Valentine’s Day Primer
What is it that makes us fall in love? Is it a scent? A kind smile? Beautiful hair? Were we born to be with one particular person?
Scientists don’t have precise answers.
Pheromones—chemical substances produced by animals that serve as stimuli to other animals of the same species—are, in part, responsible for attraction. But humans are a unique type of animal.
“We know that animals actually have a specific organ, the vomeronasal organ (VNO), to detect pheromones to mate,” said Dolores J. Lamb, Ph.D., Lester and Sue Smith Chair Basic Urologic Research; director of the Laboratory for Male Reproductive Research and Testing; and professor in the departments of urology and molecular and cellular biology at Baylor College of Medicine. “Animals are very driven by lots of different scents. Humans are far less olfactory-based and we lack the VNO organ.”
Yet there are specific, physical feelings humans associate with love, including “butterflies” in the stomach when someone special comes along.
“When people have that sense of love at first sight, it didn’t happen to everybody in that room,” Lamb said. “There is a very clear connection there between the two people, and defining that has been elusive for scientists because there is a lot of personality involved.”
It is hard to find a viable connection between pheromones and love in humans because people seek out relationships for so many different reasons.
“Humans are more complicated beings than animals and insects,” said James H. Bray, Ph.D., associate professor of family and community medicine at Baylor College of Medicine. “It’s not just about reproduction, which is what animals are about. For humans, it’s somewhat about reproducing, but also about other high-order things like love, intimacy, feeling safe.”
Depending on our own love languages and preferences, Bray said, we determine what we want in a partner. Some people have a set trait or quality they are looking for, others have no idea what they are looking for, and some are waiting for a “weak in the knees” feeling when they meet someone.
And once we have found our partner, there is still plenty of work to be done.
“One thing to understand is that—and this probably comes from evolution—we get attracted to people and there are these positive feelings of love and being in love,” Bray said. “But that is just to get us together. Over time, it is natural for many of those things to wane, and that is where true intimacy comes in. Butterflies tend to drop off within six to 12 months of being in the relationship, and that is very normal. If people need to have that, then they need to work at it. We are wired to connect and then once we have connected and formed the relationship, we don’t need that because we have made a commitment.”
To keep the feelings of love alive and maintain a long-term relationship, Bray recommends remembering why you fell in love with your partner in the first place.
“Sometimes people drift apart, develop different interests,” Bray said. “People get swept up in their careers and do not spend time working on their relationship. One of the key things I do is help people remember why they fell in love with their partner, and I tell them to practice the ‘silver rule’ of relationships. You know the ‘golden rule’ is to treat others as you would like to be treated, but that doesn’t work for marriage. The silver rule is to treat your spouse or partner as they would like to be treated.”