Usually, we fall in love with someone who’s new in our life. Even people falling in love with a person they’ve known for a while ascribe the change in their feelings to a change in perspective - seeing that person in a new light. It’s not just the way someone is that makes them attractive; it’s also the fact that they’re novel or unique. It turns out that novelty itself triggers the chemistry of love.
Researchers at University College London used fMRI imagines to scan the brains of subjects being shown various images of a face. Novel faces were randomly intermixed among the normal face. The scans revealed that the dopamine reward centre of the brain was activated by the novel images, increasing its activity according to how novel the image was.
Novel things are interpreted by the brain as worthy of attention because they hold the potential for reward. For this reason, your brain is wired to focus on new things that stand out from the typical; dopamine is released to motivate your curiosity and exploration. This happens in small ways each day. If an unusual bird lands in the garden, we crane our neck to see it, paying more attention than to those we see every day. And it happens on a large scale when we meet a new person whose novel and appealing qualities intrigue us with the potential for reward.
A new and attractive person literally triggers ‘chemistry’ between us and them. This chemistry makes us curious and motivated by the potential for love (and other rewards). It makes our blood pressure rise, our heart beat faster. We’re energised by dopamine, and a myriad other hormonal and neurological reactions, to pursue the relationship. For as long as it takes to cement an emotional and physical bond, the body invests the energy to fuel these reactions and keeps us entranced with our beloved.
If love didn’t start-out with such grand passion it wouldn’t be quite so disheartening when it declines. Despite the initial chemistry, at some point, the thrill subsides to a warm glow, sometimes ebbing to just a tiny ember. The obsession relents and everyday obligations reemerge, taking precedence over our beloved. Our conviction of their perfection is worn away over time and the ordinariness of their ways is revealed. What once amused and charmed us is forgotten, sometimes becoming an irritation instead.
It occurs to very few people that they could, or should, invest more into their relationship if they want more from it. However, it makes sense when you consider how our relationships are established in the first place - an immense amount of effort is invested to court our beloved. We groomed ourselves especially to impress, drove for miles to see them, spent hours listening to the other person and sharing ourselves with them. We were affectionate, patient, generous with dates and gifts, wrote love notes and songs. The result was fantastic. And then we stopped.
People are quick to blame the other person for the decline in romance and slow to make the connection between their lack of effort and lack of satisfaction. This is because, there’s a problematic underlying assumption...that love is effortless. Even the description, ‘falling’ in love, implies that it happens to us, by accident, rather than through us, by effort. The trouble is, because the effort we made previously was fuelled by biochemistry, it felt effortless. We were a passenger on a chemical ride.
The impression we have of effortless love is encouraged by western cultural norms, reflected in countless songs and movies depicting instant and effortless love. We watch as the fairytale always ends at the wedding, implying that you’ll have reached your goal and it’s time to relax. Movies rarely explain how to maintain or renew love when the dopamine has worn off. More often the problem is ‘solved’ by the lovers discarding each other and repeating the courtship stage with someone new. This created a short-term cycle that overlooks the stage where love matures and conscious intentions takes over where neurochemistry left off.
LOVE RECOVERED: NEOPHILLIA
Neophilia literally means ‘love of the new’ or ‘new love’. People who are actively novelty-seeking report the best health, most friends, fewest emotional problems and greatest satisfaction with life. As with other traits, neophilia has a biological foundation. Human beings possess a ‘migration gene’, a DNA mutation that occurred about 50,000 years ago as humans were migrating out of Africa around the world. It makes us curious about the potential reward that might be over the next hill, prompting the necessary novelty-seeking behaviour. The psychiatrist C. Robert Cloninger developed a personality test to measure the novelty-seeking trait. He discovered that, on its own, novelty-seeking can lead to dangerous and impulsive behaviour. But, when combined with persistence and self-transcendence (realising that it’s not all about you), the result is more satisfaction from life. Novelty-seeking helps people flourish, fostering health, happiness and personality development as you age.
People who renew their relationship, start by renewing themselves. They cultivate the neophiliac inside. They’re receptive to what’s new - places, ideas, and feelings. This can include simple things like joining a gym, getting fit and building a new body. Or learning to cook a new cuisine, joining a new group, or finding a new job. Neophiliacs explore new places on vacation or try a new sport. This really is an attitude, an inner sensation of openness, of allowing things to be considered rather than rejected out of habit. Therapy can be an excellent source of personal development. People often assume therapy is for fixing what’s broken but it’s also an opportunity for intensive self-reflection, exploration of under-developed parts of yourself and the creation of a newer self.
Psychologists believe that humans have a primary motivation to self-expand because it promotes the behaviours that result in physical and psychological development. Self-expansion is empowering and rewarding. It’s the feeling of pride in yourself and of having control over your world. We experience self-expansion when we master new skills but also through our connection to others.
A team of researchers in the US tested whether self-expansion actually helps relationships. They interviewed more than 500 married people, from 18 to 92 years old. Participants were asked questions like, “Do your partner and you have the right physical chemistry”, “Does being with your partner expand your sense of who you are?” and “Is your relationship with your partner a source of new experiences”. People reporting that their partners did provide self-expansion experiences also reported more attraction and love than those with less self-expanding partners. In short, having a partner who helps you grow as a person is important for maintaining love in long-term relationships.
If romantic partners are a source of satisfying our innate pleasure in self-expansion, the relationship can be used as a venue to provide this experience for both people. People who renew their relationship aim not just for novelty, but for challenges that require growth. Self-expansion also comes from new ideas that require extending our sense of self, the relationship, to include the community and the world. This might mean travelling to places together that have historical significance to both people. It might mean a mutual engagement in activism, fundraising for a charity together, lobbying or protesting on an issue that means something to both people. In each case, something novel and expansive is experienced by both - activities, places and ideas - imbuing each, and the relationship, with meaning and significance.
THIS ARTICLE IS AN EXTRACT FROM THE COMPATIBILITY BOOK
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