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The Power of Courtship

Monsoonjust_clicked Some private comments to me from a reader prompted me to think more about how culture influences our perceptions about what's the “normal” progression of love relationships.

He's 19 and says he's never been in a relationship, and therefore doesn't understand what love is. He added that this could be because of his cultural background.

This totally makes sense to me. Love, in the sense of the oxytocin-based bond, is deeply physical as well as emotional. By that, I don't mean necessarily sex or sensuality, but rather that the oxytocin response, like other emotional responses, is a full-body feeling. I think my friend, whom I will call T., may be in a highly desirable though rare state.

I've written before about the difference between romantic love and committed, oxytocin-based love. American culture focuses on romantic love, which is based on excitement and novelty. Helen Fisher, author of Why We Love, thinks that lust, romance and love are handled by different systems in the brain, so they're not even that related. Americans strive for that early romantic stage and, when it inevitably ends, think they've fallen out of love.

So, T. seems to have managed to avoid those false expectations of romance that our culture imposes. He's an emotional virgin. That means, when he does fall in love – and I believe he will, when he's ready – he'll be able to experience it in all its depth and glory and variety, as it moves from romance to committed love.

T. also said that different groups of friends encourage him to do different things. I would guess that his westernized friends encourage him to date a lot of women, and have sex with him if he can. It's important to be experienced, they tell him. Friends from his traditional culture advise him to wait until he's found someone he wants to marry.

The more I learn about the oxytocin bond, the more respect I have for traditional behavior. Let me invoke once again the prairie voles.

These monogamous rodents provided the first clues to how oxytocin creates social bonds. Thomas Insel, Larry Young and Sue Carter all did experiments with blocking the effects of oxytocin or injecting it into the brains of voles. And they found that, especially in females, blocking oxytocin blocked the ability to bond.

But bonding doesn't happen automatically for the prairie voles. Females don't go into estrus and then seek out or accept a male. Here's how they mate: Females remain with their family groups, while newly mature males leave the nest. When a male finds a virgin female, he remains close by. After approximately three days of peaceful proximity, the female goes into estrus and they mate, then go off to establish their own nest.

The female needs time to become comfortable with the male before she's receptive. Once they've mated, they're mated for life. (Although both may engage in extra-pair copulation.)

Does that sound like traditional human courtship or what?

In fact, it's clear that human mates are able to bond deeply without going through the romantic phase at all.

My advice to T. would be: It's natural to wonder about love, to crave and desire it. Don't try to force it by doing anything that doesn't feel right or comfortable to you. Instead, wait until you meet someone who is like you. And don't worry about understanding love. When it begins for you, you'll know it.

See Also, Romance versus Love and Get Over Romance, Already.

Photo from Just Clicked.