In this episode of Mating Matters Dr. Wendy Walsh discusses the pace and order of courtship. Love relationships may involve sex, affection, emotional intimacy, commitment, public displays of love or private trysts, but the order of those stages is changing. If you’re over 40, fasten your seat belts folks, because Millennials and Gen-Z are showing us how our anthropological ancestors sampled from the smorgasbord of human relationships, all in the name of good reproductive choices.
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The Slower Road to Love
Speaker: Dr. Wendy Walsh
Dr. Wendy Walsh: Love and attachment may come in stages, phases and flavors. Love relationships may involve sex, affection, emotional intimacy, commitment, public displays of love or private Tris. But the order of these stages is changing. If you’re over 40, fasten your seatbelts because millennials are showing us how our anthropological ancestors sampled from the smorgasbord of human relationships, all in the name of good reproductive choices.
Welcome to Mating Matters, the podcast that looks at human behavior through a lens of evolutionary psychology and mating strategies. I’m Dr. Wendy Walsh, with producer Brooke Peterson. On this episode, we talk to renowned biological anthropologists from the Kinsey Institute, Dr. Helen Fisher, about a mating trend that she calls slow love, which sometimes looks a lot like very fast love.
As I began to think about this episode, I noticed old children’s rhymes dancing in my head. Remember this one?
“Johnny and Susie sitting in a tree, K-I-S-S-I-N-G. First comes love, then comes marriage, then comes a baby, and the baby carriage.”
And that order of events has been drilled into our heads as human beings ever since the evolution of farming, back when our workplaces shrunk to one plot of land, gender roles became narrow and well, patriarchy took over. You know the rest, you’re living in it.
So for a couple centuries, the order of love was clear. In fact, back in 1955, when Frank Sinatra recorded the hit Love and Marriage for Capitol Records, he was reciting the socially conditioned sex rules of the era.
[Love and Marriage Song Playing 00:02:14]
They were in place then, but not anymore.
Female: I never gave him like a boyfriend title, it was more like we were attracted each other and like one day we just like hooked up and it started there – was to the point that I didn’t really even have his number.
Male: I think millennials are just really more so casual about the dating atmosphere. It’s more like, “Hey, let’s see who this person is. I might hang out with this person this week, this person that week, this person the next weekend. And maybe if one of them sticks, we’ll keep hanging out with them. If not, next month, you rotate the roster.”
Female: With a year of just friends with benefits, like, I honestly don’t even know his middle name. I don’t know his mom’s name. I literally don’t even know what car he drives.
Female: I didn’t like anybody else and like we were committed to each other. I just wasn’t ready for him to like hang out with my friends or meet like my friends. Like I didn’t bring him around.
Male: Like, “Hey, what’s going on? What are you doing today? You free tonight? Like come over, I want to hang out.” She usually knows what the deal is. I’ll say, “Come over.” And she’ll say, “Yeah,” and it’ll be an implied like booty call.
Female: “What’s my last name?” And he was like, “Ah …” And I said, “What’s my last name?” He literally had this blank stare and I was just like, “Oh, okay.”
Dr. Wendy Walsh: Okay, lest you think the experiences of these millennials signal the end of the world and collapse of the family in our species evolution, I’d like to introduce you to an optimistic anthropologist, Dr. Helen Fisher.
If you haven’t heard of her, she’s a senior research fellow at the Kinsey Institute at Indiana University, a member of The Center for Evolutionary Studies at the Department of Anthropology at Rutgers University, and author of six books on evolution, biology and the science of human sexuality. Oh, and she’s chief science officer for match.com.
You say that humans are built to love, explain that.
Dr. Helen Fisher: Well, I’ve come to believe and also prove that we’ve evolved three distinctly different brain systems from mating and reproduction. One is the sex drive. The second is feelings of intense romantic love, and the third is feelings of deep attachment. And all three of these brain systems lie way below the cortex where you do your thinking, way below limbic regions in the middle of the head that orchestrate the emotions. They lie way at the base of the brain linked with drive.
Dr. Wendy Walsh: Dr. Fisher calls love a survival mechanism, a primitive, ancient primordial drive.
Dr. Helen Fisher: As a matter of fact, the little factory that pumps out dopamine that gives you that feeling of intense romantic love, that little factory, it lies right next to the factory that orchestrates thirst and hunger. Thirst and hunger keep you alive today, romantic love pushes you to form a pair and send your DNA into tomorrow.
Dr. Wendy Walsh: Love is also a kind of drug on our brains. It’s designed to make us go goo-goo eyes over somebody who might not be so perfect so we can get together and reproduce. And like most drugs, love can create some pretty illogical thinking. Love’s effect is called a positive bias or positive illusion. Crazy in love isn’t just a saying, it’s real.
