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The Science Behind Romance

As it turns out, the “chemistry” between two people really matters when it comes to picking a mate.
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WebMD Magazine - Feature

When we’re looking for love, we often look for specific characteristics: a sense of humor, perhaps, or financial solvency and kindness. But sometimes we fall in love “at first sight.” Take the case of Lila Sumin, who figured out she’d met her future husband after only a few hours. “I came home from our first date and told my parents he was the one,” says Sumin, 71, who lives in Los Angeles. Those initial feelings were spot on for Sumin, happily married now for 50 years to that man. But how, in such short order, could she have known?

“Chemistry” between two people, it turns out, literally matters when it comes to picking a mate. While many factors influence our choices, “we are drawn to certain people not only for cultural reasons, such as socioeconomics, intelligence, and values, but also for biological reasons,” says Helen Fisher, PhD, a cultural anthropologist from Rutgers University and author of a new book, Why Him? Why Her?

All in the chemical family

According to Fisher, we all have “chemical families” associated with dopamine, serotonin, testosterone, and estrogen. People choose partners with chemicals that complement their own. For example, a person with a high amount of estrogen may be attracted to a high-testosterone type.

Psychology plays a role, too. Our choice of a mate is partly dictated by a “love map,” an unconscious list of traits we want in an ideal partner that we construct during our childhood. We get used to our father’s sense of humor or our mother’s brand of affection and use this to build our list. When we meet a potential partner, we consciously and unconsciously determine if that person is right for us. “We often do this in less than three minutes,” Fisher says.

The science of love

And when it comes to sniffing around for love, you may have more in common with Fido than you think. Martie Haselton, PhD, with the communication studies and psychology departments at the University of California, Los Angeles, has been studying major histocompatibility complex, or MHC, a set of genes involved in immunity that might play a role in mating by way of our sense of smell.

“People rate the body odors of people with MHC genes dissimilar from their own as more attractive,” Haselton says. Also, research shows that children who inherit different MHC from each of their parents have broader immunity.

If it’s all chemical, do we have any control over the process? Researchers say you can trigger your body’s chemistry to keep love alive by:

-Keeping it fresh Novelty drives up dopamine in the brain, which can help sustain romantic love. Go to the movies in a different part of town or head out for the evening without knowing where you’ll end up.

-Keeping in touch Any kind of touching, such as holding hands or playing footsie, can drive up oxytocin. Sometimes called the hormone of love, oxytocin is associated with attachment.

-Keeping it hot Having sex makes you want more sex. If you’ve gotten out of the habit, work on getting back into it -- even if you need to seek professional help.

It certainly worked for Lila Sumin and her husband. She says the chemistry she first felt with her husband has stayed with the couple through the years. “Fifty years later, and I’d choose him all over again.”

Reviewed on January 15, 2009

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