This Is Your Brain on Sex
Helen Fisher is a senior research fellow at the Kinsey Institute, a member of the Center for Human Evolutionary Studies in the Department of Anthropology at Rutgers University, and chief scientific advisor to the internet dating site match.com. Her books include Anatomy of Love: A Natural History of Mating, Marriage, and Why We Stray, Why Him? Why Her?: How to Find and Keep Lasting Love, and Why We Love: The Nature and Chemistry of Romantic Love.
Helen Fisher: You can know every single ingredient in a piece of chocolate cake, but then, when you sit down and eat it, you just feel that rush of joy. And in the same way, I know a lot about love. I know a lot about marriage. I know a lot about adultery and divorce; I know something about the brain; I certainly know — hopefully know something about evolution. But I’m just like you and everybody else: When it hits you, you’re off to the races.
There’s been times that I’ve walked towards the phone, saying, “Don’t call him, Helen. This isn’t a good idea, Helen” — as I’m punching the buttons on the phone and calling him. So bottom line is, there’s been times when I’ve met a man who I could have really loved, and I knew, immediately, no, no. Don’t go there. Whereas, I think, if you don’t know how powerful love is, you might try, when, in fact, it’s not the right idea.
[music: “Seven League Boots” by Zoe Keating]
Ms. Tippett: Helen Fisher knows how powerful love is, as a leading anthropologist/explorer on the new frontier of seeing inside our brains when love and sex happen. In her TED talks that have been viewed by millions of people, and the research she does for Match.com, she wields science as a sobering, if entertaining, lens on what feel like the most meaningful encounters of our lives. In this wonderfully personal conversation, Helen Fisher reveals how we can take this knowledge as a form of power for giving conscious new meaning to the thrilling, and sometimes treacherous, human realms of love and sex.
I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being.
[music: “Seven League Boots” by Zoe Keating]
Ms. Tippett: Helen Fisher is a senior research fellow at the Kinsey Institute and chief scientific advisor to the internet dating site, Match.com. I spoke with her in 2014.
Ms. Tippett: I always ask whoever I’m speaking with if there was a religious or spiritual background to their childhood, however you might define that.
Ms. Fisher: None.
Ms. Tippett: None; really?
Ms. Fisher: I had no religious education at all. I grew up in an entirely lily-white, Christian community in Connecticut, and when it came time for Sunday school, my father said to me and to my twin sister, “I’d be happy to take you to the church on my way to play tennis, but you’re going to have to find your own ride home.” And so I went once and got a ride home with Margot Evermann’s family, and that was it. The rest of my Sundays were spent playing with my twin sister, and I never went again.
I’m actually going to a church right now, up in Harlem, and I originally went for the gospel music. But this particular preacher actually says something. I’d like to have an experience in which I come home thinking about something. This is one of the reasons that I love the theater, particularly people like Ibsen — because you come away from it with ideas: ideas about yourself, ideas about the world.
I happen to be an atheist, and I always have been. I don’t know if you’ve ever looked at the Hubble Telescope site on the internet, but when you take a look at what’s out there, it’s so staggering — reality is so staggering. The real meanings of life, for me, are in reality, I guess.
Ms. Tippett: Well, that’s one of those — you talk a lot in your work about how we are reversing 10,000 years of habit, and I think — we’re doing that in many spheres, and I think religion is not going to look the same in the next century as it did in the 20th century.
Ms. Fisher: That’s a wonderful way — I had not thought about that. That’s wonderful.
Ms. Tippett: So where do you trace, really, the — I’m just curious — can you trace the earliest origins of this — of love and romance and this drive in us as something that you had this special curiosity about that you started to pursue?
Ms. Fisher: People have always asked me why I study love. And — so this is in hindsight — I’m an identical twin. And long before I knew that there was a nature/nurture controversy, I was very busy trying to measure how much of my own behavior was biological and how much of it was cultural.
And as a child, I was very interested in people. I lived in this glass house, and my neighbors lived in a glass house. And by the time I was six and seven, I would sneak into the woods and sit on an old stone wall and watch them eat dinner.
And I’ve always been interested in why we’re all alike, as opposed to why we’re all different. So when it came time for my Ph.D. dissertation, I figured that if there was any part of us at all that we had, all, in common, it would be our reproductive strategies. It would be our sex lives, our romantic lives, and our reproductive lives.
Ms. Tippett: When I was reading about your research and what you’re learning — as somebody who has been married and divorced, but also — I think so many of us who are single, but not just single people, look around the world today at the matter of love, and it feels like there’s just a lot of disarray. Now, whether there’s more disarray than there ever has been, who knows? Maybe we know all the stories too much.
Ms. Fisher: I think it is a time of disarray.
Ms. Tippett: Obviously, marriage and divorce has been in flux. One of the things that was interesting to me about your science is, you do describe what happens in the brain as — has hallmarks of temporary insanity. It has obsessiveness — I think you’ve said that the chief hallmark is that obsessiveness. And I just — I pulled out this passage from a novel. And I know you also like to work with literature and poetry.
