a year is something I’m used to). But then again, I’ll admit my preconceptions in that I think arranged marriage is disturbing, misogynistic, and downright weird (I shudder to think the partner my parents would have chosen for me).

  18. #18 meryl
    March 13, 2010

    You don’t need love to get married, but you need love to make it work.

  19. #19 CLH
    March 14, 2010

    ***What makes this mismatch even more dangerous is our tendency to confuse physical attractiveness with personal goodness. In a classic 1972 paper, “What is beautiful is good,” Berscheid and colleagues demonstrated that we instinctively believe that prettier people “have more socially desirable personality traits” and “lead better lives”.***

    Taking this in a slightly different directions . . .

    Granted, I’m someone who’s far too incredulous for my own good, far too much of the time, but I’m always pretty shocked by the number of things people will confuse/conflate with the personal goodness of a complete stranger. Success, wealth, attractiveness, education level, artistic accomplishment, relatedness, professional affiliation, agreement with one’s politics or religion or generic preferences or tastes.

    And it exhausts me just observing the amount of effort invested in rationalizing this, in excusing or explaining away signs to the contrary, in avoiding and denying contraindications, and in believing without much hesitation that admirable objects must be the fruit of personally admirable subjects.

  20. #20 Jay
    March 14, 2010

    Stephen Covey in 7 Habits of Highly Effective People tells an anecdote about a guy who came to see him and complained that he didn’t love his wife anymore, and wanted to know what to do. Covey’s advice was to “love her.” The guy said he doesn’t understand – he’s not in love with her anymore. Covey’s point was that love is something we must work to achieve. By treating the other person with love, we promote nurturing and love. We don’t passively fall in and out of love. Now of course, this is assuming your partner does not turn out to be a psychopath or a horrible human being….

  21. #21 xpostfactoid
    March 14, 2010

    This post, and the research it references, reminds me of th letter response below published in the NYT Mag in response to a 2003 article about the happiness research of Daniel Gilbert (http://nyti.ms/btyWnC):

    The Futile Pursuit Of Happiness
    Published: September 21, 2003

    What? Is Daniel Gilbert saying money can’t buy happiness; time heals all wounds; it’s the little things that count; look before you leap; act in haste, regret at leisure (Jon Gertner, Sept. 7)? Good lord, what will psychologists think of next? A stitch in time saves nine?

    Cynthia Young
    Gaithersburg, Md.

  22. #22 Clay Wirestone
    March 14, 2010

    I wish that “half of all marriages end in divorce” cliche wasn’t tossed out there so casually. It isn’t true. The current raw numbers are around 40 percent, and they have been declining for the last couple of decades (http://www.nytimes.com/2005/04/19/health/19divo.html). Why? Because people are not automatically marrying for the kind of romantic love Jonah writes about. They live together first, and if a companionate bond emerges, they may eventually tie the knot.

  23. #23 entangled
    March 15, 2010

    What about situations when you feel attraction and love for someone outside your marriage suddenly after 15 or 20 years which is as romantic or passionate as it becomes nurturing and companionate over time? This logic of intertwined vines, while valid to a point, diminishes the value someone else has brought to your life as well.. How do you reconcile the sense of duty, and committment for a 20 year old marriage, with the very real feelings of love and longing for someone else? Both pulling in conflicting directions? Human emotions sadly don’t live in a black and white world, so much so that these situations are hard for everyone concerned, including the one who seemingly is having his/her cake and eating it too. Perhaps bizarrely, toughest on them.

  24. #24 CPR
    March 20, 2010

    Interesting post. I think it was Goethe who said, “Love is an ideal thing, marriage a real thing; a confusion of the real with the ideal never goes unpunished.”

    Passion and sexual attraction are transitory and psychologically slippery; hardly a suitable foundation for a life-long partnership. Necessary, perhaps, but not sufficient. Attraction is about sex. We cause ourselves and those around us great pain when we insist “longing” is about something deeper than that.

  25. #25 Adriel
    March 23, 2010

    Love, or the actions of dopamine, norepinephrine, and phenylethylamine keep the couple bonded just long enough to help keep the offspring alive, then after 1-3 years, mother nature doesn’t care if you’re married or not, so that early stong feeling of love and affection withers.

    Long-term relationships or successful life-long marriages are probably more from the result of good levels of oxytocin, endorphins, and vasopressin the couple adjust to, if not, maybe it’s tolerance due one’s personal culture stigma of divorce or such other agenda (e.g. sugar daddy)

  26. #26 Jennifer
    March 29, 2010

    This reminds me of Sternberg’s Love Triangle, when calls commitment + passion = fatuous love… fatuous is defined as foolish, unreal, illusory…. whereas commitment + intimacy = companionate love, and then we can throw in some passionate love to complete the triangle.

    Commitment is a part of any relationship, but like you pointed out, commitments of passion are as foolish as Romeo’s sudden change of heart. By it’s very nature the establishing of intimacy takes time, and involves shared experiences and a gradual acceptance of one another as imperfect beings.

    Companionate love isn’t everything there is in a marriage – we surely need passion and dopamine – but I think it should be the base… but sometimes that’s hard to tell our tummy, when all we want is butterflies.

    “All love that has not friendship for its base is like a mansion built upon the sand.”
    – Ella Wheeler Wilcox

  27. It’s interesting how much people project their own experiences on to the entire endeavour of marriage. in our business we know that love is a both powerful and fragile at the same time and Shakespeare understood this too.

    x jo

  28. A deal is a process of give and take. Couples counselling is no different. It’s a non- judgemental process and for it to work both parties need to be able to give as well as take. That’s what a compromise is. A nice definition of love is ‘putting the other person’s needs first’.

  29. I think Nunzio had it when he said: even einstein got it wrong….

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