But is this true love?
The coverage of the valley’s graduating seniors is quite enjoyable. It can’t help but stimulate memories of high school while producing a comforting feeling of life cycling on as it should – a strangely pleasant mix of first-person nostalgia and voyeuristic progress.The article on high school couples presented the never-ending dilemma of “shall I stay or shall I go” that all couples face when lives are changing. No nostalgia here for me, though. I seem to remember leaving high school with the optimistic hope that I might actually get a date at college.First loves are problematic. You have nothing to gauge it against – just how good is this relationship? There are no cynical, defensive walls of experience to limit the unexpected power of the biochemistry, either. Everyone can remember their first love if not numbers 2 through 20. It’s worth tapping into the experience of others in books or person, since everyone throughout history has played this game. Parents are a great source of experience, although Dad may not want to admit in front of Mom that Cheryl the high school cheerleader was the one for him.Love helps us choose a mate, but how many times before we find our soul mate? Evolutionary psychologists Peter Todd and Geoffrey Miller set up a computer simulation looking at aspirations and mate selection. The simulation came up with 9 percent as the best sample size. Look at less and you don’t have enough information to choose, sample more and your best mate will probably be gone. If only life were that simple.Love is a wide-ranging emotion – passionate young romance, a mother’s selfless nurturing, comfortable companionship, a god’s divine love. The biochemistry of all these are similar. The common root is a mother’s love, which evolved for the biological reasons that your young need help if you want your genes to survive.Experiments with rats (ferocious protectors of their young) show that certain changes happen in pregnancy. Oestrogen boosts brain receptors for the hormone oxytocin and labor stimulates oxytocin release. This oxytocin activates the dopamine-reward circuit, which floods us with feelings of pleasure. The dopamine circuit is the same one drugs like heroin hijack. Rats literally get addicted to their young. A rat’s sense of smell is stimulated at the same time, so they’re addicted to the scent of their pups. Smell is a powerful, if subtle, player in feelings of love.All love comes from this system. Monogamous mammals, a rarity, borrow oxytocin and use it to create a bond between mates. Oxytocin has a myriad of effects on us, such as boosting trust, which is why attractive people are better con artists, good in sales, etc. It shuts down the critical social judgment areas of our brain, so love really is blind. This explains all those “what does she see in him,” head-shaking talks.Uncertainty raises stress hormones, which increase our need for intimacy, and there’s a link between arousal, anxiety and attraction. This is why chiller-thrillers are such great first-date movies. Exercise increases dopamine levels, creating those feelings of excitement and apprehension, which ask for intimacy, and we all love laughter and chocolate.Biologically, we can sniff out people who have a complimentary set of pathogen -fighting genes to the ones in our major histocompatibility complex (MHC). Trust your instincts when faced with unexplained attractions. Birth control pills throw a wrench into MHC attractions, though. Somehow they reverse it and you end up with a bad (biologically) mix of MHC. Best to fall in love before using the pill.Sex and intimacy are huge boosters of oxytocin, creating those pleasant feelings of love, bonding, etc., which is good if you are in love but not so good if it’s sex on a whim. Sex isn’t love, but the biochemistry is strong enough to alter behavior, cloud judgment and create doomed relationships.For assessing the potential of great long-term relationships, abstinence looks like a helpful tool. No birth control needed, so your nose can do its stuff, and a chance to see someone without those oxytocin-colored lenses. The mechanisms of romantic love provide an addictive roller coaster ride but no good predictions for long-term relationships. Its an immortal tale of passion, but Romeo and Juliet were lucky their time frame was short enough that they didn’t out outlast their undying infatuation with each other.While sexy hip-to-waist ratios, strong jaws and body symmetry are ramping up the oomph in romance, courtship shouldn’t overlook what makes someone a good partner to live with. Is it easy to spend time together with the evenings flying by? Do they respect you, make you feel good about yourself and share common values and purpose? Arguments reveal a lot. Arguing without criticizing the person you’re arguing with bodes well and is good practice for life. Happy couples focus on what their partner does that they like and graciously accept all apologies and attempts to patch differences over. No grumpy grudges!The biochemistry of love gets all the press, at least in the celebrity tabloids: “Swept off my feet,” “powerless to resist,” “nothing I could do,” etc. In some ways we will this to happen, but that puts all the responsibility on Cupid’s arrow instead of our behavior. Flirting is fun because you’re stimulating oxytocin and unknowingly creating some sort of bond. Not that great an idea if you’re already in a relationship you want to keep. That’s a bit like unwrapping a box of chocolates just to enjoy the smell when on a diet. Pretty soon you’ve got an empty box in your trash or your face under a supermarket magazine headline after a few harmless meals with your new sexy co-star.”Absence makes the heart grow fonder” and “out of sight, out of mind” are both true proverbs depending on whether relationships are based only on biochemistry or genuine compatibility. Going to college provides a chance to find out. It’s a broad-based learning experience with some studying thrown in to justify the tuition. Use it well. It will never be that easy ever again to meet people.Alan Braunholtz of Vail writes a weekly column for the Daily. Vail, Colorado
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