Ms. Fisher: I do.
Ms. Tippett: Julian Fellowes, who created Downton Abbey — but he wrote this novel, and I just loved this passage when I found it. He said, “Lust, that state commonly known as ‘being in love,’ is a kind of madness. It is a distortion of reality so remarkable that it should, by rights, enable most of us to understand the other forms of lunacy with the sympathy of fellow-sufferers. And yet, as we all know, it is a madness that, however ferocious, seldom, if ever, lasts. But, paradoxically, mad and suffering as one is in the heat of the flame, few of us are glad as we feel that passion slip away.” He goes on.
Ms. Fisher: What a beautiful — what a beautiful…
Ms. Tippett: It goes on: “No, while most people have been at their unhappiest when in love, it is nevertheless the state the human being yearns for above all.” [laughs]
Ms. Fisher: In fact, parts of the brain associated with decision-making begin to shut down when you’re in love.
Ms. Tippett: [laughs] And that makes so much sense.
Ms. Fisher: Literally, the blood rolls out instead of rolling in. And so they begin to — begins to shut down — and of course; for obvious reasons. This brain system of romantic love — and I do think it’s different from lust; I do think they’re very different brain systems. But romantic love evolved for that reason, to enable you to overlook everything in order to be with this human being.
And of course, that’s what you really need to do to start that mating process, because bottom line is that if you have four children, and I have no children, you live on, and I die out. The game of love matters. It matters, big time. It enables you to send your DNA on into tomorrow. And so we’ve evolved a brain system — and attachment’s a very strong brain system too, but it’s not the same, quite, insanity — maybe a different form of insanity. But it evolved to be so strong that some people will leave their community. They’ll leave their town. They’ll leave their family. They’ll go to a different country. They’ll learn a new language. They will start all over with their lives to do this thing.
And then, you wake up a few years later, and — people wonder why love — why that early state of intense romantic passion begins to die. And bottom line is, it takes a lot of metabolic energy. You don’t eat. You don’t sleep. You don’t think about anything else. You focus on this person constantly. You change your hair. You change your life. You change your clothes. You change your friends. You do a million different things in order to win and be part of this relationship, and you can’t tolerate that forever. Not only will you run out of energy, but you can’t really have a child sitting there at dinner and the two of you racing around the dinner table after each other. [laughs]
Ms. Tippett: Right, but so that’s what, I think — and you have described all of this and what’s happening in the brain in terms of this brew of neurotransmitters and hormones.
Ms. Fisher: “Brew” is a wonderful word. Never heard that.
Ms. Tippett: So interesting. And yet, it’s a whole different set of qualities that we need to have — that we need to be manifesting personally, and, also, in that relationship, in order to actually be good parents.
Ms. Fisher: That’s exactly — and that’s one of the reasons I say to people, “Don’t marry him or her until some of that intensity has worn off.”
Ms. Tippett: Really? You do say that?
Ms. Fisher: So that you really know more about who you’re going to have a partnership with. It’s very interesting, because I now study personality, and I read an article not long ago about the fact that you really actually don’t get to know somebody very well until about 18 months are over. And of course, if it’s in a good relationship, you keep learning things about them 30 years later, when their parents die, if a child dies, if you suddenly have to move, or you lose all your money, or you make a lot of money — you’re going to learn a whole lot of new things about somebody.
I think that’s one of the problems with American marriage. We somehow think that the minute you marry, you lock the door and stay in place, whereas relationships evolve, and a good one is constantly evolving.
Ms. Tippett: Was it Margaret Mead who said everyone should have three marriages, even if it’s to the same person?
Ms. Fisher: Yes — oh, how wonderful.
Ms. Tippett: That everybody should have three marriages and, even if it’s the same person, that the marriage has to become something new at a different stage in life.
Ms. Fisher: Oh, that’s wonderful. I know that she said that the first one is for sex, the second one is for children, and the third one is for companionship.
Ms. Tippett: But what’s so interesting, again, about the way you’re able to break this down is — this first part of it, this falling in love part of it, this passion, this madness, which then leads to this commitment, is just instinctive. It’s not only built into us, it almost takes us over.
Ms. Fisher: No question about it. It takes over the brain.
Ms. Tippett: Takes over the brain; but then, this other part — the part about raising children, the part about crafting a long-term love — moving into those next two marriages, if you want to use that analogy — we’re so unprepared for.
Ms. Fisher: Well, this is why, when you said we were in a time of disorganization — and we are. We are shedding 10,000 years of our farming background and all of the concepts that arose with that — the fact that a woman’s place is in the home; women don’t have a head for business; men should be the head of the family; men should be the sole family provider; “till death do us part” — all of that is vanishing before our very eyes, 10,000 years of these concepts. And so we’re at this time of disorganization, where nobody knows, really, how to go forward.
