Little did I know when I wrote Love and Biology at the Center of the Universe that by re-imagining the age-old story of the runaway wife, I might tap the zeitgeist of that elusive fifty percent: the American married. And not just the female contingent. As I write this, nearly half of the customer reviews for the book on Amazon are from men.
For the past few months promoting this book, I’ve traveled the American West doing readings, phoned in to book club meetings across the country, and participated in numerous blog events out in cyberspace. Through all of that, I’ve been fascinated to discover that we’re all asking the same questions about the state of long-term marriage and the lack of passion that can plague it—or worse, sound the alarm or death knell of something we once thought sacred and forever.
The following Q&A is presented with these caveats: I am no expert in marriage or psychology, and I hold no degrees nor am I a licensed anything. However, my husband and I have been together for nineteen years. I have been both the dumper and the dumpee in other relationships. I read voraciously about the biology of love, the science of romance and dating and mating. And like Paul Simon says in a song of the same title, “Maybe I think too much.”
An imaginary conversation, then, performed in two parts by me:
JS1: Where the heck did all that love and romance go and will it ever come back?
JS2: How clever of you to ask that question, JS! By understanding the biological underpinnings of human love and romance, we can gain clarity and achieve a better comfort level around the inevitable changes in our marriages.
When first we fall in love, chemicals flow through our brains that make us feel euphoric, aroused, and attractive, and like the only one on earth who has ever felt this way with another person. It’s the same chemical that drives addiction. It’s the same chemical that is released when we eat chocolate. Why? So we will fulfill our biological imperative and mate with another human. That’s it. From the body’s perspective, it’s not about finding our soul mate, but about replacing ourselves on earth so our species will survive.
Once we have fulfilled that obligation, or enough time has passed to do that—say a year to a year-and-a-half—the passion chemical is replaced by a bonding chemical that encourages us to stay together long enough to raise the offspring to physical viability—say seven years old (the dreaded seven-year itch). And yes, it applies even if we don’t have children.
At that point, the partnership is no longer required, biologically speaking, and things can get dicey. That’s when we must become our most human selves and not act and react from an unthinking and solely biological place. That’s when it gets more difficult to be romantic and kind with our partners, but we have to if we want to build life-long love and respect (and fingers crossed, passion) inside our relationships.
(For more details from a real expert, read Why We Love by anthropologist Helen Fisher.)
JS1: Must we simply forego passion when it evaporates from our marriage?
JS2: There’s a reason why they say marriage takes work. It’s not the bills or the kids or the countless other obligations that are the hard work. It’s staying passionate and in love and respectful through all of those things that is the challenge. Staying conscious of the state of your relationship, staying awake a little longer at night to canoodle, rubbing your partner’s back when you should really be answering a work email or when you’d really rather watch mindless TV. Watch your partner’s eyes instead when he/she tells you about his/her day. Try to see what’s happening behind the words. Offer a hug that lasts more than two seconds. Squeeze a little harder on bad days. It’s the small kindnesses, and the reciprocation of them, that help two people stay in love.
JS1: Is it wrong to fantasize about running away? Okay, about doing the horizontal tango with someone who is not necessarily your spouse?
JS2: I hope not. I figure that anything happening between your own two ears is your business only. I’ve talked with a lot of women now about this topic, and trust me when I say you’re not the only one with a rich fantasy life.
Jennie Shortridge lives in Seattle and is the author of three novels from NAL: Love and Biology at the Center of the Universe, Eating Heaven, and Riding with the Queen. Her next book will be published in November 2009.