The New Age Of Relationships: Sex, Love And Attraction In 2011

The New Age Of Relationships: Sex, Love And Attraction In 2011
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Love

What attracts you to someone when you first meet them? What keeps the passion alive in a relationship? How do your turn-ons change over time? These were some of the questions on a recent survey conducted by YourTango, Glo.com, and Chemistry.com. Over 20,000 people took the survey and the results were analyzed by Dr. Helen Fisher, a biological anthropologist and author of numerous influential books on love. You can see all the results at www.RekindleAttraction.com. Here, we talk with Dr. Fisher about sex, love and the new age of relationships.

RELATED: Survey: 90% Of Americans Believe Attraction Can Be Rekindled

YourTango: What was the most surprising finding from this survey?

Helen Fisher: What's most astonishing is that when you ask people what they are looking initially and long term, they are not looking for money, children, religion, or even someone of the basic same age group. That's just staggering to me because for 10,000 years mankind married, basically, for children. Women needed a partner that had enough money to support them and their children and they had to pick someone of the right age group and of the same religious background.

In this survey people chose money and wealth as the least likely traits to enhance initial and long-term attraction—just amazing. And the most likely to enhance attraction were communication, kindness, sense of humor, intelligence. So we are turning away from social and economic and political reasons to marry, and we are moving forward to marrying only for personal fulfillment.

And this is what you call "The New Age Of Relationships."

Yes, it's just remarkable. This has been going on for a few years, but to see it so strikingly put here is just incredible.

Do you see it going more in that direction?

I do. For millions of years we traveled in these little hunting and gathering groups. Women commuted to work to gather their fruits and vegetables. They came home with 60 - 80 percent of the meal. Most of those marriages were held together not for social reasons, but for personal reasons—for self-fulfillment. If women were stuck in a bad marriage they walked out. They could. They were economically powerful.

In a farming society, which came after hunting and gathering, you really needed to marry the farmer next door so you could expand the land. You needed to marry for economic reasons or social reasons or even political reasons, and that seems to be just absolutely disappearing. We're now shedding 10,000 years of the agrarian tradition.

Is this a positive change?

I think it's a very positive change, and I think it comes directly from women piling into the job market and having more economic resources of their own. They don't have to marry somebody who has money; they don't have to marry someone of the same religious group so they're protected by their religion; they don't even have to marry somebody of a particular age.

Women now are looking for really personal things. It's a motion forward to the past, towards the kinds of relationships we had for millions of years, on which the brain was built, on which love is built on, on which more durable relationships are built.

Now, that can be more unstable. But demographers in America are now saying that we're seeing more happy marriages in the United States, because bad marriages can end. There are times when divorce is necessary.

What about kids? Is it better for them for their parents to stay in a bad marriage or is it better for the kids of the parents divorce?

There's very good data on this by a sociologist named Andrea Cherlin. What he says is that there was a great deal of data that looked at the effect of divorce on children, but they hadn't compared children of divorce to children who were stuck in marriages in which the parents were extremely unhappy. Cherlin found that those stuck in an unhappy marriage suffered just as badly as those who suffered from a divorce.

Almost 90% of survey respondents said that your attraction to someone changes over time. Can you describe the typical attraction pattern over a long-term relationship?

We've evolved three distinctly different brain systems for mating and reproduction. One is the sex drive, second one is romantic love, and the third one is a deep sense of attachment to this person—these are brain systems, not phases of a relationship. A relationship can start with any of the three and they can operate in any combination.

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My colleagues aned I do brain scanning. Our most recent experiment was with 17 people in their 50s who were all happily married and all said they were still in love with their partner—not loving, but in love—and sure enough we found activity in the same region linked with feelings of romantic love, but here's the difference between the early-stage intense romantic love and the later stage intense romantic love: In the early stage we found activity in a brain region associated with anxiety. And in those who had been married a long time we found no activity in the region associated with anxiety, and instead there was now activity associated with calm.

My guess is that's what's really going on in long term love is that you always feel the deep attachment but the romantic love comes and goes. It's a regular day, you're both tired, you watch some news and you go to bed. Not terribly in love, but deeply attached. Following day, it's a Saturday, you go out and go hiking together, he says something seriously funny, and you suddenly feel that intense romantic love for him. In the long-term relationship, that early-stage intense romantic love begins to decline somewhat, and you're left with feelings of being in love, but without the intense craving and anxiety.

Eighty percent of people reported that sexual attraction is necessary to fall in love, so that means that 20% think it's not necessary to fall in love. What's going on here?

I finally understood this when I spoke with my nephew. He said, "Helen, my wife is not the sexiest women I've ever gone out with. But she's wonderful to our daughter, she's hilariously funny, I really respect what she does for a living and I'm really in love with her."

There are some people who do not regard sex as important in a relationship. They value things like loyalty, working together, feeling of responsibility, building kin networks, all kinds of other things.

On the other end of the spectrum, people over 40 were more likely to say that sex could sustain a relationship for a lifetime, and people over 50 said that as they aged lack of romantic love had become the greatest turn-off.

My hypothesis is that the young have to have babies! If someone does not have children they do not pass their DNA on to tomorrow and in terms of survival they lose. So the young have some priorities that are even more important than romance and sex. The old don't have any other priorities. They probably also have a very good, stable social network, they've worked out the money problems, and they don't want to change their whole life—they're not desperate. It's really just great. This survey trashes myths about age, about men, about women.