Love, Sex, and Attachment

“Everybody should have three marriages. The first one is for sex, the second one is for children, and the third one is for companionship.”

~ Margaret Mead, cultural anthropologist

Everybody should have three marriages, even if it’s to the same person. Relationships that can evolve into something new at different stages in life are the good ones.

In a podcast On Being with Krista Tippetshe talks with Dr. Helen Fisher, chief science advisor and researcher for, about the insanity of love. This is a summary.

Love and sex do things to our brains. In fact, what happens in the brain has the hallmarks of temporary insanity. Parts of the brain associated with decision-making begin to shut down when you’re in love. You become obsessed. You don’t eat. You don’t sleep. You don’t think about anything else. You focus on this person constantly. You change your hair. You change your life. You change your clothes. You change your friends. People will leave their community, leave their town, leave their family. They’ll go to a different country and learn a new language. They’ll start all over with their lives to do this thing.  They’ll do a million different things in order to win and be part of this relationship. And while most people have been at their unhappiest when in love, it is nevertheless the state  human beings yearn for above all.

Julian Fellowes, creator of Downton Abbey wrote:

“That state commonly known as ‘being in love,’ is a kind of madness. It is a distortion of reality so remarkable that it should, by rights, enable most of us to understand the other forms of lunacy with the sympathy of fellow-sufferers.”

But this crazy brew of neurotransmitters can’t last forever, and that’s a good thing. There is this falling in love part – the passion and madness – but just as instinctively, we move into a state of attachment, of commitment.  And for some, children.

This stage of attachment and commitment is what our society seems to be struggling with (hence, high divorce rates). Perhaps because we are shedding 10,000 years of our farming background and all of the concepts that arose with that:  A woman’s place is in the home; Women should not be too opinionated; Men should be the pursuer in the relationship;  Women need to be married; Men should be the sole family provider. ‘Til death do us part. All of that is vanishing before our very eyes – 10,000 years of these concepts. And so we’re in a time of disorganization. Know one really knows how to go forward. We don’t have any rules.

The more we know about the brain and body, culture, human evolution and biology, the more we will come to understand the power of choice to change that biology. Knowledge is power. Our brains take us through these very powerful stages to getting to the point of being with other people. We need to figure out how to be intelligent and caring in this matter of long-term love because, it seems,  our brains don’t do that for us.

For instance, the idea that “not sleeping around” as a strictly moral issue doesn’t explain the whole picture.  We know now that casual sex doesn’t really remain casual – biologically speaking. Our body conspires to make us start feeling attached, or in love, with this person. When you have an orgasm, you get a flood of oxytocin and other chemicals in the brain-body system that forms attachment. Also, experts say it takes about 18 months to really know someone. We should know more about who we’re going to have a partnership with, right?

Dr. Fisher’s access to massive quantities of data via has led her to conclude that our society is doing just that – People aren’t jumping into marriages as quickly as in the past. They are looking for a very special kind of relationship.

“100 years ago, you had a nice husband and that was great. The partnership didn’t have profound intimacy, but you had very profound relationships with all your other people in the local community.  But now your partnership is really all you got. And so we want everything in that partnership.”

Rather than being less serious about that primary relationship, we are profoundly more serious about it.  We don’t want to fail. We’ve seen our parents fail.

In her ongoing study, “Singles in America” she asks, “What must you have in a relationship?” Here are the results:  they must have somebody they can trust and confide in; who respects them; who makes them laugh; who spends enough time; and that they find physically attractive. People are trying to build the most important relationship in their lives. And  they’re very in favor of marriage without children and children without marriage. They’re very in favor of living together. What they will not tolerate is commuter marriages, people living in separate homes, people living in separate bedrooms. They want total transparency in the relationship. They want to have access to the person’s cell phone.




Stay in Love by Staying Out of Fantasy

Old CoupleThere is hard science behind the notion that true love can last a lifetime. A neurological study from Stony Brook University revealed that couples who experience “romantic love” long-term, keep their brains firing in similar ways to couples who have just fallen in love.They defined “romantic love” as characterized by “intensity, engagement and sexual interest.”

If lasting love is an attainable goal, then what’s getting in the way of achieving it? What keeps so many people from maintaining that excitement and closeness they once felt with a partner?

One psychologist would argue that many couples can preserve “romantic love” by avoiding the trappings of a “Fantasy Bond.”

The fantasy bond is a concept developed by psychologist Robert Firestone. It describes an illusion of connection a couple forms that replaces real acts of love, affection, and relating. A fantasy bond exists when a couple starts to forego their individually and lose the “me” to become a “we.”

The most remarkable sign that a fantasy bond has been formed is when one or both partners give up vital areas of personal interest, their unique points of view and opinions, their individuality, presumably to become a ‘unit’, or a ‘whole’. The attempt to find security in an illusion of merging with another leads to an insidious and progressive loss of identity in each person.

According to Dr. Firestone, people have a tendency to reenact the defensive styles developed in childhood. Once old defensive styles are triggered,the individual acts with this defensive posture, blocking the development of a genuine, unique relationship with the partner.

The fantasy bond allows us to feel secure and connected to someone else, while numbing us against some of the more painful emotions that love stirs up, such as fear of loss, memories of hurt, longing, or rejection.

Unfortunately, we cannot selectively block out pain without also blocking out joy.

Without knowing it, couples tend to set up routines and fit each other into roles rather than face the unpredictability and inherent challenges that come with maintaining passion, excitement, and a deep sense of fondness for another person, separate from themselves.

So what are some signs that you may be in a fantasy bond?

• Less eye contact
• Breakdowns in communication
• Less frequent affection and routinized lovemaking
• Loss of independence
• Speaking as one person, overusing “we” statements
• Using everyday routines as symbols of closeness, in place of being emotionally close
• Engaging in role-determined behaviors (i.e., as father, wife, breadwinner, decision-maker), rather than developing yourself based on your personal goals and interests
• Using customs and conventional responses as substitutes for real closeness and relating

If you notice that your relationship has some of these qualities, don’t despair! A fantasy bond exists on a continuum. It isn’t a black or white, good or bad label for your relationship. Once you realize that you have fallen into some form of a fantasy bond, it is possible to reemerge as a happier, more in-love version of yourself.

To do this, you must first investigate and explore how your old wounds were triggered. Therapy can help you with that. It’s often hard to discover on your own. Then you can engage in behaviors that encourage real and meaningful contact with your partner, i.e.,try the opposite of what’s on the above list.

Ultimately, you can become the person you want to be in your relationship—minus the fairytale, but with a much happier ending.Stay in Love by Staying Out of Fantasy.

Some excerpts from PsychAlive: