It doesn’t matter who you are or how good your relationship is like, there will always be temptation. Few are those who report that the grass isn’t at least occasionally greener in their mind’s eye. Whether it’s that hottie in your office building, the old flame that got away, or the fantasy person who just happens to be sitting across from you at that airport bar, possibility – however implausible – is out there, pulling us beyond the safe havens of our partnerships.
So how do so many relationships survive when the unknown can be so enticing? According to a series of recent studies at McGill University in Montreal, as much as the desire to fall in love and live happily ever after is part of our genetic make up, so too is the instinct to protect that relationship once we’ve found it.
It seems that our brains have built in relationship safeguards designed to prevent us from straying and protect our commitments. Perhaps not surprisingly however, these traits are more developed in women, according to recent scientific research.
The brain in love
As anyone who has fallen in love knows, there is an initial rush that comes with budding romance. This high draws you to your new amour – they’re often all you can think about. You want to be with them all the time. You get butterflies, and your heart races – sometimes without your even knowing why. There is pleasure just in the thought of how they smell. It doesn’t matter whether you’re male, female, straight, gay or anything in between – if you’ve felt it, you know. It’s intoxicating!
Of course, you may not perceive these feelings as simply human biology, but there is a definite, verifiable chemical reaction at work. Consider the shift that occurs six months to two years into a relationship (if you’ve made it that far). The excitement dies down, and comfort settles in. You feel bonded, committed. And this is no accident. Biologically, you’re building a family.
At this stage, you may think the brain is done making its mark on your romance. However, it’s quite the opposite. The exact cocktail flowing through your system is no longer high octane, but it’s still effective. This is where love’s safeguards kick in, along with the gender differences. First, the similarities: You’ll probably always think about cheating (at least occasionally), regardless of your gender. Our sex drives are separate from our love lives, chemically speaking.
But both men and women who have reached this stage of love are far less likely to actually stray. In fact, while people in committed relationships will naturally notice an attractive outsider, unlike those who are single (or openly looking), they will not remember specific sexual details about that person – for instance, body shape or facial features. Instinctively they put their partnerships (and their partners) first.
Of course all is not the same in the male and female brains. It may come as no surprise that women are more natural relationship-protectors. Female brains have unconscious alarm bells regarding temptation, extra tolerance for a partner’s flirtations in the face of their own, and a natural inclination to avoid situations that might threaten their bonds.
Men, on the other hand, are less conscious of potential threats, and tend to be upset by their mate’s flirtations (even in the face of their own!) and they don’t naturally avoid other potential partners. That said, scientists found that a simple shift of attention automatically changes men’s behavior, signaling dormant – but existent – safeguards that will spring into action.
In other words, armed with the mere thought that they need to protect their relationships, and faced with an attractive alternative, men will automatically avoid that alternative. The moral of the story? Men in love can be trained… moreover, they usually train themselves. In fact, when deeply committed, men are far quicker than women to automatically block out the alternatives, turning their attentions solely to their beloved mates. Like the chocolate lover who won’t walk down the candy aisle, they know their instincts – and prefer to mentally suppress the option rather than confront it, which – according to the McGill scientists – actually works.
In the end, it’s great to know our brains are working for our love lives. Sometimes just having the information helps. But any way you slice it, with or without the awareness (and assistance) of biology, it’s up to both partners to protect and nourish the relationship.