But it gives us great opportunities to build the kinds of partnerships that we really want. And one of the beautiful things about what you just said is that, OK, well, we don’t really know how to parent, and we don’t really know much about this person. And so what we’re doing now is getting into relationships very slowly. And that’s the beauty of this…
Ms. Tippett: And that’s a shift that you’re seeing now, demographically.
Ms. Fisher: …these one-night-stands; the friends with benefits; the living together before you’re getting married; more and more people are having children before they marry. And so they are beginning to really understand a human being before they sink the boat into a mutual thing.
Ms. Tippett: And I think it’s important to dwell on that, because what you are saying is that, especially generationally, you can — and I have children who are 16 and 20. And you can say…
Ms. Fisher: Boys? Girls?
Ms. Tippett: A boy — a 16-year-old boy, a 20-year-old girl. Actually, she just turned 21. And you can worry — parents can worry about, as you say, the casual sex, the friends with benefits, which feels just really suspect and irresponsible and scary. But you’re saying that that’s not necessarily about them being flaky or casual, but it’s a manifestation of being cautious.
Ms. Fisher: Not only being cautious; really learning something about this person. Now, most people know all about contraception, so that worry is — should be no longer with us. And most people know about disease, and so that — they should be able to monitor that. And so some of the riskiest parts of living with somebody are gone. And, of course, parents are now accepting their children living with somebody, so they don’t even have the social stigma of it; and their social circles are accepting it. So a lot of people almost intuitively reason, “I’ve got no reason to not do this. And I’ve got huge reasons to really get to know this person.”
Ms. Tippett: Well, and especially when so many people now are growing up in homes where there was — where marriages have failed.
Ms. Fisher: Exactly, and they’ve seen it around them.
Ms. Tippett: Or — not just them, but all their friend groups — I think of my kids. And then there’s this interesting thing that’s happening now with the fluidity of family, of all the forms of family. There is no model.
Ms. Fisher: Right, we’re seeing a new form called — that I call the “association.” And I’m really excited about it, because it’s groups of friends. And I live in New York. My — both parents are deceased. My older sister lives in Europe, my brother’s dead, and my twin sister lives in Europe. So I really — Thanksgiving is a challenge for me. And I’m between men, so that’s a real challenge. And so I have a group of friends who I see, and I see them regularly.
And they’re the ones that’ll come to the hospital if I’m sick. They’re the ones that I will call to say that I made a speech that people liked. And it’s an association of friends that is my real family. And it’s interesting, how a lot of young people — they’re much closer to their association than they are to their own family. So Christmas and holidays become very stressful for them because they go home to families that they really don’t know very well and who don’t really know them. They don’t know these people they way they know the people they hang around with in New York City. So we’re building new forms of family.
[music: “Singular” by Ryan Teague]
Ms. Tippett: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being. Today, with anthropologist of love and sex, Helen Fisher.
[music: “Singular” by Ryan Teague]
Ms. Tippett: I wonder if you’ve also paid any attention to something I’m aware of as a parent of teenage children, and I hear a lot of people talking about it, is that even this romance piece seems to happen collectively, in groups. Dating is not what it used to be. You don’t invite the girl to go to a movie and dinner. You go out with a group of friends, and then, somehow, people are coupled. But it’s a very different pattern.
Ms. Fisher: And even that, I think, is cautious. First of all, they don’t have a lot of money, and dinner these days costs a lot. And once you start having dinner with somebody, you are expressing a genuine interest. But if you casually go out with a group, and you go dancing, and then you all end up having breakfast at 2 a.m. in some place, and — you can get to know somebody. It’s the expanding pre-commitment stage. And there is, I think, a Darwinian wisdom to that.
It’s interesting — I was talking to somebody recently who said that actually, the dinner date is coming back. But I haven’t seen the signs of that… [laughs]
Ms. Tippett: No.
Ms. Fisher: …even among older people. I’m older, and I’m forming new friendships in a group. And that’s exactly what’s happening to me: There’s a couple men in that group that I could be interested in, but nobody’s expressed anything; everybody just goes with the group.
Ms. Tippett: [laughs] And you don’t know what the rules of the game are, because it’s a new game.
Ms. Fisher: It’s a new game. Everybody has to make up their own rules, which is both extremely difficult but has great opportunity. For example, with technology, that is changing courtship. It’s not changing love. Once you — whether you meet them on Tinder or Facebook or Match.com, or your girlfriend sets you up, when you meet that person in the bar or at the coffee house, your ancient human brain clicks into action, and you court the way we’ve done it for millions of years.
But bottom line is that courtship — how you meet somebody, what the etiquette is — we’re now building what Margaret Mead called taboos; instead of rules, taboos. One of the new taboos is that 60 percent of people on a date find it extremely rude if their partner, dating partner, pulls out —
Ms. Tippett: Their phone?
Ms. Fisher: …and does a text message or uses their phone in any way. So I do this annual study with Match.com, called “Singles in America,” and we don’t poll the Match population. We poll the American population. It’s based on the U.S. census. And 45 percent of women research a date before they go out. About 33 percent of men do, far fewer men. We don’t know why.
