Life’s Greatest Prize! Lessons From Helen Fisher

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Helen Fisher has completed some of the widest range of research into love and relationships. 

In a series of studies spanning 21 million years of history across hundreds of diverse cultures she has sought to understand the universals of love.

Why we love?  Why we stray? why love hurts so much?

And is technology changing relationships? 

Let’s look into her answers…

Life’s Greatest Prize

Fisher often talks about love and a long-term mate being ‘Life’s Greatest Prize’. 

Finding the right mate is the key to having children, finding meaning, belonging and sharing one’s life with another.

She remains very optimistic about the future of our relationships.

What Do We Want?

From her studies Helen Fisher says 97% of respondents wanted someone who; respects them

  • Trusts and confides in them
  • Makes time for them
  • Makes them laugh
  • They find physically attractive

So if we all essentially want the same thing, why are relationships so difficult?

Let’s start by looking at why do we love? 

What is it that motivates us through so much hurt and pain to want this magical feeling of happy ever after with someone?

Why We Love?

Helen says we are deeply wired to pair bond.  It is to us as she says Life’s Greatest Prize.  

She shows numerous studies and brain scans to show evidence of three universal instinctive drives that she claims are rooted in separate areas of the brain architecture. 

All three are core drives along with the hunger and thirst drive and apply to all ages and sexual orientations.

The three are;

  • Sex Drive
  • Romantic Drive
  • Deep Attachment.

Sex Drive

The sex drive is controlled by the hormone testosterone.  

She posits that it’s role might be the drive to get us up and out meeting potential mates.  

It is not limited to one person and we can quite easily be sexually attracted to many people. 

However, Fisher warns that sex can lead to attachment through the release of oxytocin, which can create romantic complications. 

From a number of animal and cross-cultural studies she shows that the stigma and shame we have attached to sex is a product of our culture rather than our biology.

Sex is predominantly driven by biology.  When a female mammal is in season she will seek opportunities to mate. 

Out of season, there is less interest, however, she will mate for resources, to protect her children, to create friendship or to relieve stress and tension.

Romantic Drive

While the sex drive has been long recognised, the romantic drive is, as far as I’m aware, original to Helen Fisher. 

While we can feel sexually attracted to many people, she argues that the romantic drive makes us focus our attention to one specific person.

Love Is Addictive

This function is driven by dopamine and creates feelings of elation, giddiness and craving.  In other words it has much the same effect as the high of cocaine.  It also reduces serotonin, which can make us feel so in love that we can lose our appetite or even not sleep.  

Eating, Social anxiety and Obsessive-compulsion disorders are conditions associated with low serotonin.  So we can see how the anxiety and obsessive thinking involved in a romantic craving or most painfully a breakup are mediated through the body.  

Romantic love behaves like an addiction with obsessive thinking, a distorted sense of reality and a willingness to take risks.

It also has the downsides of addiction of;

Tolerance – we need more and more to get the same feeling

Withdrawal – we suffer cold turkey when we fail to get our hit.

Relapse – we slip up and go back to old patterns

This can explain a lot of our behaviours in drunk dialing ex’s, going back to broken relationships and generally acting crazy after a breakup.

Deep Attachment

Attachment is regulated by oxytocin and vasopressin. 

Oxytocin is known as the ‘love chemical’ for the way it makes us feel bonded. 

It is released by touch, gazing into each other’s eyes and sex. 

This is why Helen warns us casual sex can lead to romantic complications.

She suggests that attachment is a natural device to bond couples to raise infants.

The History of Love

Fisher’s work is striking for it’s width and breadth. 

Looking through thousands of cultures she is able to show that we are predominantly wired for monogamy.  

While many cultures allow multiple wives, she points out that while it may be allowed, few men have the resources to enjoy it.  

Further, she tells the story of a man in New Guinea with three wives who she asked how many he’d like to have.  ‘None’ he said.  

She shows that while women have agreed to such arrangements it was generally with much jealousy and antagonism.   

Her conclusion is that we mostly seek serial monogamy, though often with clandestine affairs.  She clarifies the meaning of monogamy.  One spouse.  

In other words we have one spouse, but every culture she studied showed examples of evidence. 

Even in cultures where adultery is punishable by mutilation, ostracism or death.

So Why Do We Stray?

If a loving, lasting relationship is our goal why would we risk losing that for lust?

When asked adulterer’s use a variety of reasons. 

Some for lust.  Some don’t know.  Some for attention.  To get out of a marriage or draw attention to how they feel.  Some for drama or excitement.  Some for revenge or the thrill of the secrecy.  Some for resources and experiences and some because they love the new person.

Psychologists explain affairs with explanations ranging from a lack of satisfaction with their relationship to feeling unsupported or neglected to the grass looking greener.

