What if love is really just a manipulative tool of biology? What if the best mating decisions we make come from our genes instead of our conscious brains?
I’ve become obsessed lately with the idea that something inside us simply knows the romantic decisions we need to make. I don’t mean to imply that every romantic pairing is automatically right. I also don’t mean to imply that we always choose the right partners with whom to reproduce. (Those notions are obviously and demonstrably untrue.)
But what if there is some mechanism inside us that sometimes whispers — in a language we don’t consciously comprehend — words to the effect of, “This one is a right fit for you,” when we encounter someone new?
I’ve often considered the idea that there’s something inside us that just knows when one person is right and another is wrong, but I’m suggesting it goes even deeper than I’ve considered before. I’m suggesting that the “selfish gene” inside us — to use Richard Dawkins’ term — knows what we ought to do — and that romantic happiness comes from obeying the whispers of those genes.
Let me tell you about an experiment I used to do involving pictures of attractive women I knew.
I’ve long been fascinated by the instinctive notion that some couples just look as though they belong together — and others look as though they were mismatched from the start. I wanted to see whether there was any correlation between the women I found myself instinctively attracted to and those who strangers said I “looked as though I belonged with.”
I assumed there would be no correlation, but I was wrong.
Here’s how my (very unscientific) experiment worked. I had a web page on which I would put eight photos of women who were reasonably attractive, middle-class white women. I would pair a photo of myself with each of the women’s photos. When I met people online — people who I mostly never met in real life — I asked them to look at these photos and tell me which one I looked as though I belonged with.
The people who did the picking never knew anything about the women and they tended to know little about me. I let them know that the purpose wasn’t to choose the best-looking woman or anything like that. The purpose was to tell me which one (or ones) I looked as though I “matched” — by whatever criteria they wanted to use.
I tried really hard to make sure that all of the women were equally attractive, but I never told the “test subjects” anything about which ones I might know or which ones I might be attracted to. Their only job was to tell me which ones they thought I instinctively matched.
I quickly learned something surprising.
Over and over again, these varied people overwhelmingly chose to match me with the women to whom I had been most attracted personally. That doesn’t necessarily mean they were the prettiest women of a group. They simply tended to be the ones that something in me pointed to and said, “This could be the one for you.”
What does this mean?
It might mean absolutely nothing. (It certainly wasn’t scientific enough for a scientist to take seriously.) But it suggested to me that most of us have a general gut feel for which people truly belong together — or at least which people are serious possible matches, even if we don’t know their personalities or values or anything else.
Romantic love is a fairly recent development in human history. Marriages were about property, uniting families, creating offspring and bringing about partnerships. For most of human history, romantic attraction was seen as something for irresponsible people. Instead, most people believed that the right marriages were concluded for higher reasons.
I’m suggesting that maybe those people were acting on the same instinctive impulse back then that we now attribute to romance. I’m suggesting that people were coldly rational about which pairings would produce the best children and create the most productive partnerships.
I’m coming to see that the romantic tugging of my heart seems to be a perfect match for women who I see as the right mothers for my children — and as women who would be excellent partners for me in the pragmatic sense.
This thought was sparked because of some odd thinking I’ve done this week about a particular woman. This attractive woman in her 30s has never had children and I found out this week that she’s recently divorced. I have no romantic feelings for her — and don’t even know her well enough to feel that way — but some coldly rational part of me had the sudden realization that she would be a perfect partner with whom to have children and she would potentially be a good partner for me in other pragmatic ways.
This thinking surprised me, to put it mildly. I haven’t done anything about it, but this thinking has been a lens through which I’m re-evaluating the women to whom I’ve been attracted most in the past.
In every case in which I’ve fallen in love with a woman, I’ve immediately known the woman was right for me. I’ve never experienced the common tale of knowing someone for awhile and then falling into romantic attraction later. For me, it’s always been like a light switch. From my first encounter with a woman, I might say, “I want this one.” About an equally attractive woman, I might say, “You’re beautiful, but you’re not for me.”
When I look at the very, very few women who I’ve truly loved — the ones who turned into obsessions — there are always two pragmatic threads that go beyond superficial attraction.
First, the woman always looks and acts like someone who I would like to reproduce with. I can’t give you any objective standard by which that’s measured. I just know that some women have an air about them that says “potential mother of my children” and almost everybody else does not.
Second, the woman always has some set of attributes that make me believe we would be very good partners in the pragmatic sense. There’s always something about them which quickly lets me know that we could become successful together. There’s always something about such a woman which lets me know that we could “rule together” in the sense of a king and queen ruling an empire. Hardly anybody ever strikes me that way, but when one does, I can see us taking over the world together — at least metaphorically.
When I go back and think about the women I’ve obsessed about, I see that this obsession didn’t start in my heart. It didn’t start with my emotions. In each case, it started with the coldly rational (but unconscious) knowledge that this woman and I fit together like a lock and key.
I can’t tell you how I know such a thing. I don’t even have a theory. I just know that something in me picks up on this unconscious knowledge — and my heart won’t let go of this mystical knowledge unless it’s forced to.
What this suggests is that something in the human mind is still doing what families used to do when they chose mates for others — or when a man would ask to marry a woman without even knowing her. To me, this suggests that there has always been something inside of us that knows in a mystical way where we fit. We just tell the same narrative today in terms of romance.
So if we have such knowledge, why do we end up with so many bad relationships and worse marriages? I’d say it’s because we lose the ability to listen to something inside us. We get impatient and seize someone who’s a halfway fit. Or we are blinded by dysfunctional childhood programming which confuses us about what we ought to have.
Sometimes, people are just in love with the idea of being in love — or in love with the idea of being married. When that happens, we can sculpt almost any person into a close enough facsimile of what we need — until we later realize we’ve made a mistake. The problem when we do this, though, is that we’re unavailable when the right person eventually comes along and makes it clear that he’s the key that fits your lock.
I don’t pretend that any of this is scientific. I wouldn’t pretend it’s built on biology or genetics in the formal sense. It’s built on my intuition about how humans really operate — and on my experience of how this process has operated in me.
It’s been more than 10 years for me since I had one of these mystical experiences which started and then refused to die. The first time I saw this particular woman, I simply knew things about her which I couldn’t possibly know in a pragmatic way. We went our separate ways quickly but eventually bumped into one another again and the inner mystical voice was louder than ever.
I saw it as the obsession of romantic love — and that’s part of it — but there were the pragmatic sides which seemingly were underneath it all the whole time. And those parts seem to be the parts that won’t die, not the shallower attractions.
And what of the woman this week who sparked this thinking? In the most pragmatic ways, she would be a fit as a mother and as a partner. At least I think so. Something in me suggests so. Am I right? I don’t know. I might never know.
I feel as though I’m struggling to put into words something which I know on such an instinctive level that it doesn’t reach the point of easy expression. So I’m struggling to make a point which seems obviously true to me.
All I know is that something in me knows which women I’m a fit for — which ones could become the right mothers for my children and which could partner with me for fame, fortune and power. Some deep part of me knows — we’ll call it a gene — and that gene has given my heart the job of making the right partnership into reality.
I wish I could publicly run my experiment again. I wish I could pick a dozen or so very attractive women and pair them with a photo of me. I would be willing to bet which one most people would choose — and which one you would choose for me.
Because my gut — my genes, my instinct, my heart, whatever — already knows the truth. And knowing the truth makes it far more difficult to live without it.