Ms. Tippett: Really?
Ms. Fisher: But my hypothesis is that men are much more afraid of being accused of stalking, and so they’re not going to do that. But what amazes me as an anthropologist is, why doesn’t 100 percent of both men and women research the date? Because it’s natural: For millions of years, we lived in these little hunting and gathering groups, and they would arrive at a water hole, and some girl would see some cute boy at the other side of the water hole. And she didn’t know him.
Ms. Tippett: She’d ask someone about him?
Ms. Fisher: Her mother knew his aunt. Her father knew his brother. She knew what he was going to be when he grew up. She probably knew what his religion was. She probably even knew whether he was a good shot or whether he had a good sense of humor. People for millions of years went into relationships, even on the first date, knowing a good deal about a human being. And we somehow think that it’s natural to walk into a bar and know nothing about somebody, and unnatural to go onto a dating site, where in fact, it really is the reverse.
And now we’re sort of on our own. In the past, our parents…
Ms. Tippett: Right. We don’t have those extended circles of people who know them.
Ms. Fisher: We don’t have any of those extended — and we are missing something. The loss of local community — everybody’s very upset about divorce; divorce has been around for a good four million years. Serial pair-bonding is probably basic to the human animal, series of partnerships. But what is really unusual, for me, is the loss of local community. We have extended communities — we have our internet friends; we’ve got our work friends; we’ve got our people who we exercise with; we’ve got people who we go to a poetry conference with — whatever it is. But we don’t have local community.
Ms. Tippett: Well, and the other thing I’ve thought about some, over the years, is how marriages are such lonely — the nuclear family is very unnatural in human history, for these same reasons: that marriages and families would have been embedded in networks of other marriages and other families and elders and cross-generational…
Ms. Fisher: So well said. So well said.
Ms. Tippett: And I think it’s like this death blow to marriage as an institution, almost, to have it be this isolated, where you have two people who are left to take everything out on themselves.
Ms. Fisher: People are so upset about this — a single mother, or a single father. I’m upset, like you are, about the two of them. They’re all by themselves.
And it’s so interesting — I have a housekeeper who comes every two weeks, and I just adore this woman, and she’s from Ecuador. And I asked her how many people she has for Thanksgiving. She has 50 people for Thanksgiving. I couldn’t scare up ten relatives. I couldn’t do it. But there’s something beautiful about — and that’s, of course, the way we lived for millions of years. So 100,000 years ago, if you divorced, OK, so he walked out of the little camp with his bow and arrow, and that was it. But you still had your mother, your aunts, your uncles, your cousins — a whole pile of people to support your child with you. You had a whole local community. And that’s what’s really disappearing, and that is a real shame. And so it’s part of this age of tremendous transition.
Ms. Tippett: So one of the things I feel comes through in your TED talks — that this drive in us to mate and settle down is just one of the most fundamental things about who we are. But when you talk about these new associations, whatever stage of life we’re at — and I don’t know if this is a true statement, but I think most of us, at any given time, if we had a choice, “Would you have a romantic, sexual relationship or not?” you’d say, “Sure.” — but it’s also possible not to be lonely, without that, and to have very rich lives that are full of love…
Ms. Fisher: Absolutely.
Ms. Tippett: …not that particular form of love, but full of love which doesn’t have insanity attached, which can be kind of a relief.
Ms. Fisher: Exactly. And you don’t have to be annoyed if they leave their socks on the floor one more time.
Ms. Tippett: So do you think this is also — is this a form of progress that we’re charting, this new way of choosing our lives of love and association?
Ms. Fisher: I like the — it’s a wonderful idea. The only thing I would disagree with is, I’m not sure it’s new. Maybe the association part is new, because it was always family, and in that kind of — there’s some beauty in that opportunity for choice. And I think that’s what you’re getting at — we’re moving back into a world where people can make choices. And I would guess, in hunting and gathering societies there are older women who will say, “No. I’m not going for another old man. I’m going to hang around with the group and have a good time with my girlfriends.” [laughs] And we’re back at that; whereas, on the farm, they often married the next day after a partner died, because they needed somebody to milk the cows.
Ms. Tippett: It’s so interesting to have that big, broad lens; that perspective. Well, I remember even learning that 100 years ago, or up until the early — late 19th, early 20th century — was it something like the average marriage lasted for seven years, because life spans were so different?
Ms. Fisher: Isn’t that right?
Ms. Tippett: We could all hang on for seven years — [laughs] almost no matter the marriage.
Ms. Fisher: That’s interesting that you know that. Very few people know that. The lifespan, by the way, has never changed. But the bottom line is, so many people died in infancy and childhood…
Ms. Tippett: And childbirth, yes.
Ms. Fisher: …that the average was reduced. But in the year 1900, the average marriage, I think, was 12 years.
Ms. Tippett: 12.
