The riddle is as old as the spark between the first man and woman who ever locked eyes across a cave: Why do we love?
Those first hunters and gatherers likely got together so they wouldn’t starve to death alone. For millennia, practicality ruled. Status, wealth, her family’s number of cows — these were far more important reasons to choose a mate than some fuzzy notion of romantic connection.
Since then, things have changed. We seek out the spark any way we can. Love today is a big business — see dating sites, pop songs, romance novels, rom-coms, Hallmark, etc. But if you believe love is overhyped, think again.
According to renowned couples therapist and relationship researcher Dr. Sue Johnson, the desire for that explosive, shout-it-from-the-rooftops, knee-melting connection with another human being is actually the prime driver of our species. We are hard-wired to form deep bonds with another person — bonds that can measurably enhance our lives.
In her new book "Love Sense: The Revolutionary New Science of Romantic Relationships," Dr. Johnson shares a number of compelling studies that reveal the beneficial effects of love. Forget the divorce rate and the disenchanted -- turns out the spark has been a pretty big deal all along.
1. Love lessens our physical perception of pain and threat
In a groundbreaking experiment, Dr. Jim Coan at the University of Virginia gathered a group of happily married women and put them in a functional MRI machine. (Rather than just showing static, structural images of the brain, this type of MRI measures which areas “light up” when a person is exposed to various stimuli.)
Once in the machines, the women were shown pictures of x’s and small circles. They were told that when they saw an x, there was a 20 percent chance that an electric shock would be delivered to their ankles. After they received each shock, they rated how much it hurt.
At various times, the women faced the threat alone, with a stranger holding their hands, or with their husbands holding their hands.
When they were alone and saw an x, alarm signals raged through their brain. They rated subsequent shocks as very painful. But then the study took a fascinating turn. The presence of strangers diminished their alarm and pain, though the shocks were the same strength. And when their husbands were by their sides, their brains barely responded to the threat of the x’s — and they rated the shocks as merely uncomfortable.
On a neurobiological level, love makes us feel safe.
“It helps us deal with our pure existential anxieties that we are small, vulnerable human beings in a great big indifferent world,” Dr. Johnson says.
2. Loving contact in very early life benefits emotional development
The catch phrase in evolutionary psychology is no longer the “survival of the fittest,” but rather, “survival of the most nurtured.”
Psychologist Michael Meaney of McGill University in Montreal did a study showing that rats who were intensely nurtured with lots of licking and grooming as pups grew up to handle danger and fear more adaptively than their less-loved counterparts.
Such highly nurtured rats remained calm even when researchers dropped them into canisters of water. The rats also registered lower levels of stress hormones than the neglected group.
3. Loving contact in childhood can "switch off" bad genes
The geneticist Danielle Dick of Virginia Commonwealth University collected DNA from 400 adolescents who had been followed from birth. She analyzed their genetic profiles for variations in a gene called CHRM2 that is associated with alcohol dependence, antisocial behavior and depression.
The teens possessing the variant who had distant, unengaged parents showed the most undesirable behavior — violence and delinquency. But the teens with the variant who had more involved, nurturing parents had fewer such problems.
These results are similar to many others affirming that life experience can affect gene expression, and that close loving care early in life can have a profound impact later on.
4. Love can protect against addiction
Research at Duke University reveals that rat pups who received lots of loving contact from their mothers had higher brain levels of interleukin-10, a molecule that suppresses a craving for morphine.
In a similar study, prairie voles who were monogamously bonded responded less to the rewarding effects of amphetamines in the brain.
5. Feeling secure in a loving relationship makes us more open to the world
Psychologist Barbara Frederickson at the University of Michigan performed an experiment in which she asked people to view videos showings three types of situations: joyful ones, angry and fearful ones, or emotionally neutral ones. Volunteers were told to imagine themselves in the scene, and then afterwards were asked what they wanted to do next.
Those who had just watched the joyful clips came up with more and varied possible actions than those who had watched the distressing or neutral clips.
Positive emotions invigorate us to take part in the world, and few experiences bring as much joy as a loving bond.
“We’re much more confident when someone has our back,” Dr. Johnson explains.
6. Love can protect your immune system
The results of a study by psychiatrist Janice Kiecolt-Glasser found that recently separated or divorced women had decreased immune functioning compared with married women.
Dr. Johnson reports that married patients who have coronary bypass surgery are three times more likely to be alive 15 years later than their unmarried counterparts.
Some psychologists, like Bert Uchino of the University of Utah, go so far as to declare that a loving relationship is more valuable than diet or exercise in sustaining good health.
7. Love can help you better cope with painful emotions
Dr. Johnson identifies three different styles of bonding: secure, anxious and avoidant.
Those who form secure attachments, she says, “have a sense in their bones that their partner is there for them. Security is this profound level of trust and confidence that you matter to someone and that they will come when you call.”
Anxiously attached people, by contrast, worry that they don’t matter to anyone enough, and so seek constant reassurance. People who form avoidant bonds are uncomfortable depending on others and resist opening up to their partners.
A brain-scan study conducted by psychologist Omri Gillath at the University of Kansas found that women who were in secure partnerships were better equipped to process difficult emotions like grief and loss than women whose bonding styles were anxious or avoidant.
When confronted with emotionally distressing scenarios, the securely attached women showed less activity in the brain region that processes sadness, the anterior temporal pole.
8. Love can be a source of not just good sex, but lasting passion
According to stereotype, sex between long-term partners gets dull and routine. But that doesn't have to be the reality.
The more we connect emotionally, Dr. Johnson says, the more we connect sexually. A secure bond can lead to increased intimacy and adventurousness.
In his survey research of sex in America, sociologist Edward Laumann finds that long-term happy lovers have more sex and enjoy it more than singles. This fits with bonding studies by psychologists like Deborah Davis at the University of Nevada, in which lovers with stable loving bonds were more willing to experiment sexually and reported enjoying sex more than those whose attachments were less solid.
9. With help, even damaged bonds can be repaired
Dr. Johnson is the one of the originators of Emotionally Focused Therapy, which “helps people make sense of their strongest emotions — especially their longings, needs, and fears.”
Couples who take part in EFT and learn how to read and respond to each other’s signals actually undergo measurable changes in their brains.
In a recent landmark study, Dr. Johnson teamed up with Dr. Jim Coan for a variation of his shock study. Instead of recruiting happily married women, they found women who were insecurely bonded with their partners.
These women were scanned in an fMRI machine and given shocks just like in the original study — alone, with a stranger, or with their husbands. Their brains lit up with alarm while alone, which eased a little with a stranger. But unlike the group of happily married women, holding hands with their husbands did little, if anything, to mitigate their sensations of alarm and pain.
Then, after the couples underwent 20 sessions of EFT, the study was repeated. This time, when the women were with their husbands, the brain region that regulates emotion — the prefrontal cortex — did not even activate in response to the alarm cues. And when the women received a shock, they rated their pain as just uncomfortable, like the group of happily married women.
“I never expected to see the lack of activation in those women’s brains that we saw,” Dr. Johnson reflects. “But what science is saying is this impact [of secure bonding] is absolutely huge.”
10. We can depend on love for the long haul
It’s not necessarily true that human beings are wired for promiscuity or that monogamous passion is doomed to shrivel over time.
In her latest study, Dr. Johnson found that as couples became closer and more securely bonded in therapy, their satisfaction with their sex life improved as well, and they were still feeling that passion when she followed up with them two years later.
The research on sex and bonding she summarizes in her latest book sends a clear message: We have many wonderful reasons to love love.