Yet often as a statistic from Glass and Wright showed that 56% of men and 34% of women who were having an affair rated their marriage as ‘happy’ or ‘very happy’.

Given such widespread appeal Helen Fisher suggests the root is in our biological instincts.

Evolutionary psychology tells us that men seek to spread their seed to perpetuate their genes and women seek access to resources. 

She uses the example of one woman from the !Kung tribe who explains her affairs as a way of ensuring she is taken care of wherever she goes, getting beads from one lover, meat from another and so on.

Another explanation has been genetic variation.  Two children with different genes increase the chances that they will survive possible diseases.

A further cause in some cultures is that when many men could be the father of a child they are less likely to harm and more ready to protect the child.

These historical reasons may be the reason that we are now wired to cheat. 

So while we may not be conscious of any of these reasons, we feel the same instinct.  The differing sex, romantic and attachment drives are the way that this is mediated today. 

This could explain why we have no real conscious explanation for why we cheat in the face of such penalties.

Of course, to cheat is a choice and we have the ability to override our instincts.  So there are some traits that lead people to be more likely to cheat. 

Divorce over time

One striking feature of Fisher’s cultural and historical research is the evidence that divorce in various forms has always been a fairly constant option in relationships. 

Some evidence she provided indicated that about a third of relationships would end with whatever form of divorce was available,  

Looking over a long time frame, it shows that the patriarchal model is more of a function of the need for men and domesticity in an agricultural lifestyle. 

Seen in this light the relatively recent divorce rate is a function of women’s increasing independence.

The difference in many cultures is that their community provided a lot of the support that we seek from our partners now. 

There was no shame or stigma and the wider society found it normal for unhappily married couples to part.  And so the loss of the relationship wasn’t as devastating.

She implies that chemistry works for about 3 or 4 years, which is long enough to raise an infant to childhood.    

What determines whether the couple stay together is whether the ties to stay together outweigh the forces pulling them apart.

Divorce rates are higher among people who are less flexible.

Has Technology Changed Relationships?

Fisher says the question she is always asked is whether technology is changing relationships.  Working with Match.com to create Chemistry.com she is in a privileged position to conduct lots of research.  

She is categoric that technology doesn’t and can’t change relationships.  She points out that biology evolves over 200,000 years and so the agricultural revolution doesn’t change our wiring.  

And so dating apps can have minimal impact.  What they can change is our courting rituals.  

Her research indicates that predictably 95% of people still want love.

Dating Tips

Now that for most new relationships the internet is becoming the source of new partners, Fisher offers some advice.  

She says the problem with dating apps is that the amount of choice creates cognitive overload and so people get stuck on sites. 

She suggests stopping after meeting nine people and focusing on getting to know one well.

Her research shows that lying has no benefit beyond getting a first date and is an ineffective strategy.

Who We Love?

She shows that all animals are selective.  That they have preferences and favourites.  

Humans tend to work best with partners of similar;

Intelligence

Socio-economic background

Looks

Childhood experiences 

Values and aspirations

Her work in creating an algorithm to match couples for Chemistry.com is based on categorising people into four groups, though she stresses the only algorithm that works reliably is our own brain.

These four groups are;

Explorers who seek new sensations and like other Explorers.

Builders who seek security with other Builders.

Directors who being forthright work well with a Negotiator who harmonises with them.

What lessons can we take?

What marks us from animals is our ability to conceive a vision and work together to achieve it.

This ability to imagine, communicate and co-operate is the essence of humanity.

It leads us to imbue everything we do with meaning.  What this means is that we always find a narrative to give meaning to our actions.

We have separated ourselves from all other species.  We have told ourselves that we have been given dominion over all other species.

Unlike animals we don’t just eat, sleep and fornicate.  We express our art through food.  We fantasize over our sexual urges.  We agonise over why we can’t sleep.

We are still whatever we like to think as Michael Colgan calls us, ‘a hairy bag of water’.

In other words we do what we do mostly from instinct.  Then we create the narrative that fits with our actions.

Of course, we are products of our culture and our free will, but we have to be aware of what’s driving us before we can make conscious choices.

People act mostly from an instinctive urge and then rationalise that urge with a narrative that fits.  

Relationships are complex because they trigger such cravings and anxiety.  Our instinctive urges mean that while we can be perfectly happy and faithful, we will never have all of our urges fulfilled.

The nature of cravings is that we always want more.  Not understanding this dynamic is at the root of a lot of infidelity, heartbreak and disappointment.

We are animals, but we have the ability to override these instincts.  We have the ability to learn and to create richer and more rewarding and lasting relationships.

No-one has had better opportunities than we have to create deep, loving and sustainable relationships.  Whether we do or not depends on our individual commitment to creating them.  

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