Ms. Fisher: And the — in the year 1990, the average marriage was also 12 years. But 100 years ago, the marriage ended because somebody died, and these days, it ends because somebody divorces.
Ms. Tippett: So I’m becoming aware, as — we’re speaking very transactionally and biologically about the institution of marriage. And the damage that gets done to children, when marriages fail the way they fail, these days, is significant. And those are the kinds of things that religious people talk about in sacred terms. It is thinking about marriage as an institution that is there to be nurturing and, in particular, to be nurturing to the children. And there’s all this — the religious view of marriage as a sacrament is — it doesn’t really figure in the way you study marriage and look at marriage. And I just — I wonder if you ever have conversations with religious people.
Ms. Fisher: It would be very interesting.
Ms. Tippett: But have you not — do people ever…
Ms. Fisher: They haven’t yet, but maybe you’ll inspire them.
Ms. Tippett: Do you see that as just a — as a way of thinking about marriage that is just completely removed from what you see and work with?
Ms. Fisher: No, I see it as a beautiful —
Ms. Tippett: What would an interesting discussion be for you?
Ms. Fisher: Well, just backing up — hold that thought, because that’s something I really have to think about — what an interesting discussion would be. But I think you’ve started it right now. And I don’t see it as religion supporting marriage. I see the profoundly basic human drive to love and form marriages as so important that we’ve created institutions like religion to support it. So even more important than religion are these profoundly basic human drives to love. And religions then build on that drive to support that drive. But it’s one of mankind’s institutions that is very supportive of love. So what kind of conversation would I like to have with a theologian? Can you tell me?
Ms. Tippett: [laughs] Well, I think maybe someone would say that they — this capacity that we have, not just restricted to romantic love but including that, is just one of the most ennobling and defining characteristics of what it means to be human, at its best. And I think…
Ms. Fisher: And I would agree, of course.
Ms. Tippett: Right. And I think they might be disturbed at your — that the scientific focus that you bring to it — that it might feel reductionistic, what happens in terms of neurotransmitters and hormones and biology. And I wonder how you would engage that discomfort.
Ms. Fisher: Great. You’ve just enabled me to say what — if I’d — when I die, what I’m going to say next is, for me, the one thing I would like humanity to remember. And that is, the more we know about the brain, the body, human evolution; about biology, the more we will come to understand the power of culture to change that biology. Biology and culture and religion — they all go hand-in-hand. They’re all parts of a huge, big system called humanity.
And I don’t feel that they threaten each other. I feel that they enhance one another and that a truly religious person, if they have any imagination, can benefit from understanding that the love of God is in all of us, in some form; that it’s biologically based — it’s not going away; and that it’s part of humanity. So I don’t see a big dichotomy that other people might see. I see a tremendous union between the intellectual, the spiritual, and the biological. I think they work together as a team.
[music: “Liminal Space” by Ryan Teague]
Ms. Tippett: You can listen again and share this conversation with Helen Fisher through our website, onbeing.org. I’m Krista Tippett. On Being continues in a moment.
[music: “Liminal Space” by Ryan Teague]
Ms. Tippett: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being. Today, in a wide-ranging, personal conversation with the anthropologist/explorer of the science of love, sex, and marriage, Helen Fisher. She’s well-known for her TED talks and her research for Match.com, where she’s chief science advisor. When we fall in love, it turns out, it’s dopamine that makes us feel obsessed with the object of our desire, while chemicals released during sex activate a profound sense of bonding.
Ms. Tippett: Another thing from your science that I was applying to that is, you talked about how casual sex doesn’t really remain casual.
Ms. Fisher: It’s not casual, unless you’re so drunk you can’t remember.
Ms. Tippett: And why? And why? How you can explain it, it’s because of — what is set off, in your brain and your body, conspires to make you start feeling attached to this person.
Ms. Fisher: Or in love; or both.
Ms. Tippett: Or in love.
Ms. Fisher: And when you have an orgasm, you get a real flood of oxytocin and vasopressin. And these are the basic bodily and brain systems for attachment.
Ms. Tippett: It’s like what mothers get when they love their babies. It’s a primal…
Ms. Fisher: Don’t have sex with somebody you don’t want to feel something for. I mean, people can do what they want to do. I’m not in the “should” business. But the bottom line is, if you don’t want to get attached to somebody, it’s easier to not sleep with them. [laughs]
Ms. Tippett: [laughs] Right.
Ms. Fisher: Because you might end up being attached to somebody who really does not fit into your life.
Ms. Tippett: And I think, as — again, in this new world — I grew up in a very conservative, strict, Southern Baptist, small town, where you were saving yourself for marriage. And this was just an absolute. And now I kind of look back on that and see it as helpful, in a way: It provided boundaries that were good so that you didn’t — I actually see, these rules had a point.
Ms. Fisher: Human animal needs boundaries. And here we are in a society now where we don’t have any rules. Nobody knows what to do.
