Why Romantic Love Is Essential to Human Experience

love finalWhat? A post on romantic love? Has Sisson gone soft? No, I promise you’ll find no Hallmark material here. I’m the same empirically minded, rational guy you’ve come to know over the years. That said, the marketing forces of this week have inspired something in me. Not the desire to buy milk chocolate, but the drive to apply a Primal perspective to the topic of romantic love. As with most cultural phenomena, Valentine’s Day is part commercial hoopla and part genuine human inclination. So how do we honor the substance of the holiday while separating out the marketing static? Maybe a Primal lens (at least in the anthropological sense) doesn’t make for the most sentimental post about romantic love. But there’s plenty of authentic awe—and maybe some thought-provoking sense—to be had from the exercise. See if you agree…

The Evolutionary Dance

First, when taking about romantic love from a Primal perspective, it makes sense to ask about its evolutionary payoff.

Sure, we can all understand the need for propagation of the species. If men and women didn’t reproduce, Grok and his kin would’ve died out long ago, and we wouldn’t be around to read this. But isn’t there a difference between mating and romance? Clearly. But, like all things in evolutionary terms, let’s be honest about what romance is: a means to an end. That shouldn’t, however, lead us to incorrectly characterize the kinds of experiences our Primal ancestors had when it came to romance.

People may assume Stone Age relationships contained none of the feeling or fidelity modern culture prides itself on today. Yet, the fact is, study of hunter-gatherer societies show that long-term pair bonding was as natural and essential then (if not more so) than it is today. Likewise, research reveals people likely practiced the same pattern of courtship as people generally follow today—“attention, recognition, dancing, synchronization,” to use one theorist’s amusing but astute description. Sure, Grok couldn’t take his sweetheart to the movies. But practices like dancing and gift-giving (whether extra fruit or whatever artisan creation he could come up with—personally made or bartered for) were as much part of the ritualistic game then as now.

And while there seems to be moderate agreement that the majority of actual marriages might have been arranged in most Pleistocene hunter-gatherer societies (likely to prevent interbreeding, encourage peace among different groups and make strategic alliances), there’s also evidence that men and women had the opportunity to share their own choices with the kin who made the arranging. And when politics beat out preference, there was still the shot of carrying on your chosen relationship outside of your arranged one. How’s that for accommodation? Plus, even if arranged marriages had been the norm in the late Pleistocene age, human instinct for individual mate selection secured its genetic foothold, a legacy most of us live and pair by today (arranged marriage or not).

So what would Grok be looking for in a mate? Most likely, our Primal ancestors would’ve been drawn to each other based on the traditional aspects of fitness—ones that suggested good health, survival capacity, sociability, and caregiving strength (e.g. symmetry, strength, intelligence, social skills, altruism, and compassion). Generally speaking, they would’ve stayed paired for personal as well as social reasons—maybe or maybe not for life, but in most cases at least for a number of years to ensure the bearing and mutual care-taking of their offspring.

But let’s not get too reductive. Evolutionary logic, as rational as it seems, doesn’t fully work by wholly reasonable means, as anyone who has been in love will tell you.

The Chemical Interplay

Human instincts, as we know, are genetic products that play out in our neurological and chemical responses. This is just as true with romantic love as anything else.

French poet Paul Valéry said, “Love is being stupid together,” and he was probably onto something there. Researchers have long studied the chemical picture of romantic love, revealing that feeling “in love” triggers the same brain centers as do addictive drugs, including the striatum and insula.

It’s interesting to note, however, that longer term love (as opposed to immediate attraction) activates the insula, which is in some regards the more complex region. Whereas the nucleas accumbens (part of the striatum) acts as a pleasure center, the insula assigns value to a particularly pleasurable source or activity to encourage our repetition and investment in it.

Recent experiments have deepened this understanding of this chemical interplay. Neuroscientist Kayo Takahashi and his colleagues have observed that people in the early stages of romantic relationships, when shown photos of their respective beloveds, experienced a dramatic surge of dopamine. Not only does this offer the assumed warm fuzzy feeling we often associate with the objects of our affection, but it does something else rather significant. It boosts the creation and securing of long-term memories.

Combine this pattern with the known triggering of oxytocin, another pleasurable hormonal response to social bonding (and within orgasm), and you have a cyclic pattern of reward and memory, which in essence conditions our partner preference. The result is a neurochemical recipe that encourages (but doesn’t of course determine) both ongoing affection and fidelity.

The Big Picture

What does this all mean for us free-thinking moderns?

Years ago in school I read (as I’m sure many of you did) the 18th Century novel, Gulliver’s Travels, the fictional tale of a ship surgeon’s misadventures. In one such incident, he lands on an island inhabited by two antithetical societies: the Yahoos (a crass and uncivilized kind of monkey species with no sense of morals, let alone pair bonds) and the dichotomous Houyhnhnms (horse-like creatures with impressive intellects but no genuine emotion). It made for decent reading but also a lasting reminder to value our own complexity, regardless of how inconvenient or confounding it can be at times.

