Is Your New Hunk or Honey Just in Your Head?


The reality of real love is better than the fantasy.

Jill woke up, looked across at the tangled sheets on the other bed and wondered, with a slight catch in her breath, whether a miracle had occurred and Anthony had actually remembered their anniversary. She took some deep breaths. After 14 years and three kids, can you expect it? The magazine articles all said yes, you should get something, some acknowledgement that you had somehow managed to last 14 years together. She carefully washed her face and got dressed. She decided to wear something attractive, something nice.

Still taking those deep breaths, she came downstairs. There was Anthony, buried behind the newspaper. Imagine, he had the capability of messaging on his phone while reading the newspaper. Just as she came downstairs, he glanced her way, said, “Gotta run,” and left the house. Ever the realist, Jill noted that at least his glance was not mean—something that could flicker up from time to time.

But she could only hold that positive outlook momentarily, and then the façade came down. A stab of pain went through her. Was this going to be my life forever? Is this the way it really is? Crumpling up into a ball on the floor, Jill broke down into uncontrollable sobs.

She didn’t know how long she sat there on the floor, crying. Eventually, she got up, and, in a daze, went about her chores for the day. She made it to work, late, made it home, attended to the children, all the while as if in a dream. An idea was forming in her mind. The idea tickled her; it embodied both revenge and, more importantly, a goody for herself.

Jill hung onto her daydream for two more days, contemplating a way, an emotional way, out of her prison. She recognized that she had no intention of ending the marriage. First of all, Anthony was an excellent, loving father. The kids adored him. And she knew of plenty of children who were forever leery of relationships because of their parents’ breakup. She was not about to do that to her children.

Second, there was a bond with Anthony, and she couldn’t shake the truth of that. They had been through so much together. When the chips were down, like when her father suddenly dropped dead of a heart attack, Anthony had been there for her. She’d been there for him, too, and he knew it. Jill couldn’t envision a world without Anthony, as much as she felt left out of his.

But there was this guy who popped into her office now and then, an absolutely gorgeous man, Brett, who always said something funny. He lifted her spirits. And he’d been asking her for coffee. She’d always refused. What if she went? What’s the big deal about coffee, anyway?

She could see this liaison as a solution to everything: There would be someone out there who made her laugh, made her feel special, cute, intelligent, fun-loving, all the things she thought she had been which seemed to have died on the vine in her marriage. And best of all, she wouldn’t be doing anything wrong. Her empty cup would fill up and no one would get hurt.

Except her.

But I’m getting ahead of my story. Several days later, Brett poked his head in the door with a smile, asking Jill how she was doing. She’d been busy in paperwork and wasn’t quite prepared for a real encounter. In fact, now that he was actually here, she felt awkward and self-conscious, thinking how silly she’d been for having such fantasies. Brett immediately picked up on the hesitation in her voice. “Hey,” he said, “something’s not quite right, is it? C’mon, let’s go for that coffee I’ve been bugging you about.”

Jill felt a little giggle bubble up through her. How nice it was to be with someone who actually noticed how you were feeling, someone who bothered to read the little nuances—and read them correctly. Coffee turned into more coffee. And lunch. Eventually, dinner. And it was nice. Brett became a pleasant presence in Jill’s thoughts.

“Ma---ooaaam!” Everett, her 13-year old was saying, “I don’t understand this problem and you’re not helping me!” This was at least the third time today that Jill had been roughly called back to the present moment. Today, she was supposed to make the Ultimate Decision. Apologizing to Everett, she excused herself on some pretext and went outside for a walk. She had to think this through.

“I’m feeling so much better than I have in a long time,” she mused, “almost like that time I came out of the anesthesia after surgery, a little giddy, silly, relaxed, and happy.”

Jill was very close to the truth. Our brains have what neuroscientists call a reward pathway which operates the same way whether the pleasurable feeling comes from food, addiction, sex, or romantic love: Nerve cells in the ventral tegmental area (VTA) of the brain, near its base extend to another area called the nucleus accumbens. There, they secrete dopamine, a neurotransmitter. Dopamine has various jobs in different areas of the brain, but when it is located in the gap between the end of the VTA neurons and the nucleus accumbens, that’s when its job is to signal good feelings.

Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), which can show neuronal activity in the brain, has been used in both drug and love research. Not surprisingly, the nucleus accumbens lights up when an addict is given a snort of cocaine. In fact, this part of the brain will light up, according to a 2004 Scientific American article, when an addict is merely shown a video of someone using cocaine, or when a compulsive gambler is shown a picture of a slot machine. And according to Helen E. Fisher, who uses fMRI to study the brains of people in love, the identical area will light up when those people think of their lovers.

So, yes, Jill was feeling better. But was she actually better? Well, the Scientific American article on addiction went on to show that same brain part lighting up in research with animals as the addiction consumed its subjects’ every waking moment, eventually killing them because the animals preferred to press the bar for cocaine than to eat. So was Jill doing better?

Who was this Brett after all? Would he be there for her when she needs gall bladder surgery? Would he sit and help Everett with the math? Would he pay his fair share of the bills? I can hear someone out there asking, “Oh, DrDeb, why are you making this nice romantic story so boring?” Well, that’s just it: Everyday life has its boring elements and real love transforms them. Real love sees unappetizing surgery, housecoats, and morning hair as part of the person you are connected to. Real love is excited by the challenge of finding a way to make math understandable for Everett. Real love wants to pay the bills because that’s part of being protective. Real love transforms the mundane into the sexy.

If Jill really wants to excite her nucleus accumbens, I have a suggestion for her: Tell Anthony—remember Anthony? Her husband?—that she is dying in this marriage and they’d better get help because, in spite of everything, she still loves him.

See, that way she gets the fantasy and the reality. Anthony is both.