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:
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:
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:
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