Can We Choose Who We Love?

chemistry of love

Last evening I had an astonishing discussion with three of my colleagues in our Second Life community. The topic was love, and whether we have any control over who we love (whether it is at least in part a “rational” decision, or strictly a matter of chemistry). People in Second Life fall in love (very seriously, and sometimes traumatically) all the time, which would seem to suggest that there’s a lot more to love than pheromones. But that doesn’t mean that what we call “love” isn’t still a construct of our body chemistry, informed by our intellectual and sensory perceptions about the object of our affections. Or so I thought.

My skepticism is rooted in a belief that we love who we imagine someone to be, not who they really are (we can never really know who another person really is). Our body chemistry’s response is to this imagined persona, which may or may not be a close approximation of who that person “really” is. To that extent, Second Life avatars can either amplify or distort our perception of who the person we love “really” is, depending on a host of factors. Avatars are (in the opinion of most, anyway) usually “younger” and more “physically” attractive than the “real” people they represent, and surprisingly few Second Life people communicate with those they love in voice, rather than text. This would almost seem to imply that people feel the need for the artifice of the text interface (the opportunity to “compose” what they say and disguise their voice) to be more “lovable”. Is this a form of dishonesty, or is it just play, and what is our responsibility when it gets serious?

This is not really new — “pen pals” have often fallen in love with each other before they’ve met or even spoken in real time with each other, and, as with Second Life, some of these affairs make the transition to real-time, face-to-face relationships, and others don’t.

What is it, then, that drives us to fall in love with someone, especially someone we have never physically “met”? This is, of course, a complex process, but my assumptions about this process were shaken to their roots by my colleagues last evening. I had always believed it was evolutionary — that we are “programmed” to fall in love with those our body believes would be excellent biological and genetic mates. But what they told me is that what is often most important is security — which has two components:

  • Physical/Financial Security: “Does this person bring to the relationship the skills and resources that complement my own, such that we will be significantly more comfortable together than separate?”
  • Emotional Security: “Will this person be here for me when I need them?”

As obvious as this is, I confess that, when my colleagues articulated it, it blew me away. I had never really thought of this as being a critical criterion in determining whether love blossoms, and lasts. This myopia is probably due to the fact that, having a large ego and never having had to worry about my own security, I was oblivious to how important it is to many people.

It never occurred to me that someone could “choose” not to fall in love with someone who did not offer them security (or actually made them less secure) ot “choose” to fall in love with someone who did offer them security, even if the “chemistry” was less than ideal. Initially I shrugged such “choices” off as cold-blooded or opportunistic, but then I realized how unfair this judgement really was.

The emotional (far from cold-blooded) desire for security in a loving relationship is every bit as evolutionary a development as pheromone chemistry. Falling in love with someone because they’re strong, tall, healthy or beautiful is no more “instinctive” than falling in love with someone because they’re financially independent, or a “good provider”, or, most important of all, committed and caring — willing and able to be there through thick and thin. These are all prescriptions for survival, and hence it is not surprising that the intuitive desire for such qualities in a lover has been selected for in our evolution since we appeared on the planet.

Sara told me last night, sometimes “silly men can’t process their own feelings so they rationalize them to death instead.” She’s exactly right. That’s why, once I acknowledged the importance of security in “deciding” who we love, it explained a whole raft of behaviours, needs and wants that I had always found inexplicable, “irrational”, and even unseemly:

  • Why people put up with so much grief from relationships, as long as the person causing that grief clearly still loves them (or at least says they do).
  • Why young women hook up with men who one would think are too old for them, and who wouldn’t seem to have anything in common with them — provided those men are very secure and/or healthy, and genuinely and deeply care for these younger partners.
  • Why, all other things being equal (which they rarely are) women tend to love men slightly older and more secure than they are (they want them to be around for them when they get older — so many women outlive their male partners)!
  • Why polyamory works (the security sought can be spread among several lovers, so if something happens to one there is still security from others); why it often doesn’t (with no primary relationship, there are constant doubts about whether any of the people one loves will, when push comes to shove, be there for them); and why relationships between poly and monogamous people are so difficult (very different expectations and needs for security).
  • Why, for people secure in themselves, being in love is more important than being loved (it gives their lives purpose, and a good chemical buzz, while they don’t need the security of being loved in return). And hence, why people who lack security in their lives need to be loved more than they need to be in love.
  • The possibility that people (like me) who are very secure in themselves in this terribly insecure, attention- and affection-starved world are just disconnected from their real feelings and needs — and why we tend to find some other people distressingly “needy”, while they find us cold, smug and distant.

To the extent we bring factors such as security into the “decision-making” on who we love and don’t love, this would suggest that we do have some “choice” in the matter. But I’m not so sure this isn’t all part of the involuntary instinctive and emotional assessment we make when we do, or don’t, fall in love. I don’t think we really “think” about it. It isn’t “rational”. Though it makes enormous evolutionary sense.