Ms. Tippett: And even in very religious cultures like that, where people are crafting their path towards marriage with these religious rules, I still think all the messages that are coming at them — about who you marry and about the romance of that — are coming from movies with happy endings and all the love songs that we just — that we’re awash in, at that age.
Ms. Fisher: I remember —
Ms. Tippett: And I wanted to ask you about that, because I guess one of my deeper concerns here, in this subject, is that somehow — I love your idea that this knowledge is power, and somehow, our brains take us through these several, very powerful stages to getting to the point of being with other people. But somehow, we need to figure out how to be intelligent and caring in this matter of long-term love, and it seems like we have almost — it seems like our brains don’t do that for us.
Ms. Fisher: It’s such a good point, because Americans love romantic love. We just love romantic love. But we don’t pay much attention to attachment.
Ms. Tippett: No.
Ms. Fisher: And it’s very interesting — I was on some radio with a guy from China. It was a great learning moment, for me, because I was talking about romantic love and how you can remain in love long-term, as well as loving the person, and you can sustain this long-term romantic love in a deep attachment. And he said, “Why would you want to do that?”
Ms. Tippett: [laughs] Right.
Ms. Fisher: Because they admire attachment, or, at least, he did. And he was representing the Chinese perspective that, “OK, romantic love comes, and romantic love goes. What’s really powerfully important is that feeling of deep attachment to a human being.”
And at that moment, I said, “Oh, right, Helen. You’ve just been a member of your own culture, and you’ve not realized that other cultures, historically…”
Ms. Tippett: The attachment itself is a wonderful thing.
Ms. Fisher: That’s what he was telling me. And we celebrate romantic love, and we do not really celebrate attachment. And in fact — I remember a line from a poem that a friend of mine wrote, which was, “We are lied to by our love songs.” Because they always end up with a happy ending. But what is it about Americans that — we’ve been lied to by our love songs; we want to believe it; we do see it in the movies, rejection — but we have rose-colored glasses on.
Ms. Tippett: And I just also feel like, with all this change that we’ve talked about, with new, up-and-coming generations — it being a complete matter of choice for them. And then, the fact that we’re all living longer. We have so many decades, potentially…
Ms. Fisher: To live with somebody.
Ms. Tippett: …to have — to be married; to have all kinds of relationships; or to have a marriage that, as Margaret Mead said, might evolve to be a few marriages, to survive. I just feel like, somehow, we have to grab hold of this and become learners.
Ms. Fisher: I think the young are.
Ms. Tippett: You do?
Ms. Fisher: Yeah, in this “Singles in America” — not everybody, but in this “Singles in America” study that I do with Match.com, we ask them, “What must you have in a relationship?” And, “What’s very important?” And they must have somebody they can trust and confide in. They must have somebody who respects them. They must have somebody who makes them laugh, which actually is very important, biologically…
Ms. Tippett: I just love that. I love it.
Ms. Fisher: …because laughter drives up the dopamine system. It’s very good for you. Laughter’s very good for you. They must have somebody who spends enough time — gives them enough time. And they must have somebody that they find physically attractive. We are turning inwards. We are trying to build, now, the most important relationship.
And when I ask the questions like — they are very in favor of marriage without children. They are very in favor of children without marriage. They’re very in favor of living together. What they will not tolerate is commuter marriages, people living in separate homes, people living in separate bedrooms. They want total transparency in the relationship. They want to have access to the person’s cell phone. A great many of them would walk out, even, on a date who hides what they’re saying on their phone or their texts.
I think they’re looking for a really special kind of relationship. One hundred years ago, sure, you had a nice husband, and that was great. But you also had very profound relationships with all your other people in the local community. And so the partnership didn’t have the same profound intimacy, because it wasn’t all you’ve got. Now your partner’s really all you got. And so we want everything in that partnership.
Ms. Tippett: That’s deadly. [laughs]
Ms. Fisher: So rather than being less serious about that primary relationship, I think we are profoundly more serious about it. I think people are taking this very seriously. There’s never been so many self-help books. There’s never been so many therapies, therapists, and couples therapists, and all kinds of support systems.
Ms. Tippett: So this education is maybe just — it’s happening now. It’s happening in real time.
Ms. Fisher: They don’t want to fail. They’ve seen their parents fail. They’ve seen their friends fail. They’re scared of divorce. Sixty-seven percent of singles, these days, are terrified of the economic and the social and personal fallout from divorce. And we may see a real swing towards really good marriages.
Well, you know, I did this study of married people. I asked these married people — it was 1,000 people in the study, a little over 1,000 — “Would you remarry the person that you are married to now?” And 81% said yes. So — and 76% said that they were still madly in love with this person. And I have friends who’ve done other, similar studies and found the same data. So you’re talking to an optimist. [laughs] That’s probably your problem. [laughs]
[music: “Wet Salt” by Psapp]
Ms. Tippett: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being. Today, with anthropologist of love and sex, Helen Fisher.
[music: “Wet Salt” by Psapp]
Ms. Tippett: Did I read that you were married once, but briefly? Is that right?
