Have you ever felt pulled by a magnetic force towards someone you later realized was definitely not “The One”? How many times have you said to yourself, or your friends, “I just don’t have good judgment about men. I’m alway choosing the same kind of guy—the wrong guy.” (Or the wrong woman.)
If you’ve felt like a fool in love, you’re not alone. You may think you’re heart is at fault. But really how we chose our mates is much more about a cascade of chemical reactions and series of functions that happen in different parts of your brain. Let me explain.
Your Brain on Love (Drugs)
What if I told you that the red-hot love you feel when you first fall for someone isn’t so much an emotion, but more of a physiological addiction? You know what I mean . . . that experience where:
- You can’t stop thinking about (or talking about) that irresistible person.
- You can’t bear to be apart and long for constant connection with your mate.
- You feel so alive, happy, even a bit high when you’re together.
- You can’t imagine living without the object of your affection.
In his audio book, Your Brain on Love: The Neurobiology of Healthy Relationships, Stan Tatkin, PsyD, MFT, makes the case that love is in fact an addiction, not an emotion—at least the early infatuation phase of love.
His isn’t a jaded viewpoint on romantic love. It’s based on biology and what happens in our bodies and brains during attraction and courtship. Tatkin puts it this way: “When we’re in love, we’re on drugs.” The chemical reactions in the brain are similar to those seen in drug addiction. You’re flying high on the brain’s reward pathways.
You engage in an activity (using a drug, or having sex with a partner) and get a hit of dopamine. It’s this dopamine that keeps you coming back, whether it’s for a drug, or a romp with your mate. As illustrated in this article from Harvard University, here’s how it plays out:
- Lust is spurred by testosterone and estrogen.
- Attraction is fueled by dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin.
- Attachment is fed by oxytocin and vasopressin.
Eventually, most of us find that this rush of addictive love that we experience in attraction and courtship wears off. This is when we tend to ask ourselves, “Did I pick well?” It turns out that chemicals in our brain aren’t the only things responsible for our mate selection. Let’s learn a little bit more about how our brain works.
Fast Brain Vs. Slow Brain
It’s no secret that most of our day-to-day activities are on autopilot. You breathe, blink, move, drive, and go through much of your day without having to consciously decide to do any of those things. It keeps you alive and keeps your brain from being taxed by every little detail. However, this autopilot mode often hinders us from being truly present, making conscious choices, and breaking negative patterns.
In his book, Wired for Love: How Understanding Your Partner’s Brain and Attachment Style Can Help You Defuse Conflict and Build, Tatkin details what he calls the Primitives (Fast Brain) and the Ambassadors (Slow Brain).
The Primitives, Takin says, reside in the survival-focused, oldest part of your brain. The Primitives are wired for war, fight or flight. This part of your brain often receives information first, is quick to identify potential danger, and to act.
The Ambassadors are the evolved and social part of your brain, according to Tatkin. They are wired for love, not war, and are more like refined diplomats, than rough and tumble fighters. Ambassadors are in it for the long-term connection and relationship. These opposing forces of Primitives and Ambassadors help explain how quickly many conversations turn into heated arguments between couples. (More on that in the next post.) For now, back to the attraction and courtship stages of love…
For example, you’re out for an after-work drink with your coworkers, when you see an attractive person at a nearby table. You lock eyes, and bam, you’re hit with a surge of lust chemicals. At this point, you’re not thinking through the long-term consequences of this potential pairing. You’re not assessing your lifelong compatibility. You’re not wondering if this person will be good for you, or not so good for you. You’re simply reacting chemically to the stimulus. This is fast-brain thinking, and it rules courtship, Tatkin says. In other words, you pick your mate with your fast-brain, with your physiological instincts, not with your highest interests in mind.
Is it any wonder you often lament in hindsight that you yet again made the wrong choice in partner? The fact is: When you’re in love, you’re not thinking clearly. Tatkin says, nature isn’t helping you choose a long-term love; it’s helping you procreate well. So, everyone’s mate picker is unreliable, not just yours. It’s not your fault you keep choosing the “wrong guy” over and over again.
How Nature Chooses Your Mates
Why do you choose that type of mate, instead of the “right” one? Tatkin explains that human mate selection is based on familiarity. There goes that fast brain again. You might think you’re making the wrong choice, but nature rarely makes “mistakes.” (Unless you’re under 25, and your brain isn’t quite finished developing.)
Let me explain…you’re driven to pick the person deemed by your biological instincts as the best bet for short-term mating and procreation. It’s the human drive to stay alive and carry on as a species. There’s nothing wrong with you, or with your brain. Even though a short-term mate turns out to be entirely wrong for you, after a few weeks or months of passion, lust, and infatuation, you picked that mate for a reason—and not because you always “fail” at love.
The fast brain operates on memory, both implicit and explicit, Tatkin says. Mate selection made by the fast brain often flies in the face of the arm-length list of traits you want in a potential mate (a list developed using your slow brain).
Say you even meet the mate, who on paper is 100% perfect for you, you might be surprised by your complete lack of interest. On the other hand, that person who ticks next to none of the items on your ideal-mate list might be the one you can’t resist. Are we hopeless then? Doomed to pick the best short-term mate dictated by nature, but never picking the best long-term mate? Of course not. How do you get your slow brain, your higher self, involved in the selection process?
Vetting Your Partner
You have to rely on people whose brains aren’t under the influence of love, Tatkin says. Only those on the outside with clear minds can see what you can’t. The phrase “blinded by love” isn’t so far from the truth. You now know your fast-brain’s perception, judgment, and selection process is unreliable in terms of finding long-time love. So seek out those you trust, family and friends, to tell you what they see, and to balance out your fast brain by vetting your partner. What does Tatkin mean by “vetting”? He means asking those you trust to observe you as a couple, and being open to their feedback on such questions as:
- How do you act when you’re with him?
- How does he respond to you?
- Are you good together?
- Do you seem to be a fit? Why or why not?
- Based on what you say you want in a long-term mate, does being with this person make sense?
Remember, your “mate picker” isn’t broken. You’re just doing what comes naturally. But if you’re aiming for long-term compatibility and companionship, the best bet is to step back from the rush of love and involve your higher self and your social network.
Moving Towards Your Long Term Relationship Potential Whether you are single or already coupled, individual and couples therapy are great places to learn how to “wise up” when it comes to love and refine your picker. Here at SFWT we use PACT (Psychobiological Approach to Couple Therapy) to help you get a better grasp on how your Fast Brain (Primitives) and Slow Brain (Ambassadors) function so you can better discern who are appropriate and available romantic partners and move a new relationship to the next level of intimacy and commitment.
Ready for a long term relationship? If you’re in the San Francisco area, please reach out to schedule a session.