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A system for romance

19 March 2008

I am very interested in research on human relationships, especially research that provides insight into romantic relationships. At first blush, "research into romance" seems the most un-romantic thing in the world. It conjures up images of white-coated scientists and bubbling test-tubes, trying to reduce the magical experience of love into a chemical cocktail.

But I believe human behavior is governed by systems. Some of those systems are related to our environment, the cycle of day and night, the seasons. Others are governed by our biology, our hormones and other chemical and electrical messengers in our brains.

Those systems set the parameters for our experience of being human, from what it feels like to stub your toe to why you favor one person over another and even for why you fall in love with that one special person.

Can you have a system for love?

I don't believe that you can have a system for love any more than you could buy a book that could give you precise directions for your drive to work this morning "08:45:02, avoid cyclist that pulls out of road on left.." But relationship research can give us a road map, guidelines that will help us on our own unique journey.

Is your relationship on autopilot?

Have you ever set off on a journey in the car only to find that you went in the wrong direction - perhaps going on the route you always take to work or school?

Those experiences show that we have an autopilot, a system that is quite able to work our bodies toward a goal that we didn't actively choose. It's scary when you think about it, suggesting that we don't control as much about ourselves as we think we do. Generally we try not to think too much about it, we'd prefer to think that it's something that only happens to us when we're driving.

That's a comforting thought but I don't believe it. I think many of us have large parts of our lives on autopilot. Making every decision is hard, it's easier to let our subconscious handle the day-to-day stuff while we work on the really important right-now things that really need our attention.

Unfortunately the day-to-day stuff often includes our romantic lives. Think about it, did you decide to fall in love with that special someone or did it just happen? Do you decide to love your partner or is that just something you feel? Could you choose not to love them?

So how much of our experience of love do we really get to choose? For most of us our experience of love is like a fantastic all-inclusive tour organized by our subconscious. Sure, we get to make some decisions "Should I marry this person?", "What color will the wedding cake be?" but in many ways we are following our own variation of the great script of human romantic experience.

And it can be a beautiful ride. The Beatles were right when they sang "Love is all you need". Love underpins all the greatest human experiences and ultimately brings meaning to our lives. Our subconscious minds often know what they are doing, picking out someone really great to spend the rest of our lives with, deciding who would be a good match for us based on all kinds of information we aren't even aware of - the compatibility of their DNA, their chemical messengers, how they taste and smell.

So where does it go wrong?

Our subconscious scripts aren't perfect and our autopilots - our default "unchosen" behavior can lead us wrong. We find ourselves making the same mistakes our parents did, we wake up one day and wonder "How did I get here?". Something goes wrong with the system that was supposed to guide us through a life of happiness with our perfect partner and we end up going into the blind corners and through bad neighborhoods, rocky-patches and even divorce.

Unless we can work out what went wrong we may be doomed to repeat the same mistakes with every partner - a kind of relationship "Groundhog Day" where we do the same things over and over until we eventually "get it" and break the cycle.

That's where understanding the systems that underpin and inform our behaviors comes in. Why do all my relationships turn abusive? Why doesn't he remember our anniversary? Why does she always want to talk during my favorite TV show? Why, when I want to be close do they pull away? Why don't we have anything in common any more?

I want the answers to these questions, and more because when you understand the systems that want to push you in a certain direction you have the knowledge to change that system, to get away from the scripted behavior and make your own real decisions. Every autopilot needs correcting sometimes, too many of us are staring out the window as our relationship spirals down, wondering why someone doesn't do something to stop it.

I hope you find something to help you improve your romantic relationship in these pages.


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