Ms. Fisher: I was only married for a few months when I was 23. And I married the wrong person. And actually, the night we decided to divorce was one of our best nights together. And then — well, you know, I was a young hippie in graduate school. It was the ’60s.
Ms. Tippett: OK, all right. [laughs]
Ms. Fisher: And I have then made two very long, powerful, deeply meaningful, and successful relationships. I didn’t marry them, but there was true love.
Ms. Tippett: So how do you think all of these things you know through your science, through your work — how does it — how have you been able to work with that? Or, have you? Is there a limit to — when we talk about the insanity part of the reality of love…
Ms. Fisher: I use the — I don’t know if it’s a metaphor or not — of a piece of chocolate cake. You can know every single ingredient in a piece of chocolate cake, but then, when you sit down and eat it, you just feel that rush of joy. And in the same way, I know a lot about love. I know a lot about marriage. I know a lot about adultery and divorce; I know something about the brain; I certainly know — hopefully know something about evolution. But when it hits you, you’re off to the races.
There’s been times that I’ve walked towards the phone, saying, “Don’t call him, Helen. This isn’t a good idea, Helen. Take control, Helen” — as I’m punching the buttons on the phone and calling him. So bottom line is — it has helped me, though. There’s been times when I’ve met a man who I could have really loved and almost immediately found out that they loved somebody else. And I knew, immediately, no, no. Don’t go there. Whereas, I think, if you don’t know how powerful love is, you might try, when, in fact, it’s not the right idea. So knowing what I’ve known has helped me navigate — but the bottom line is, I’m just like everybody else.
Ms. Tippett: Do you have any theories about, or any perspective on — it seems like the world right now, the world a lot of us inhabit, Western, urban, educated people — is full of amazing single women, [laughs] and men — fewer men who are single, and even fewer men who are as amazing or as appropriate. It feels like the world is out of balance, I think. And again, I may be talking about a certain demographic group. But it doesn’t seem like it’s just 40, 50, and 60-year-olds. It seems like it’s harder for 25-year-olds to know where to look for a mate. So what perspective do you have on that?
Ms. Fisher: Well, first of all, I wrote a book about the natural talents of women and how they’re changing the world. But I am, also, a big proponent of men. And I would say there’s just as many amazing men out there as there are women, in every age group. I don’t think we understand men at all. We’ve spent 50 years trying to bust a lot of myths about women.
Ms. Tippett: About women, right.
Ms. Fisher: And we have spent no years at all, busting the myths about men. But I have a lot of data with this Match.com “Singles in America” study that — and other data too — but that men are just as romantic as women are. I love — there’s an old quote. It comes from a poem. It’s borrowed from a poem by Ted Hughes, and I’ve doctored it a bit. But it’s: “Men and women are like two feet. They need each other to get ahead.” And we are built to work together, play together, love together, live together. And I meet an awful lot of single men in New York City. And they have brains, and they have feelings. They do love, and they want to be loved.
Men fall in love faster than women do, because they’re so visual. They want more public displays of affection. They want to introduce a new partner to friends and family sooner. They want to move in sooner. And when you take a look at the brain — and I’ve put a lot of men into a brain scanner, as I’ve put a lot of women — it lights up exactly the same way when they’re in love; and that deep sense of attachment.
I remember, I was recently with a group of women from the major women’s magazines. We were having a business lunch. And there were three women who couldn’t find a man. They were all really good looking, young, smart, educated, going-somewhere women. And none of them could find a man. I said, “You know what? You said there’s no men around.” I said, “I bet all three of you have at least one man in your life right now who would marry you within a week. You’re picky.” And the bottom line is, we’re picky for a reason. We are the ones that are going to carry that baby for nine months. We’re the ones that are going to go through the danger of delivering that child. We are the ones who are going to raise that child, largely — the real day-to-day work for the first four years, anyway, in every culture in the world. Now, men are changing diapers these days, no question about it. But still, they don’t do it the way women do. Women have to be picky.
But I think we’re going to come to learn that men are just as romantic as women and that women are just as sexual and that we’re going to cast away these beliefs that men are just fools.
Ms. Tippett: That’s really great. This has just been so — I haven’t even looked at my notes. Oh, I guess, maybe, just one last thing. And this is me being — using this as kind of a therapy. [laughs]
Ms. Fisher: Oh, wonderful. [laughs]
Ms. Tippett: For myself.
Ms. Fisher: I’m not a therapist, but I’ll do what I can. [laughs]
Ms. Tippett: [laughs] Well, just maybe two more questions. So I’m in my 50s now.
Ms. Fisher: OK, I’m in my 60s.
Ms. Tippett: In your 60s. And being in your 50s and 60s is just so interesting, and in a way that —
Ms. Fisher: It’s so interesting.
Ms. Tippett: Oh, it’s great.
Ms. Fisher: It is great.
