The Chemistry of Love

Romance love marriage couple holding hands

In our Cover Story this Valentine's Day Tracy Smith explores the mystery of what it is that attracts two people to each other. Many would say it all comes down to having the right chemistry, and increasingly science seems to back that up:

They make it seem so . . . effortless. But the residents of this D.C.-area retirement home are the superstars of love.

"I'm still physically attracted to her. I think she's a nice-looking woman," said Phil Weiner.

"People talk about working on a marriage, and I think that's a very strange thing to do," said Doris Teti. "I think it just has to happen. I think it has to be there."

Aber and Shirley Dearfield have been married for nearly 60 years. The Pasternaks are coming up on 44.
James Kennedy said of himself and his wife, "Here we are, 56-some half years later. Trying to find out if it's gonna work!" he laughed.

Most of the couples here have been together for decades. But to those who think this kind of romance is an eternal mystery, take heart: Scientists are now closer to understanding what these people have known all along.

A recent UCLA study shows that the very sight of a loved one can ease your pain.

In the study, 25 couples in long-term relationships were brought to a lab, and the woman was subjected to pain - in this case, a bearable but unpleasant burning sensation.

Then, each woman was asked to rate her pain on a scale while holding her loved one's hand. Sarah Master and Naomi Eisenberger were surprised at the results.

"We indeed found that women holding their partner's hand reported significantly less pain than holding a stranger's hand or inanimate object," said Master. "But what was really interesting was that we found parallel results using the photographs."

In other words, the women reported that the experiment actually hurt less when they were looking at pictures of their loved ones . . . even though the burning sensation they were subjected to stayed the same.

Love, it turns out, can be a powerful drug.

"It's amazing to me that love can have the same effect as Acetaminophen, as Tylenol.

"It's better than Tylenol!" said anthropologist Helen Fisher, who has looked at love for years. She says affairs of the heart are often functions of the brain.

"The brain is built to respond," Fisher said. "We are an animal that is built to love. We're built to love."

Fisher, with colleagues Bianca Acevedo and Lucy Brown, did brain scans on couples who'd been in love for decades, and found that the sight of your long-time mate triggers the same brain reaction as new love.

"When you've just fallen in love, when you've been rejected in love, and when you're in long-term love, the same brain region that makes dopamines becomes activated," said Fisher.

In simple terms, one of the parts of the brain involved in rewards and cravings - the ventral tegmental area (or VTA) - is flooded with the chemical dopamine when you do something pleasurable (like, say, eat chocolate) or see someone you're in love with . . . no matter how many years you've known them.

Fisher and neurologist Lucy Brown of the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York also scanned college students in the throes of young love, and found that the part of the brain that makes true love so durable also makes rejection so agonizing.

"When you've been dumped, you're still madly in love with the person," said Brown. "As a matter of fact, looking at a picture of the person still brings you some reward. And that's part of the problem. I wish it didn't!"

It's true: Science can't completely save us from heartbreak, but according to author Tara Parker-Pope, it can help.

"I think science teaches us the value of love and can help us make better decisions," said Parker-Pope.

Her upcoming book "For Better: The Science of a Good Marriage" (Dutton) describes the science behind relationships, including a study that delved into why exotic dancers make more money some weeks than others.

"They looked at strippers and they looked at the tips that they earned over the course of their menstrual cycle," said Parker-Pope, "and what they found was, at the time when the strippers were most fertile, at the time when their fertility peaked, that's when their tips were the highest. When they were the least likely to conceive, their tips were very low - and there was a wide gap.

"What it shows is that there's a whole lot going on beyond the conscious mind, beyond conscious decision-making, when we find ourselves drawn to another person and attracted to another person."

But beyond animal attraction, there's a mathematical ratio that can predict whether love lasts: 5 to 1. Five positive interactions to every one negative, like a critical comment, said Parker-Pope:

"A pat on the shoulder or a squeeze of the hand or a 'Honey, you look pretty today' or 'Gosh, I'm proud of you' or 'I like you in that suit.' Those little moments are highly protective of a marriage, and good marriages have them at least on a 5-to-1 basis.

Of course, few (if any) of these studies were published when our long-term couples were courting. But you don't really need science to tell you this is love.

"We're very thankful for each other, still feel that," said Phil Weiner. "And the older you grow, and the longer you have the relationship, the more you realize how fortunate you are to have a partner like this."

"Yeah, and still be together!" laughed Diana Weiner.

"To me, she's like half of my life," one man said. "Without her, I could not survive."

One man who claimed not to know how to put it into words summed it up this way: "Solid as a rock woman. There you go."

For more info:
"For Better: The Science of a Good Marriage" by Tara Parker-Pope