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The myth of happily ever after

February 15th, 2016 | by William Ibbott
The myth of happily ever after
Science
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Anyone who knows me will tell you I’m a cynic, and love is usually the first target of my scornful approach towards most things. I typically advise my friends to dump their partners if they’re ever unhappy with them, public displays of affection make me feel queasy, and I’ve more or less unfollowed everyone on my Facebook friends list who feels the urge to broadcast the ins and outs of their relationship to the wider world.

Subsequently, it’s hardly a surprise that I loathe Valentine’s Day and its manufactured schmaltz– not least because it capitalises on the idea that romantic love is the apex of the human experience and feeds this to a society driven by anxiety. There’s also the enduring belief that we have little control over who we fall in love with, as physical attraction is commonly perceived to be a process which is mostly unconscious, governed by our bodily chemicals that determine whether or not we’re compatible with a potential suitor.  In recent years, however, there has been a growing body of research which debunks this idea and claims that the myth of the pheromone has little scientific basis, largely because attraction is fleeting at the best of times and hard to measure – at least in humans, anyway.

the myth of the pheromone has little scientific basis, largely because attraction is fleeting at the best of times and hard to measure – at least in humans

After all, the concept of pheromones is a relatively young one, only having been coined in the late 1950s. It worked effectively in explaining the mating rituals of insects, but not so much as far as human contact is concerned: even though it’s a regularly touted belief in mainstream society, there’s surprisingly little (if any at all) foundation for this in scientific literature. Much talk abounds of physical “chemistry” and compatibility in the culture of dating and romance: if we’re to strictly follow this rule, surely it’s less about whether it’s “love at first sight”, but instead “love at first scent”, as smell is supposed to be a key indicator in whether another person is “right” for us or not. However, this theory doesn’t really hold as there’s been no substantial research which concludes the pheromone effect in humans. Good news for anyone who ever worries they’re a slave to their own hormones, then…

human beings, as social animals, are fairly crap at dealing with their own company and I’ve long suspected that many relationships have been pursued as a means of staving off a fear of existential loneliness

In spite of this, the idea of passionate, physical love prevails in psychology, typically characterised by intense emotions, sexual attraction and anxiety. When these feelings are reciprocated, this elicits ecstasy and joy; when they’re not, desperation and depressive symptoms ensue. Passionate love is short-lived and has been said to usually arise when it’s culturally encouraged to fall in love, when the other person meets your idea of the perfect lover or when you feel particularly aroused in their company. This type of love contrasts to “compassionate love”, which concerns feelings of mutual respect, trust and understanding. Many people seek relationships which combine both these elements, and despite regular portrayals of these in the media, you’ve probably more chance of being struck by lightning than actually finding a relationship that combines passionate and compassionate love.

It barely needs to be mentioned, anyway, that human beings, as social animals, are fairly crap at dealing with their own company and I’ve long suspected that many relationships have been pursued as a means of staving off a fear of existential loneliness. Being single continues to be deeply undesirable in the eyes of society, even more so when it’s a conscious decision the individual has made on their own behalf. This isn’t to say that love’s a fable and a total waste of time, but a considerable element of it is a social construction that I won’t be buying into anytime soon.

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