Practical Pair-bonding

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coupleWhat about those few exceptions to the rule: couples who are in love twenty years after marriage? Curious scientists had a look at their brain activity recently:

The Neurological Basis of True Love

They say "romantic love" was invented by the troubadors of the Middle Ages. They also say it doesn't last. But Rutgers University anthropologist Helen Fisher and colleagues reported today that functional brain imaging studies show that being "in love" transcends both culture and time.

The researchers imaged the brains of 17 young Americans and 17 young Chinese who had been in intense love relationships for 6 months. The team compared how the volunteers' brains reacted to a photograph of a loved one versus a photo of someone they didn't know. When viewing a loved one, the brains of the volunteers registered activity in "several regions associated with addiction," said Fisher--notably in the ventral tegmental area, a region of the brain stem that are rich in receptors for dopamine, the chief actor in the brain's "reward circuit".

The team also rounded up 17 people of both sexes, aged 40 to 65, married at least 20 years, who said they were still "in love" with their spouses. The researchers found that the same areas were activated in most of them on viewing a photo of their spouse. But longterm romantic love also stirred up brainstem regions rich in serotonin (see pic) and a chemical called vasopressin, which is associated with monogamy in voles. The upshot is that the long-marrieds have the best of both worlds--they are still in love, but the "the obsession, mania and anxiety" of newly-hatched infatuation "is replaced by calm," said Fisher.

"We now have physiological evidence that romantic love can last," said Fisher triumphantly. "It now appears from this study that romantic love exists not only to initiatie pair-bonding but to maintain and enhance long-term relationships."

[Original article from Science: Also see:]

So, are these couples just lucky, or are they modifying their relationships (and brains) in some way with their behavior? And even if they don't need to make any special effort to stay in love, can the rest of us achieve the same result (or even go the direction of transcendental union) with behavior modification?

Here's one man's experience about how changes in behavior change his relationship:

All those delightful bonding behaviours! My wife and I were breezing along delightfully, choosing our daily activities and seemingly getting more and more fond of each other. Then, a hiccup occurred. We had visitors for three weeks; and then we went on a walking trip which always had one other person besides ourselves in attendance. During this time, we abandoned our ’choices’ regime. It was just too difficult to keep up. I think this was because it seemed impolite to be engaging primarily as a couple when other people were around; and were so busy we had very little time when we were alone together.

The downside of being busy and polite was that kissing, cuddling, complimenting each other, making love, etc, etc, took a back seat; and now we’re on our own again, it’s proving a big of a slog to restart the sparkle. It’s like we’re partial strangers.

It strikes me that the intimate bond between a couple is very reliant on that couple spending time together in a cocoon away from the world. We all know how tactile parents and young children are; and how young lovers replicate this. However, the list of bonding behaviours includes mostly things that can only be done in privacy - unless you’re a parent with a young child, or a pair of besotted young lovers. I trust I’m not the only person who would find older couples tongue kissing or whispering sweet nothings when in company slightly off putting. Maybe this is something I need to get over; but, at the moment, seeing friends and relations, in middle age, who have started new relationships, behaving like teenagers, is not nearly as endearing as it would be if they were in the first flush of youth.

It’s been something of an eye-opener for me to recognise what is cause and what is effect. If I hadn’t been aware of the theoretical importance of bonding behaviours, and their likely result - learned at - I would have tended to think, as I have in the past, that our cuddling had dried up because we’d temporarily ‘gone off’ each other, rather than the other way around. This wouldn’t have been particularly worrying, in itself. We’ve been married ages, and we’ve had loads of ups and downs. This would have just seemed like another minor bump in the road. In fact, I used to believe ups and downs were as inevitable in marriage as in any other sphere; and that the only way round them was to wait for the bottom to occur, and enjoy the passage to the top again. Now, I’m not so sure, since it‘s become clear to me that ’going off’ one another is the result, rather than the cause, of a dearth of cuddling.

Lack of cuddling eventually leads to lack of desire to cuddle, whether through laziness, habit, resentment or indifference. Cuddling (all bonding behaviours included) causes the desire for more cuddles. It is a beneficent biofeedback machine, just as the absence of bonding behaviours seems to be the opposite. Everyone will be familiar with young lovers not seeming able to get near enough to each other. Well, we’ve experienced the same, repeatedly, as a result of initially scheduling bonding behaviour and watching it snowball.

If serial cuddling doesn’t come naturally (ie, a couple isn’t made up of a parent and child, or are an inseparable pair of young lovers) it seems absolutely critical to make time to schedule bonding behaviours. It’s as critical as an exercise regime, should a person have decided they like the outcome of exercise. In this case, assuming a couple likes the idea of feeling as close and as in love as parent and child or star crossed teenagers, time and effort have to be employed.

Actually, it’s hardly any effort at all. The effort is in remembering to do it, and in overcoming any underlying resentment that might make that ‘remembering’ more difficult. Initially, the bonding behaviour schedule need only be one activity a day; and that activity needn’t last longer than a minute, though it could, of course, last a lot longer. I think it needs to last at least as long as a minute, as, in our experience, that’s enough to start the snowballing effect. Bonding behaviours then become automatic and seem to replicate themselves in abundance. It’s not so much that they become a habit, like brushing teeth; they are more like a drink that we develop a liking, and then a recurring thirst, for, not because of the obvious beneficial effect, both short and long term, but because the taste becomes inherently irresistible.

My wife and I are useless at sticking to schedules in most areas of life; and once we drop a routine, it tends to stay out of sight for a long time, to be forgotten, until one day it gets resurrected, before being dropped again. Luckily, the fallout from our enforced stopping of intimate choices is so obviously non-beneficial, it’s woken us up far more immediately than, say, the exercise regime we were also doing at the same time and that also got interrupted but that, frankly, both of us could happily take or leave. We may get round to exercising again one day; but we’re in the process of resurrecting our bonding behaviour schedule, now.

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