In 2003, Beyoncé and Jay Z, the hit song, Crazy in Love for Columbia Records and Music World Entertainment. The mega hit explained the science perfectly.
[Crazy in Love Song Playing 00:06:06]
Dr. Helen Fisher: Chaucer was correct – love is blind. Brain regions linked with decision making, shutdown. Brain region linked with a negativity bias shutdown or decrease a good deal. And so you can overlook all kinds of things. And I think some people would call that a bit of madness.
Dr. Wendy Walsh: And this bit of madness can work for us or against us. Love can be tricky. We could end up attaching to and reproducing with the wrong person. On the other hand, if we do choose well, those crazy feelings of love can keep us attached until the kids are raised and beyond.
Dr. Fisher’s lifelong work, searching for the biological underpinnings of love, found her observing live human brains in MRI machines; brains of people in all stages of love, newly in love, people experiencing breakups, and even people in long-term relationships, when one would think that love would wane.
But she says there’s a kind of madness about love for some people that grows with time. And get this, there may not be a specific order to the stages of love. In fact, she’s identified a modern stage of love that she calls the pre-commitment stage.
You talk about lust, romantic attraction and attachment, and today, it seems like young people are doing these things in a very different order. Many hooking up before dating, many living together before marriage. And you say this is far from reckless. Talk about this pre-commitment stage that you’re observing.
Dr. Helen Fisher: I call it slow love, and thank you for bringing it up. My data comes from an annual study that I do with match.com called Singles in America. We do not poll the match members. This is a national representative sample based on the US census, so it’s real science. And I do it with Justin Garcia and we now have data on 45,000 Americans, probably the biggest study in America, and probably the world.
Anyway, the bottom line is every single year I find that over 50% of singles of every age group actually; age 18 to 71 plus, over 50% have had a one nightstand, over 50% have had a friends with benefits, over 50% they’re with somebody long term. Not necessarily this past year, but over the course of their lives. And everybody in America seems to think that this is reckless. That these people have run mad.
And I began to realize this is not reckless, this is caution. And I realized it when I read an academic article that said that 67% of singles today who are living with somebody are terrified of the fallout of divorce. And it began to occur to me, what we’re really seeing is an extension of the pre-commitment stage.
Dr. Wendy Walsh: Have you ever had a kind of relationship that started with sex before dating?
Male: I mean, I’ve had, yeah, I would say where maybe we’ve hooked up and then talked later and things have kind of progressed a little bit. Where I didn’t know it might’ve just been a hook up, but it actually turned into us being friends, and then kind of becoming a little bit more. But more, I would say it leaned into that kind of casual space.
Dr. Wendy Walsh: There’s no doubt about it, millennials are delaying marriage longer than any generation before. But don’t dismay, there’s some promising evidence that seems to show that most millennials do intend to marry at some point.
For example, a 2013 Gallup poll found that 86% of single never married Americans aged 18 to 34, said they wanted to get married, someday.
Dr. Helen Fisher: Today, singles want to know every single thing about a partner before they tie the knot. So they’re going into it very slowly. They’re starting out as just friends. “Oh, we’re just friends, we’re just friends.” Then they slowly move into friends with benefits. You learn a lot between the sheets, not just how somebody makes love, but are they patient, are they kind, can they listen, do they have a sense of humor? And then after the friends with benefits, they slowly move out and tell friends and family, and then they have the official first date.
You know, in my day, the official first date started before you barely knew somebody. What we’re really seeing is a very cautious generation.
Female: Started dating this guy, we slept together probably maybe like the third or fourth date. He was very sweet, he gave me a lot of gifts, which I had never really experienced before. Like literally, would just come over and give me things if I was sad, if I like just like had a bad day at work, would give me things.
Dr. Wendy Walsh: He was trying.
Female: He was trying. And so obviously, I loved getting things and I liked him. He made me laugh, he was cool – just wasn’t for me. Just kind of bugged me – he wasn’t the one. But I continued seeing him because I was trying to make it work. Because on paper, he was wonderful.
Dr. Wendy Walsh: Have you ever had a friend with benefits that lasted a really long time and didn’t turn into a relationship?
Female: Yes, I think in this generation, I think that’s all we are. Like I think I’m young, I’m free that this is a new era, I could do whatever I want as a woman. Like nobody’s going to tell me like, “Oh, you can’t have sex with somebody because you’re a girl.” Like, my mom is 50-years-old and she tells me that, I’m like, “No, I could do that.” And I’ve had that. I’ve had like over a year of just having friends with benefits and I have never fallen in love with that person.
