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Finding love is science, not a fairy tale

In “Decoding Love,” author Andrew Trees says that you should forget the ideals of romance novels when it comes to love — it’s all about science, which can actually provide a great deal of insight into our romantic sensibilities. An excerpt.
/ Source: TODAY books

In his new book, “Decoding Love,” author Andrew Trees, speaking from his own history of romantic ups and downs, says it’s high time we throw our star-gazing version of love overboard and look at it with fresh, clear and scientific eyes. Science, as it turns out, can actually provide a great deal of insight into our romantic sensibilities. An excerpt.

Relationships should be simple. You meet someone. You fall in love. If all goes well, that person falls in love with you. And as the fairy tale says, you both live happily ever after. But the reality is rarely so simple. My goal is to explore why that is the case by taking a rational approach to that most irrational of pursuits, the search for love. Imagine Jane Austen’s romances rewritten by people like Charles Darwin and Adam Smith, and you will have some idea of what sort of book this is. The simple premise behind “Decoding Love” is that despite our ingrained prejudice, our current model of finding love is deeply flawed, and science can actually provide a great deal of insight into our quest for romance. It will take something we think we know well — how to find love — and reveal that many of our assumptions are wrong.

There are any number of shocking discoveries that researchers have uncovered in recent years. For instance, did you know that women generally make the first move in a bar? That men find women who are ovulating more attractive? That human testicle size is an indication of how promiscuous women are? That what you can put into words about why you like someone often isn’t an accurate reflection of why you really like that person? That scaring someone can spark as much attraction as seducing him or her? That the number of frogs you must kiss before finding your prince or princess is a dozen? That women who wear a spicy floral fragrance are judged to be twelve pounds lighter than they actually are? That some men have a gene that makes them more promiscuous? That a woman’s orgasms have little to do with love and every thing to do with a strange body measurement known as symmetricality? Until I started my research, I certainly had no idea.

I realize that the scientific approach is not one that comes naturally to people interested in falling in love, but I believe that is because we are the victims of hundreds of years of stories and novels and plays and poems and movies and television shows about a certain version of love. These stories have hammered into us a collective wisdom about what it means to be in love and how to go about finding that love — or what I call the romantic story line. As soon as you look for it, you realize that it’s everywhere. George Orwell’s worst nightmare of mind control never achieved anything like the stranglehold that the romantic story line has over all of us. It wouldn’t matter so much — we all carry around many mistaken beliefs about life — except that it has become a source of misery to many single people and quite a few couples as well. With a divorce rate hovering near 50 percent, you don’t have to be a rocket scientist to see that something has gone seriously awry.

If using science to find love seems crazy, though, imagine how insane our current system would look to an anthropologist from Mars. Our Martian — let’s call him Zog — would soon learn that finding a romantic partner is just about the most important thing most of us do. We lavish vast amounts of time and effort and money on the search. But, despite our best efforts, almost half of us will end up divorcing that same person we worked so hard to find. And then we will begin the search all over again. What else could Zog say, except that we are mad for love?

If the extraterrestrial perspective is too far out, let’s make a quick comparison between our model of romantic choice and arranged marriages, an approach that runs counter to every aspect of the romantic story line. The divorce rate in this country is close to half, while the divorce rate for arranged marriages is almost zero. Talk about a stark contrast. In our culture, by the time we are teenagers we don’t even let our parents choose our clothes, let alone our partners. And we devote huge amounts of energy to the search for love. What is our reward for all of our efforts? Seemingly nothing but heartache, frustration, and failed marriages.

Of course, this comparison is not apples to apples or even apples to oranges (more apples to mangoes, really). There are obviously a host of factors that can influence divorce rates, and Americans have a more tolerant view of divorce than many other countries. But this also tells us something revealing about our romance with romance. The ready acceptance of divorce is itself a sign of how deeply embedded the romantic story line is in our culture, because it depends on one of the deep-seated myths of romantic love, the idea of “the one.” When our marriages fall short of the idealized visions many of us have, we often see it as a sign that we have made a mistake, and our current partner is not really “the one.” The only cure? Divorce and a renewed search for love. Guided by the enormous expectations of the romantic story line, we dive into relationship after relationship only to have almost all of them end in disappointment. And when they do, we rarely question our approach. We simply start a new search for love.

The good news is that the problem is largely not our fault (at least not personally); instead, our difficulties arise from the romantic story line itself, which has become enshrined as virtually the only arbiter of any relationship. It wasn’t always this way. A group of researchers compared different surveys from more than half a century to see how Americans’ relationship priorities have changed. As recently as 1939, Americans placed love far lower on the list. For men, it was only fourth, and for women it was fifth (No. 1 for men back then was a dependable character, while women rated emotional maturity as the most important trait — apparently, they’re still waiting on that one). But love has been rising steadily ever since, hitting No. 1 for women in 1977 and No. 1 for men in 1984, where it has remained ever since. During this same time, the divorce rate has gained just as steadily. I don’t want to claim any simple causality, but it is telling that as love has grown in importance, it has become harder and harder to find and hold on to.

The time has come for us to throw the romantic story line overboard and fix a cold, clinical eye on love and its attendant complexities — less romance and more science. While we have continued to struggle along without making any discernible progress in our love lives, science has made significant advances. For example, various methods can now predict with more than 90 percent accuracy whether or not a couple will divorce. In other words, hard as this is to believe, when you are sitting at a candlelit dinner and looking into the eyes of the man or woman you think is Mr. or Ms. Right, you are less likely to make the correct decision about marrying that person than someone in a white lab coat using nothing more than a videotape of the encounter or a multiple-choice test.

“Decoding Love” is my attempt to regain a place at the table for science. We tend to treat finding love as we do making sausage — we don’t want to look too closely at what goes into it. Well, this book is going to look closely, and it is not always a pretty story. In fact, some of the insights into relationships are distinctly upsetting, particularly if you cling to lily-white ideas about human nature. But my mission is not to tell us flattering truths about ourselves. It is to try to show us as accurately as possible who we are and why we do the things we do.

There is one enormous hurdle, though, which you must get past if you are going to be open to the information in “Decoding Love” — you must be willing to set aside your own common-sense assumptions and consider with an open mind the research that I am going to present. I know how difficult this is. When I first read much of the material for this book, my own reaction was skeptical, and my wife serves as a continuing reminder of the difficulty of discarding our romantic prejudices. Whenever I came across an interesting study, I would share it with her. She then considered it against her own experience and decided whether she agreed with it or not. If the study failed to align with her experiences, so much the worse for the study. There are various evolutionary reasons for this, but suffice it to say that we are all deeply resistant to impersonal information, especially when it clashes with our own experiences. And it will clash! All of the research in here focuses on the average person’s response. Part of what makes us fascinating is that as individuals we all differ from the average in lots of idiosyncratic ways. So, all of this will not apply to all readers, but some of it will apply to each reader.

In the interest of truthful advertising, I should let everyone know that “Decoding Love” has no magic bullet for finding love. I wish it did. If only it were as easy as telling you to put down this book, trundle yourself off to the supermarket, and wait for a mysterious stranger in aisle five looking for lentils. I can promise that the foundation of the book will be based on the latest scholarly advances in a number of different fields to try to understand something at once utterly familiar and deeply mysterious, the relationship between a man and a woman. You may find it hard to believe that some of the things I discuss have been studied — I found it hard to believe myself at times — but rest assured that I am not simply making things up. This is more important than you might think. It turns out that even many relationship “experts” have been winging it much of the time.

Excerpted from “Decoding Love” by Andrew Trees. Copyright (c) 2009, reprinted with permission from Avery, a division of Penguin Group.