Ms. Tippett: It’s a little awkward, though, on this — it’s uncertain. The trajectory of all of this is different. But one thing that I’m aware of, myself, is, I feel like one of the things that comes with — has come with age, for me, is, I look back at my younger self and my love relationships, and I was so — I realize how much of it was about wanting to be loved and how much of the exhilaration was about being loved. And I want to be more intentional, moving forward, about the adventure of loving.
Ms. Fisher: I had an adventure, recently, that was very interesting. I fell, immediately, for a person in my business world. I would never touch that guy. He was very important in my business world. He’s a happily married guy. And there was no way that Helen Fisher was ever going to put a move on him. Never. And I never did. And for the first time in my life, I would — every time I saw him, my heart would pound, or I’d get a dry mouth. I would try to be a normal person. And I realized that I was going to have to enjoy this feeling all by myself. And I would come home, and I’d lie down and say, “OK, Helen. Just enjoy the feeling of…”
He doesn’t know. He never knew. “…and try to just enjoy the sensation of adoring somebody from the backwoods, from the back pew in the church.” [laughs] And it was a different experience, for me, to not make any kind of move, because young girls do that; you know, they say, “Ah…”
Ms. Tippett: Or you’d think that it meant nothing if you couldn’t make the move.
Ms. Fisher: Exactly. So — but I do think that what goes around comes around, and — if you and I and other people just spend some time loving somebody. And it’s interesting how they respond. A man and I sort of left each other, a couple years ago, and so now I don’t have that intense need for him. I can love him in the way he should have been loved all along: with a deep attachment, a real understanding for who he is, and just giving him the time he needs with other people; not being all upset if I don’t hear from him. Released from that passion, you can finally love somebody in some new ways that can be very comforting, not only for them, but for you. And then you can build a new kind of partnerships with them.
Ms. Tippett: It just feels like what we’re talking about is this kind of maturation of our collective capacity to…
Ms. Fisher: Too bad I didn’t do it sooner. [laughs]
Ms. Tippett: [laughs] Yeah, well, that’s how it goes, that maturation, right? I guess, just — oh, finally, I just wanted to note — I did — actually, Lily, my producer, found this blog that you wrote. I don’t know if you’ve written on it recently, but for a while, and you always signed it, “Sempre ad astra” — “Always to the stars.”
Ms. Fisher: Oh, yes.
Ms. Tippett: And I just — when I read that, I thought, “She’s a romantic.”
Ms. Fisher: I am.
Ms. Tippett: “She’s a romantic.” And so I wondered, oh, with this life you’ve lived and this work you’ve done, how has the meaning of that term — and that thing, being a romantic — evolved for you? Can you talk about how it’s changed over time?
Ms. Fisher: What a great question. Sempre ad astra — it’s my family motto.
Ms. Tippett: Oh, it is?
Ms. Fisher: It’s my family crest. My family apparently goes back to Holland in 1603. And on that family crest, or family tree, it says, “Sempre ad astra.” And I’ve loved it from that moment to this. It’s what I live. It’s where I live, is that term. You’re going to make me cry, so I’m gonna get my act together. [laughs]
Romance — ask the question again.
Ms. Tippett: How — that romantic in you — your sense of what it means to be romantic, or your experience with that.
Ms. Fisher: I guess I’ve just sort of lived it.
Ms. Tippett: Does that evolve — you’ve just lived it.
Ms. Fisher: Yeah — I just am a romantic. It’s a pain in the neck. I cry at parades. I look in a baby carriage, and it’s going down the — baby going down the street, and say, “Oh, boy, are you in for some rock and roll.” I go into museums, and I see all the little amulets and the pendants, and I think, “Somebody gave that to somebody, 100,000 years ago. There’s a love story there.” I love poetry because it captures the passion of people around the world. It gives me a great sense of unity with all of humanity that ever was and ever will be.
[music: “Summer Colour” by I Am Robot and Proud]
Ms. Tippett: Helen Fisher is senior research fellow at Indiana University’s Kinsey Institute and a member of the Center for Human Evolutionary Studies at Rutgers University. She’s also the chief scientific advisor to the internet dating site, Match.com. Her books include Anatomy of Love: A Natural History of Mating, Marriage and Why We Stray and Why We Love: The Nature and Chemistry of Romantic Love.
[music: “Summer Colour” by I Am Robot and Proud]
Staff: On Being is Chris Heagle, Lily Percy, Mariah Helgeson, Maia Tarrell, Marie Sambilay, Malka Fenyvesi, Erinn Farrell, Laurén Dørdal, Tony Liu, Brettina Davis, Bethany Iverson, Erin Colasacco, Kristin Lin, and Jeffrey Bissoy.
Ms. Tippett: Our lovely theme music is provided and composed by Zoë Keating. And the last voice you hear, singing our final credits in each show, is hip-hop artist Lizzo.
On Being was created at American Public Media. Our funding partners include:
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The Henry Luce Foundation, in support of Public Theology Reimagined.
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And the Lilly Endowment, an Indianapolis-based, private family foundation dedicated to its founders’ interests in religion, community development, and education.