Are you in love? Madly in love? In long-term love? Recovering from love? Hoping to be in love?
Wherever you are in the on the roulette wheel of romance this Valentine's Day (I've been all of the above), love remains a mystery. Is it chemistry or decision? Something you happen on by accident, or something an algorithm can find? And once you're in love, how do you stay there?
To answer these questions, and many others, the folks at TED have assembled an incomparable collection of talks that illuminate this most mysterious phenomenon. I'm hoping you have someone special to watch them with on this very special holiday. I do, and since I'm no big fan of greeting cards, this column is my valentine to him.
1. What the search for extra-terrestrials can teach us about love.
Only John Hodgman (one of my husband Bill's favorite comedians) could make the connection between wondering when and whether aliens have visited the earth and true romance. He does it elegantly in this charming talk. I could try to describe it, but I would fail. You'll just have to watch for yourself.
2. It really is chemistry.
Anthropologist Helen Fisher may be best known for demonstrating that love affects the brain in a similar way to cocaine. It is--literally--an addictive drug, as she explains in this engaging talk. As with any addiction, distress arises when the drug of choice is withdrawn. Even more disturbing, her functional MRIs of volunteers who'd been recently dumped reveals that even when someone's broken up with you, you go right on loving them just as much.
Next, she's turning her attention to why we choose one person to love over another, a question posed to her by Match.com. She doesn't know yet, but she has observed that humans aren't the only ones who do it. Did you know elephants can experience love at first sight? I didn't.
3. Yes, you can keep the romance alive.
Humans have an enormous need for security and dependability and permanence--all the things that lead us to crave long-term, committed relationships. Unfortunately, we also have a contradictory need for novelty, adventure, and variety, explains relationship expert Esther Perel in her thought-provoking talk. This second need tends to get us into extra-marital trouble, and it's why it can be such a challenge for couples to keep desire alive through many years of partnership or marriage.
It's a challenge, but it can be done. One piece of the puzzle, she says, is to explore the world, and be their fullest selves, even in ways that don't involve you. People in long-term relationships often say they feel an unexpected burst of feeling for their partner when they see that partner from afar doing something he or she is completely engaged in. Since Bill is a musician, this is something I've felt many times myself while sitting in the audience watching Bill play.
Her second piece of advice is to give up the myth that great sex has to be spontaneous--it can and perhaps should be something you make time for, plan for, and commit to. On Valentine's day, for example.
4. There really is an algorithm for love.
Data expert Amy Webb was having no luck finding a mate, and though her grandmother advised her to just let love find her, she calculated that the probabilities of bumping into one of the 35 men in Philadelphia who fit her criteria for a mate weren't great. So she tried online dating, as she explains in her very funny talk.
When it didn't go well, she decided that the dating site's algorithms weren't sophisticated enough and created some of her own, coming up with 72 criteria for her potential mate in weighted for their varying importance. She also reverse-engineered the perfect profile for attracting the kind of man she wanted. Surprisingly, it worked.
5. Love is a choice.
Years ago, writer Mandy Len Catron heard about an experiment that showed asking someone 36 increasingly personal questions, and answering them yourself, followed by looking into that person's eyes for four minutes, can cause you and that person to fall in love--in fact two subjects of the experiment wound up married. When she tried it herself with a man she hardly knew, the two of them wound up in a relationship. Then she published an essay about it in The New York Times "Modern Love" column and wound up the poster child for what you might call intentional love.
"Are you still together?" people who read the essay wrote her and asked. And though she answers that question in her thoughtful talk, she also says it's the wrong one. She proposes tougher questions like: How do you stay in love when things get tough? How do you know who deserves your love? How do you learn to live with your inevitable doubt? With your partner's inevitable doubt?
Falling in love is easy, she says, but staying in love is a choice--a terrifying one because you can never be certain that the person you choose to love will always choose to love you back. And yet, if we want love in our lives, it's the only choice we have.
I think she's exactly right. I've been making that choice, again and again, for 20 years, hoping and trusting that Bill would make the same one for me.
Happy Valentine's Day!