Get this: the passions associated with romantic love actually come from the same location in the brain as our drives for hunger and sleep? Isn’t that interesting? Because of these findings, Dr. Helen Fisher, a biological anthropologist from Rutgers University, argues that romantic love, just like sex, is actually a “fundamental human mating drive.” In other words, our desire to fall in love is actually more akin to the drive for food and water, than it is an emotion.
Let’s break this down because I think the implications of this shift in thought about romantic love as a drive versus an emotion are fascinating and also life changing.
First, let’s look at a basic definition of a drive: Neuroscientist Donald Pfaff defines a drive as a “neural state that energizes and directs behavior to acquire a particular biological need to survive or reproduce.” If this is true about romantic love, then our brain and our body compels us to pursue romantic love like we need food, sleep, and drink.
Here’s how Fisher lines it up:
- Like a drive, romantic love is “tenacious”, where as emotions come and go, even sometimes hour by hour. We can be angry in the morning, and then happy by the evening.
- Like drives, romantic love is focused on a particular “reward”, the beloved. Similarly, hunger is focused on food. On the other hand, emotions pin themselves on many different objects or ideas. For example, we can be disgusted by certain types of food, and living standards, and people all at once.
- Like drives, romantic love does not have a stereotypical facial expression (well, except for the googly eyes of cartoons ;-). By contrast, just ask my two year-old what the facial expression for anger, excitement, fear, and sadness are. He’ll be happy to show you.
- Like drives, Fisher points out that romantic love is “exceedingly difficult to control.” She offers as an example, that it’s harder to curb your thirst, than it is to control your anger.
- And finally, like all drives romantic level is associated with higher levels of dopamine in the brain.
So if we understand romantic love as a basic human drive, how does this change the messages we internalize about our romantic lives? How does this change the start of our now decade long journey to find a life partner? Well, I think the first shift in thought comes with the realization that unlike emotions, we can not control or repress romantic love anymore than we can control hunger or thirst or the need for warmth.
Think about this for a moment. Because really it’s a radical shift. If we understand that we have an innate compulsion toward falling in love, it changes entirely the way we approach relationships.
Now, I can hear the objections already, the voices of fear rising out of the crowd. “Are you suggesting we throw our hands up in the air and be controlled by our drives?” they ask. No, absolutely not. I believe that acknowledging our drive to feel the warm fuzzies of romantic love does not actually leave us at its mercy. On the contrary! I think education about our drives liberates, where as mis-education devastates. When we know what we’re dealing with, we’re actually empowered to make wiser decisions. We can take charge of our live and our circumstances in new ways.
For example, Helen Fisher points out that drives fall along a continuum. Some drives, like thirst and the need for warmth will not be satisfied until we are given a drink or a warm blanket. But other drives like sex, hunger and the “maternal instinct”, Fisher says can often be redirected or even quelled. In other words, we may not be able to control or even repress our drive for romantic love, but we can definitely channel it!
Let’s take this back to hunger. All too often when we repress or deny our hunger, we end up binging. And what do we binge on? Usually on what’s easiest and most accessible: junk food — pizza, chips, soda, Doritos (those glorious little triangles of neon orange).
I think this is the same with our romantic love drive. If we ignore it or repress it, it will come barreling out of the dark pit of our brokenness, and all too often the consequences of satisfying that drive will be devastating and life altering.
Like hunger, I think we can channel our drive for romantic love toward healthy options. When we’re hungry, we can choose to eat fruits, vegetables, whole grains, clean meats. We can practice this same sort of holistic nourishment with our romantic lives, all the while satisfying that basic drive for romantic love.
If this is true, what would it look like to channel this drive in a healthy direction? To recognize that we are going to feel compelled to fall in love no matter what we do or don’t do? What does acknowledging this drive mean for people who are going to remain single? Or what does it mean for those who will eventually settle down and commit to a life partner? Either way, what would it look like to meet this need for romantic love with soul nourishing and body nourishing choices?
I love thinking outside of the box in these ways! I love the subtle, but polar shift it brings to our lives.
If I know that I have a basic drive to fall in love, then why wouldn’t I choose to channel that drive toward partners that I know are healthy, toward relationships that I know will edify, and toward people with whom I can set healthy boundaries?
And for those who are going to remain single, if I know that I have a basic drive to fall in love, then in what ways can I seek to channel that drive outside a relationship, rather than repress or deny it?
In the end, we all know what happens when we try to ignore our drives. As these things go, we find ourselves at the mercy of such drives, driven into the arms of a culture that is all too happy to oblige with an array of “junk food” for our hearts.