What can we learn about romantic love?
Psychologist Lisa Diamond studied women who identified themselves as non-heterosexual for ten years.1 She found something quite unexpected: some reported falling in love with, and developing sexual desire for, individual men in their lives. At first Dr. Diamond thought that they were either mistaken about what they were feeling, or confused about their own sexual orientation. However, she continued to listen and study. Eventually she came up with a new model to fit the facts she observed:
While the goal of sexual desire is sexual union for the purpose of reproduction, romantic love is governed by the attachment or pair-bonding system, with its goal of maintaining an enduring bond between two individuals.
Diamond proposes that sexual desire is independent of romantic love. Romantic love, she suggests, is not intrinsically oriented to one gender or the other. It is instead more aligned with care-giving and emotional attachment. This may be because it calls on the same functions of the brain that bond parents to their infants — without regard to gender. Or perhaps, as Diamond suggests, romantic love evolves from the non-gender-specific attachment between infant and caregiver experienced in childhood. Either way, oxytocin appears to be the major neurochemical player in both romantic and parent-child attachment.
If romantic love and sexual desire function independently, then people can fall in love with someone to whom they wouldn't usually be sexually attracted. (See also Gay By Choice? The Science of Sexual Identity.)
Here is a commentary by Simon LeVay, a gender/sex researcher:
I much enjoyed and would recommend Lisa Diamond's new book, "Sexual Fluidity," which follows about 80 non-heterosexual women over 10 years (from roughly 20 to 30 years of age). There are very few longitudinal studies of sexual orientation and sexual identity, but this is a good one. It's a useful corrective to those of us who would find it a lot more convenient if women's sexual orientation was a cut-and-dried either/or kind of thing. ("Why can't a woman be more like a man?") Not that Diamond is trying to overthrow the categories of heterosexual, bisexual, and lesbian. She believes that most women have a sexual orientation that could be described with one of these words. But her message is that non-heterosexual women may over time experience sexual attractions that are discordant with their long-term sexual orientations, and that they may change the way they describe themselves (sexual identity). Whether this can be generalized to all women (as the dust-jacket somewhat implies), or whether there is a larger population of pretty-well set-in-concrete heterosexual and lesbian women whose attractions and identities are always consistent, remains uncertain. But anecdotal evidence suggests that even out-and-out "straight" and "gay" women can experiences attractions that surprise everyone, including themselves.
Prevailing definitions of romantic love
Diamond's theory conflicts with the prevailing view among psychologists, which assumes that sexual attraction is an essential ingredient in the initiation of romantic love. That is, according to their definition, the spark of passion must ignite romantic love or romantic love doesn't exist.
This assumption is based on polling people about how important sexual attraction is in their romantic relationships. All insist that it's very important. Yet isn't this question like asking people how important coffee is to their day? Their degree of enthusiasm for it may be more a reflection of their addiction to caffeine than a correct assessment of the relationship between coffee and their experience of their day.
Perhaps a better definition of romantic love would be an urge to merge deeply with a partner. That urge is generally met through conventional sex, and most couples polled would naturally confound desire for deeper union with desire for sexual gratification. However, on rare occasions throughout history people have recognized that there may be an even more fundamental desire for union at stake - one that sexual gratification may hinder over the long-term. (See, for example, Spiritual Brides of Early Christianity)
In our experience, generosity toward a potential partner and the desire to nurture him or her selflessly often lead to desire for closer union. In fact, Diamond also points out that this association can go both ways. That is, sexual desire can facilitate affectional bonding, and affectional bonding can facilitate sexual desire.
What is certain is that firm and lasting bonds are based on something more profound than the sparks of sexual passion. For this reason, the prevailing definition of romantic love - that passionate sparks must ignite it — is misleading. The public mistakenly assumes from such definitions that the more sparks of sexual desire there are, the more profound the romantic connection will be. This is like expecting an intense craving for junk food to lead one to the most sustainable, nourishing diet.
Sexual desire is a measure of whatever arbitrarily fires up the reward circuitry of the brain with its powerful agenda of producing genetically-varied and sexually-desirable offspring. It has little to do with the long-term potential of a relationship. To be sure, the reward circuit of the brain assures us (through subconscious urges) that sexual attraction is the most important factor — hence the poll results.
Would you want to base the choice of a life companion on an item of apparel or a passing fashion that arbitrarily became associated with sexual arousal in the depths of your past? What if same-sex contact happened to become linked with your sexual arousal? Would that, in fact, seal your romantic fate to a particular sexual orientation? (No, according to Diamond.) Would any superficial sexual association be a vital ingredient for romantic love?
There appear to be many roots of homosexuality, and many gray regions between straight and gay,2 so it would be mistaken to imply that such arbitrary associations are the only factor in same-sex unions. However, whoever seeks romantic love would be wise to base the search on something more than the scrumptiousness of sexual Cheetos. Romance novels notwithstanding, it is naive to think that the more overwhelming the sexual desire for a partner, the more invincible the romantic bond. Granted, it is difficult to see the truth during the honeymoon phase of an intimate relationship because, in the short-term, the addictiveness of sex creates an especially intense bond. In any case, it is worth asking oneself if the fireworks might be due to superficial stimuli of the type just mentioned, or to unexamined sexual compulsivity. 3
Sexual attractiveness versus romantic attractiveness
Most psychologists would agree that there can be a difference between what one finds romantically attractive and what one finds sexually attractive. (Even sexual desire is hard to define.)What most of us have overlooked is that we may be able to choose which of these goals we will seek. One way to do so is to reorder our "must have in a mate" lists - away from traditional biological triggers - and toward other qualities. For example, physical attraction plays the major role in sexual attractiveness. Indeed a recent study showed that mere exposure to images of sexy females could cause a man to devalue his real life partner.4
However, people list qualities of kindness, warmth, a sense of humor, sociability, trustworthiness and a stable personality as attributes sought in a romantic partner. These, then, are the qualities we want to emphasize when seeking a romantic connection. It's possible that even long-term couples may mistake the source of their compatibility. The sexual spark may not be the glue that binds them; their bond may be sustained by quite different qualities - while the outcome of that deeper bond is a continued desire to unite physically as well.
Another way to put romance before sexual attraction may be to seek balance and clarity in one's own life through meditation, yoga, prayer, or some similar practice. The less intense the addictive cycles in one's life, the clearer one's perception. Clear perception makes it easier to choose love partners with romantic potential - rather than mere sex appeal. In other words, it supplies some body armor when Cupid's arrow flies in our direction.
- 1. Love's not sex: Why romantic love isn't limited by a person's sexual orientation
- 2. Diamond cites historical examples of people developing sexual desires (crushes in boarding schools and in the military) that run counter to their sexual orientation.
- 3. Nicholas Cummings reported that of 16,000 clients seen at the clinic where he worked in the San Francisco Bay Area, one third could not develop healthy relationships with either sex. "These people seemed to be sexually compulsive, frequently with obsessive compulsive disorder and substance addictions. They could not seem to go a day without sex. We tried many things and nothing seemed to work." Dr. Cummings PhD, ScD, is Distinguished Professor of Psychology at University of Nevada, Reno, past president of the American Psychological Association, and co-editor with Rogers Wright of 'Destructive Trends in Mental Health.'
- 4. See Sexy Strangers Sway How Men See Mates