Female: Yeah, we just started hanging out a lot and just kind of like see each other. We never really went like on real dates. It was just a lot of hanging out and spending time with each other.
Dr. Wendy Walsh: And when a friend with benefits doesn’t pass snuff as boyfriend or girlfriend material, with such loose definitions of a relationship, they’re pretty easy to get rid of.
Female: I just kind of like cut it off, I guess. It was just more of like I just felt like I wasn’t being treated a certain way. And for me, for it to develop into more of like him being my boyfriend or like you said, a public boyfriend, I felt like we weren’t developing there.
Male: I have had that happen where things were good, but life changes and heartbreaks happen.
Dr. Wendy Walsh: Let’s return to this idea of fear of divorce. Dr. Fisher says this slow love, the kind that has one dipping their toes into multiple relationships, free from cultural restraints and moral codes about sex and marriage, is partly designed to prevent divorce. After all, this is the generation that saw their parents divorce in packs.
Female: I kid you not, I can’t name one person, one couple that have stayed together. Either cheats, they divorce, they leave each other, they end up hating each other at the end and it’s just like, why want that? For a long time, I was very cautious and I was like, “I don’t want to be in love and I don’t want that because it scares me. It’s scary to think like you put so much time and effort into somebody and then boom, you’re done.”
Dr. Wendy Walsh: Were your parents divorced? Is this something that’s in your head?
Female: My parents are not divorced but they did split up for three years. So it definitely like is something that is in the back of my head, and it’s something that I do not want to rush into. And it’s still why I’m single and I’m kind of being selfish and wanting to live my life before I jump into something where I commit myself to somebody. Or somebody in return isn’t ready to commit and could lead to rushing into things and then to divorce.
Dr. Wendy Walsh: Do you worry about divorce?
Male: How can you not? Right? I mean it’s definitely a real thing and the statistics really back it up. Yeah, you want to make sure that you have picked the right one. Divorce I think will always be in the back of your mind, like as something that is a possibility and that’s something that you want to try and avoid.
Dr. Wendy Walsh: Millennials are also very serious about education and career building, so when they do finally settle down, they’ll have the financial wherewithal to provide for their offspring. This focus on work also has a reproductive advantage.
Dr. Helen Fisher: I’m very impressed with millennials. They are very ambitious. They want to get their own finances in order before they settle down. They will have their one nightstands, but they will get rid of somebody very rapidly if they don’t think it can go anywhere. And once they begin to have that official first day and live together, they spend a long time getting to know somebody before they walk down that aisle.
Male: I feel like for us as millennials, we just really like to focus on ourselves and not in a selfish way. We just want to progress. And we feel like if somebody understands what we’re going through or we can understand what they’re going through, then we can grow together. But if it’s like, “Hey, you know that I’m working but you keep trying to hang out with me and you keep texting me and you know that our schedules don’t align,” and it’s like, well, you’re forcing something that isn’t able to happen right now.
Male: College, gosh, was a great time to really be dating. And now with work kind of flooding and piling on, then that’s harder. It’s harder because of having to work and having to have all these other commitments, and you want to give time to that significant other if you are going to date.
Dr. Wendy Walsh: But there is a downside to slow love. Remember the hormones and neurotransmitters that create the positivity bias in love, crazy in love, drunk in love? Well, that neurochemistry is partly created through great sex. Millennials know this, and even have coined a term for it – “Don’t catch feelings,” they say. But love is a biological event and it’s not under your control.
Dr. Fisher says that according to her research, about one third of people when asked, “Have you ever fallen in love through a hookup?” Say, “Yes. I went into it for a frolic and came out in love.”
Dr. Helen Fisher: You can go into sex just thinking it’s a one nightstand, and then fall madly in love with somebody who can trigger that brain circuitry for romantic love very rapidly through sex.
Dr. Wendy Walsh: And that can create plenty of misunderstandings. Sex can even sometimes ruin a perfectly good friendship. I mean, a real friendship, not a friends with benefits, a real friendship.
Female: I was so confused because we had been friends for so long and then all of a sudden, we crossed that boundary that we never thought either of us would. And then I couldn’t see him as just a friend, and I totally had feelings for him. And then he ended up getting back with his ex-girlfriend. It was one textbook, just sad, sad girl.
Dr. Wendy Walsh: Do you think the feelings you had for him came because of the sex?
Female: Absolutely. I mean definitely as a friend was attracted to him, but just in like, yeah, he’s a cute guy. But as soon as we had sex, it was literally one time, one night, drunk, and immediate feelings.