I think I tend to fall in love with women (plural) who:

  • are unusually intelligent, imaginative, creative and articulate,
  • are emotionally strong and emotionally sensitive (not an oxymoron), 
  • are physically attractive, and 
  • know themselves — self-knowledge is not the same as intelligence or emotional strength, and it is, I’m finding to my dismay, relatively rare (most people just don’t have the time/inclination for it). 

I’m always candid about my belief in polyamory — as soon as I meet anyone that there is even a chance of me having a relationship with. I don’t look for (and rarely find) physical/financial or emotional security in those I love.

This creates a bit of a paradox for me. While I’m physically attracted to younger women, I’m emotionally attracted to self-assured, self-knowledgeable women, and intellectually attracted to dangerous women who walk the line between genius and madness. These rarely come in the same, er, package. And while being polyamorous allows me to seek all of these things in different, simultaneous, partners, I’m not sure that I am able to offer what women with each of these qualities would be looking for from me.

The younger woman I want a physical relationship with most likely wants security and commitment from me. The smart, self-knowing woman (or man) I want an emotional relationship with most likely wants time and attention and emotional sensitivity from me. The mad artist/genius I want an intellectual relationship with most likely wants — what, grounding? — from me. I have no idea.

I’m not sure I can, or necessarily even want to, provide what each of these people would want from me in an enduring, loving relationship. And, if I attempt to give them each what they want from me, will I run out of both security and time by spreading both too thin, and lose everything by trying to have everything? And worse, will I hurt them, let them down, in the process? That’s a prospect I cannot bear.

This has, of course, been covered a million times in the movies and romance fiction. It’s just taken me, the perpetual slow learner, a while to pick up on it.

Well, I guess this silly man has analyzed and rationalized the unanalyzable and irrational to death. Time for me to shut up, turn off my brain, and trust my instincts and emotions, and those of the women I’m attracted to, to tell us what to do, and not to do, and whether we’re meant to love each other or not.

No choice involved in the matter, really.

Category: Human Nature

This entry was posted in Our Culture / Ourselves. Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to Can We Choose Who We Love?

  1. Sasha says:

    Awesome article and very true!

  2. melisa Christensen says:

    I think we should come up with a different word for polyamorous… something less geometric

  3. Some good thinkin’ there, Dave.I like it that you and the women you love will figure this all out together. Love just is (or it ain’t…).

  4. Oh, and I don’t like the term polyamorous either–how about something like ambiamory?

  5. Cindy Ecksol says:

    Well, Dave, I think you got it right at the end there: just let the women figure it out for you :-)On a serious note, polyamory is fine as far as it goes, but until you decide to give up your whole self to a single committed relationship, you’re really missing out. Trust me, there’s nothing more incredibly wonderful than two mature, un-needy individuals who choose to be satisfied by the other…and to go out of their way to satisfy their partner physically, emotionally, intellectually — whatever. I’m fortunate to be in such a relationship (going on 30 years now), and would never trade it for relationships with a group of individuals who could “better” satisfy each particular facet of my needs. I made that choice when I was too young and inexperienced to really know what I was doing, but I sure am glad I chose as I did. I just don’t see how polyamory can create any kind of long-term relationship: the person who you choose just because she satisfies your physical needs will grow bored after a while (and you will be bored with her). Similarly, one who you choose because of her intellectual qualities is not likely to stay frozen in that role, and so on. Find someone who is relatively appealing on all of your scales and who sees you as relatively appealing on all of her scales…and is willing to make a commitment to you alone. Make a commitment to her alone. Then work together over the long term to constantly refresh that vision. It doesn’t mean you can’t have other friendships, just that those are peripheral — and you and your ONE are at the center.

  6. I enjoyed reading your thoughts here, but one part bothered me a bit…when you questioned the “honesty” of communicating via text rather than voice. I would argue that for some people the result would be a more honest discourse in regard to their thoughts and feelings, even if it’s not fully representative of what you’d get from them in person (possibly the “dishonest” part to which you refer?). Different people prefer different communication styles for many different reasons, so it would seem pretty judgemental to call it dishonesty without taking that into consideration. By that standard, the entire Second Life universe could be called “dishonest,” but you clearly already believe there is some value in both what it allows you to bring forward as well as what you’re able to leave behind…

  7. Pingback: Can We Choose Who We Love? » Dig for Leadership - Stories that try to make the world a better place.

  8. What a great read. Thank you. However, I think Sara is right, you are over analysing this, and perhaps yourself, to death. I think you are confusing a desire for rewarding interaction with others (i.e. friendship) with polyamory. I could even stretch to ‘friendship with benefits’, as I understand it is known. Polyamory is commitment to many rather than one (monoamory?) while you appear to be describing a love life essentially free from commitment. Which, in a way I find amusing, fits rather neatly with your self-analysis. You really are secure and comfortable. Which is great for you, but perhaps not as great for those from whom you wish to withold commitment. Thank you again for such a thought-provoking post.

Comments are closed.