Worth the Wait: Reason, Science, and Lasting Marriage

Photo by Ben Rosett on Unsplash

The US divorce rate has been falling for some time, and a recent data analysis by Philip Cohen, professor of sociology at the University of Maryland, reveals why. “The US is progressing toward a system in which marriage is rarer, and more stable, than it was in the past,” Cohen writes, and “the trend in the last decade has been driven by younger women.”

Studying Cohen’s data and interviewing him at length, Ben Steverman of Bloomberg News summarizes the findings as such: “Generation X and especially millennials are being pickier about who they marry, tying the knot at older ages when education, careers and finances are on track.”

This strikes me as just good sense. My wife Mary and I dated for four and a half years, getting married only after I’d landed my first executive job with the American Humanist Association. We didn’t have our first child (of two) until we’d enjoyed marital bliss for four years. We’ve been married now for thirty-eight years.

Why might such a plan work better than getting married while still in the throes of the love high and regardless of financial situations? Science has the answer.

As it so happens, William Shakespeare comes close to the scientific idea in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Romantic love is this random, fickle, and irrational phenomenon wherein a perfectly reasonable woman, the queen of the fairies no less, can fall head-over-heels for a man who is a jackass. And what makes love happen? For Shakespeare it’s receiving a love potion. For modern science it’s the brain-generated love cocktail. This feeling begins in that region of the lower brain called the hypothalamus.

But it really starts with our life experiences. The characteristics of people in our past who treated us well stay in our memories and thereby inform who we will be attracted to later in life. As a result, once we meet a new person who has enough of those characteristics, our neurochemistry kicks into gear.

As Brian G. Gilmartin writes in Shyness and Love: Causes, Consequences, and Treatment,

Whenever a person subjectively perceives another human being as romantically appealing a portion of the hypothalamus transmits a message by way of various chemicals to the pituitary gland. And in turn the pituitary releases a host of its own hormones which rapidly suffuse the entire bloodstream. The sex glands respond to these hormones by rapidly releasing into the bloodstream their own hormones which have the effect, even among preadolescent children, of creating a more rapid heartbeat and a feeling of lightness in the head. Simultaneously the nerve pathways in and around the hypothalamus produce chemicals that induce . . . what people refer to as “falling in love.”

Among the hormones released from the pituitary gland are endorphins. Endorphins are released in response to pain and also during exercise, orgasm, or when one eats spicy foods. In their ability to kill pain and induce a feeling of well-being, they resemble opiates. Other hormones released during the love process are dopamine and other feel-good chemicals that can make one goofy, uncoordinated, and create a feeling of dreaminess and detachment.

Gilmartin adds, “Among the first signs of ‘falling in love’ is a giddy high similar to what might be obtained as a result of an amphetamine boost. This ‘high’ is a sign that the brain has entered a distinct neurochemical state.”

This state is caused by the hypothalamus releasing phenylethylamine, or PEA, which is a neurotransmitter. It is, in reality, a natural form of amphetamine. In other words, it’s like taking an “upper.” Scientists have actually analyzed the chemistry of people who profess a high level of passion for another person and have found corresponding high levels of PEA. Sex therapist Theresa L. Crenshaw thus calls PEA the “molecule of love.”

Tied to this is the release of adrenalin, which also makes the heart beat faster and generates an urge to action. Jack Panksepp, a Bowling Green State University chemist, has found that when a person falls deeply in love the brain also produces opioids. And like the name implies, these are similar to the addictive opiates.

When one is high, of course, one’s pupils dilate. This is why lovers gaze so long into each other’s eyes. They are subconsciously confirming that the other feels as they do—that “the look of love” is in their eyes.

But no chemical high lasts forever. The body builds up a tolerance. As a result, romantic love often runs a course of two-to-five years. For our prehistoric human ancestors this was about long enough for the cave man to stay with the cave woman and protect their offspring until the child’s care would be taken over by the clan. (It takes a village, you know.)

The fact that the love high fades also explains why so many marriages end after the first two years. The rose-colored glasses come off and suddenly the partners are seeing each other for who they really are.

Hence I have long advised young couples to live together for two years or so to make sure they can make it all work regarding those pesky little things in life. And in my capacity as a humanist celebrant I’ve often congratulated couples who told me they’d been living together awhile. One should never sign legal paperwork, I would say, while mentally impaired.

Since marriages today are lasting longer, however, they are clearly surviving on something other than PEA. What is it? It’s another chemical called oxytocin. This is a brain peptide secreted from the pituitary gland that increases our sensitivity to touch. If handled properly, this encourages cuddling and reduces stress. And it bonds a person to a lover, child, family member, or close friend. Crenshaw calls oxytocin the “hormonal superglue” that can keep couples together after the PEA wears off. And the way it’s produced is the same way it’s satisfied, by touching. So to keep the affection alive in a relationship one would do well to keep the touch alive.

So then, is that what Cohen is getting at in his original analysis of American Community Survey data? Is he trying to make a statistical case for a more rational approach to marriage? No he isn’t. He is making a sociological observation that is far less optimistic.

While marriage has “become more selective, and more stable,” he writes, “cohabitation grows both more normative . . . and less stable.” Then, when you apply socioeconomic data to this, you find that it is mostly those of higher socioeconomic status who postpone marriage. Those low on the scale—lower income and less educated—are more likely to skip marriage completely, living together instead, even having children, in increasingly unstable relationships. Thus the collected data illuminates “an increasingly central component of the structure of social inequality.” Steverman concludes, “Marriage is becoming a more durable, but far more exclusive, institution.”

So, while we can cheer on the growing rationality of the affluent, we might also want to assume the ethical obligation to do what we can to improve conditions for those less fortunate.