Female: I literally met him at a club and I was like, “I just want to hook up with you. I just want to have fun, nothing serious.” And all of a sudden, it’s three months later and I’m over here crying, like being so in love over somebody, I have no idea why.
Dr. Wendy Walsh: Here’s one reason why, besides the hormones associated with sex, emotional disclosures can also cause feelings of love. And emotional disclosures most often take place on the pillow.
Female: We would see each other every day, and it wasn’t just sex, it was like expressing ourselves and expressing our feelings and telling him like how I felt and about my family and all this stuff. And it was vice versa. And I think when it comes to like friends with benefits, you just go in and get out, you’re done. But when you want a relationship, it’s like, okay, you expressing yourself and that’s what you shouldn’t do.
Male: I would say I’ve had a girl that thought we were more, and I didn’t realize that she thought that we were more.
Dr. Wendy Walsh: And what happened?
Male: I had to break it off, because I’m not the type of person to lead someone on. It was a friends with benefits and I thought it was just a friends with benefits and it was casual. But then, he started to ask some questions and I was like, “Oh, I didn’t realize that you saw this going a different way.”
Dr. Helen Fisher: Unless you’re so drunk you can’t remember it, casual sex is not casual. It triggers 5 of the 12 cranial nerves in the brain. You really see somebody, smell somebody, hear somebody, taste somebody, feel somebody very dramatically. And of course, you’re driving up the dopamine and the oxytocin system, you’re also triggering the testosterone system.
So the body is doing a whole lot of things that can drive you to fall madly in love with somebody. So bottom line is if you don’t want to fall in love with somebody, I would suggest you don’t have sex with them.
Dr. Wendy Walsh: But all of this is nothing new in the evolution of love. Our anthropological ancestors went through the same struggles with finding and keeping mates.
So how does this compare to our anthropological past? Because I often say that in some ways, as women now can more fairly extract resources from the environment, that we’re returning to something that existed before patriarchy?
Dr. Helen Fisher: Right, I’ve been saying that for I think 25 years and I’m just so glad that you brought it up. Because everybody’s scared that technology is changing love. It’s not changing love. You cannot change this brain system – it’s changing how we court. But, technology is a tiny little factor compared to the real modern trend, which is, as you say, women piling into the job market and cultures around the world. And in fact, I’ve long maintained that we are moving forward to the kinds of women and the kinds of partnerships that we had a million years ago.
Now on the grasslands of Africa 500,000 years ago, a hundred thousand ago, probably 2 million years ago, women commuted together their fruits and vegetables. They came home with over 50% of the evening meal. The double income was the rule and women in almost in all hunting and gathering societies are regarded as just as sexual, just as economically powerful, and just as socially powerful as men.
Dr. Wendy Walsh: Then farming became the big downfall for women. They lost their roles as gatherers because they couldn’t leave the farm. Farming gave way to industry and an economy of money rather than food.
Dr. Helen Fisher: Along with that change to the farming tradition, we see the rise of a whole lot of new ideas. Virginity at marriage for a woman, a woman’s place is in the home. Man is the head of the household until death do us part, etc. All of that Wendy is disappearing before our eyes. In this generation, in this particular time in human evolution, we’re seeing very few people being virgins at marriage except those who are very religious. A great many women work in the workforce. We’re seeing the rise of the double income family, and we’re seeing women returning to their ancestral roles, as being just as sexual and just as economically and socially powerful as men.
Now different cultures are going to court in different ways at different times. In evolution, we have different courtship practices and around the world – some people send letters and some people send emails with emojis.
Dr. Wendy Walsh: For those who worry that all this hooking up and heartbreak spells the demise of old fashioned marriage, Fisher thinks the opposite. That this may create better marriages with fewer divorces. Demographically, the big wave of divorce is behind us. Those who stay together chose well and are pretty happy with their choices. Dr. Fisher says this bodes well for the future of families.
Dr. Helen Fisher: I did a study of almost 1,100 married people and I asked them a lot of questions. But one of the questions was, would you remarry the person you’re currently married to? And 81% said, yes. So we may be walking toward, going towards relative family stability.
You know, I’ve studied marriage in 80 cultures through the demographic yearbooks of the United Nations, and it’s very clear that the later you marry, the more likely you are to remain married. And that’s what these millennials are doing. Not only that, but compared to people who marry in less than a year of knowing each other – those people who marry after one or two years of courtship are 20% less likely to divorce. And those who court for three or years before they wed, are 39% less likely to divorce.
So there’s a great many cultural trends here. The later marriage, the long period of pre-commitment, getting to know somebody carefully before you wed, having lots of sexual experience and romantic experience before they wed, and marrying after a long courtship, that all speaks for relative stability and marriage in years to come.
Dr. Wendy Walsh: And that’s what millennials are doing, practicing slow love.
Female: He was my like work crush, and then I actually quit that job. And the next week we went out on a date, and we had sex the first night. But I was like so enamored with him right away. So enamored, like I was ready to be exclusive, ready to be all in on him right away, but I had to kind of pump the brakes because I didn’t want to come on too strong. I know he was enjoying our time together, but I think he was thinking of it way more casually than I was.
Dr. Wendy Walsh: In this case, the man took time to assess his female partner. Three months later, they had the conversation and decided to publicly become boyfriend and girlfriend. And then?
Female: We were together for about a year and a half before he moved in. Or I actually just moved into his place.
Dr. Wendy Walsh: Are you still assessing him to be a possible husband?
Female: Actually, funny enough, I was talking with a friend, she was asking if we would get married soon. And I said, “No way. I’m in no rush. I love him, he loves me, we live together, we’re happy. Why do I need a marriage to change that?”
Dr. Wendy Walsh: Millennials may profess to not want marriage, at least not now, but remember, 86% say they will eventually marry someday.
Female: Down the road, I of course want to be married, have kids, want the white picket fence life, definitely. But right now, I’m young, I don’t know where this life’s going to take me. I hope it’s with him, but for now, don’t need a ring.
Male: Maybe in the future, but it’s not something that’s like at the forefront of my thoughts that, “Oh, I’m looking for a girl to get married with.” It’s okay if I find a girl and we have one of these kinds of relationships that you’re talking about and it progresses, and then it could lead up to that.
Female: As I get older, like I’m in my mid-twenties. As I get older, I think, “No, I want to settle down. Like I want a family, I want kids and I want somebody to come home to and not like worry about.”
Male: It’s going to happen when it happens kind of thing. But I do want to get married at a relatively young age. I don’t want to wait till I’m maybe past 40 or anything like that. But I think it’ll happen in time.
Female: As of right now, I don’t want kids, the two of us don’t have enough money for it to even really matter to combine our finances. So until I have enough money to have a wedding with an open bar, I’m not getting married. That’s my plan.
Dr. Wendy Walsh: For sure, love and marriage are complicated topics. And long-term love isn’t all about hormones and biology. You know, there’s an age old question here. Is love nature or nurture? Do people stay in love and have positive illusions about a romantic partner because they’re genetically wired for this? Or have they learned to have positive thinking and practice behaviors that help them stay in love?
Dr. Helen Fisher: I think it’s both. And one of the things that I – just what we know about the brain, to remain in love, certainly cultivates feelings of empathy. Certainly control your own stress and your own emotions, and certainly overlook what you don’t like (positive illusions). But I would also really try and keep all three of these basic drives alive. Keep the sex drive alive by having sex.
Sex can be extremely good for you. I mean it triggers all kinds of good chemicals. It boosts the immune system, it’s very good for cardiovascular health. It brings oxygen to the brain, it promotes sleep. Sex is good for you with the right person.
I would certainly also do novel things together. Novelty drives up the dopamine system in the brain and can push you over the threshold or sustain feelings of romantic love. So novelty, novelty. Have sex regularly, do novel things together, and certainly to sustain feelings of deep attachment, stay in touch. Hold hands when you’re walking down the street, walk arm in arm, get rid of the two armed chairs and sit together on the couch when you’re watching television at night.
Kiss – kissing drives up the oxytocin system. Any kind of stroking, touching, massaging, kissing can sustain feelings of deep attachment to the person. So certainly laughter is also very important. You should cultivate good, hilarious times together.
And last but not least, we’ve now begun to realize that when you say affectionate things to your partner, it not only reduces cortisol, that’s the stress hormone in them, and also reduces cholesterol and helps with blood pressure and boost the immune system in your partner, but when you say nice things to your partner, it also does all that to you, too.
Dr. Wendy Walsh: Love and marriage may not go together like a horse and carriage. And for some, sex can certainly come before dating. Friendships can have benefits, and a pre-commitment phase can last a really long time.
But the key to navigating the no rules relationship revolution is to be hyper self-aware of what you desire and what you’re experiencing emotionally. And then, communicating those wishes and feelings to your partner. And that’s where relationships become far more about skill than luck. In the end, love, real committed long-term love, is a choice, not a supernatural experience.
I’m Dr. Wendy Walsh. Thanks for listening to this episode of Mating Matters.
Mating Matters is produced in partnership with iHeartMedia. It is researched, interviewed, and written by me, Dr. Wendy Walsh, and it is edited and produced by Brooke Peterson.
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