A New York Times review from Helen Fisher of relationship expert Sue Johnson's new book Love Sense, has us here at YourTango buzzing about the science of love. Johnson's research is where the chemistry of the heart meets the chemistry of the brain, and the book is a page-turning study of how to get, cultivate, and keep longterm love that lasts. We caught up with Johnson to discover the secrets of what really gets — and keeps! — our hearts pumping. To buy Love Sense, and read more about the amazing properties of romantic love, click here.
YourTango: You talk a lot about the emotional, spiritual and feel-good benefits of relationships. Can we get these benefits from short term relationships and dating, or must we be in a committed relationship?
Sue Johnson: You really need to be in a committed relationship to get the physical or health benefits, like a better heart rate. If you want all of the feel-good stuff that comes from attachment, dating's not going to do it. There's no free ride here! The reason I say that is because you need a real sense of a bond to feel safe and connected with your partner. Because that's what we're talking about: Bonds. We're wired to thrive in that type of relationship.
A good relationship is better health insurance than a careful diet, and it's a better anti-aging strategy than taking vitamins.
YourTango: What do you think is our biggest misconception about love — and do you think it's detrimental or no big deal?
Sue Johnson: I think it's the belief that love is just this random, mysterious thing. That it's something that happens to you and not what you do. People act like they have no control over their relationships. This is not good for us at all.
I also think that we've grown to think of dependency as a sort of weakness. We've fallen in love with independence instead of falling in love with our partners, and it's dangerous to deny ourselves the connection and closeness we really crave. The inner dialogue we have goes something like this: "If I need him to support me, it means I'm weak." We want to be strong, competent career women, and we can. It doesn't mean we're weak if we express the desire to have a partner. It's actually a strength to be able to say that; to be able to say "I want to be in a committed relationship."
YourTango: You talk about the three places where we exist within our relationships: the emotions, the brain and the body: Where do we tend to place our priority ... and where should we?
Sue Johnson: [laughs] There's a fallacy that romantic love is all about sex. To just reduce relationships to sex has been a very unfortunate thing. Here's the thing: The focus should be on our emotional connection. Great sex can follow that, and it does! Sex without a strong bond is like dancing with no music: It's not very satisfying.
The essence of love is the quality of the emotional connection, and when that's strong everything else just falls into place. So to get there, you need to focus on cultivating that bond — not having a hot sex life.
YourTango: We're reluctant to attach science to the concept of love because we think it "kills the mystery". Why do we want to be kept in the dark?
Sue Johnson: We want excitement, and to assume we can only have that in the beginning of a relationship. And we place far too much attention to the concept of novelty. We used to — as a society — hope for love. Jane Austen hoped for it. But now? Now we all expect it and somehow still want to crave that "strange, mysterious, almost forbidden thing."
Also, it's really just mysetrious because we don't fully understand it! But we can't afford for love to be mysterious or strange. We need to understand love, why it goes wrong and how to fix it. We can no longer work with love as this mysterious story. It's not sustainable. But real, longterm, committed love is the most sustainable thing of all. That's what keeps us going.
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