Attraction and infatuation, the stuff of conventional “romance,” are fun. I don’t think anyone will argue against that. They’re natural human responses with a potent reward system ensuring we indulge them for sake of the species’ survival.

And, yet, when we bring all of our best humanity to bear, it can offer something beyond this advantage.

Not everyone desires this kind of affection or is prepared to give or receive it, of course. Maybe we don’t feel drawn that way or it’s not the right time in life to cultivate it. These are thoughtful and honest responses, which I think too few people conclude about themselves.

But for those who are personally ready and dispositionally wired for a romantic relationship, I think there’s more to it than we assume, particularly when we’re young.

It’s more than the emotional narcotic that makes us forget about everything else (in a wonderful and sometimes disorienting way). It’s more than the affirmation of conforming to social norms or the sensible sharing of household duties. Rudimentary desire and dispassionate reason might bring people together, but seldom do either (or both together) offer enough to make a long-term partnership enjoyable. Those might seem to be the ultimate primal motivations, and they certainly had their part, but I’m guessing there was more to Grok’s humanity than those.

As the neuroscience suggests, romantic relationships aren’t just about immediate gratification, but about the construction of memory. Our chosen mates become hormonally and cognitively imprinted in us in ways few other kinds of relationships do. It’s why we can recall the small details of our partners from early courtship (even those we haven’t seen in decades). It’s why when we lose the one we’ve loved our entire lifetime, the most mundane reminders of their presence and routines (e.g. finding their glasses years later in the back of nightstand or catching the scent of their cologne) can send us into simultaneous euphoria and grief.

This is the dimension that Primal logic may not fully explain but human experience teaches. It’s why there’s no manual you can study that comes close to encompassing a life fully lived and how, no matter the cleverness of holiday marketing, the most romantic stories are those you’ll never find in a store.

Thanks for reading, everyone. Let me know your thoughts on this and all things Primal in the comment section. Enjoy your end to the week—and your holiday weekend if you’ll be celebrating.

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About the Author

Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.

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19 thoughts on “Why Romantic Love Is Essential to Human Experience”

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  1. Interesting article with Valentine’s Day coming up, but I’d like to point out that many people in this world never experience romantic love, often for reasons beyond their control (illness, handicaps, bad luck, etc.) Certainly a reciprocated romantic relationship is a nice thing to have in one’s life, if it occurs, but essential? Probably not.

  2. Great post Mark! I would encourage everybody to pick up a copy of “Sex at Dawn” by Christopher Ryan (a frequent guest on the Joe Rogan Experience, by the way…) It’s a wonderful book that should be right up our primal alley’s; how hunter/gatherer’s conducted relationships, and how agriculture really changed the way people behavior (who would of saw that coming??).

    Thanks again Mark!

    1. Sex at Dusk would be a much better, and more accurate, book regarding how hunter/gatherers conduct sexual relationships. It was written specifically to address all of the MANY inaccuracies in Sex at Dawn.

    2. Love it and am currently addicted to his podcast, Tangentially Speaking! This post seems to contradict some of the messages and research highlighted in the book though. Why does Mark suggest that pair bonding has been the norm?

  3. The pair-bonding, monogamous meme is so culturally ingrained in our modern world that even otherwise respected anthropologists and archaeologists can’t see the forest for the trees. There is plenty of evidence from our prehistoric past, as well as the study of present day forager societies that humans evolved in cooperative groups (tribes) and that they evolved to be multi-partner sexual beings. If monogamy is how we really evolved then why do men, and women too, cheat? And why do nearly 50% of all marriages end in divorce? If we were really “wired” to be monogamous (like gibbons) then we would find a mate and that would be it for the rest of our lives, no cheating, no divorce. Read the book, “Sex at Dawn,” by Christopher Ryan and Cacilda Jethra to see the well-documented evidence that backs up the evolved multi-partner sex theory.

  4. I haven’t read “Sex at Dawn,” but I have heard Chris Ryan on Joe Rogan’s podcast (Mark convinced Rogan to try Primal Blueprint; he’s like 9 days deep and doing it kind of wrong). He makes some interesting points, but I’m not convinced.
    Divorce happens because people change and people get married for the wrong reasons. Why is a marriage considered “failed” if it ends in 20 years? So you spend some time together, enjoy one another’s company, maybe parent some kids, and separate when you feel you want to go in different directions.
    One big reason people cheat is because they become unattractive with age. Thankfully for me, it’s much easier for a man to stay attractive than for a woman. A man’s attractiveness also is based off of a much more varied basket of factors than women’s. People grow older and become fat, ugly, and unhealthy.
    People also marry people they aren’t attracted to in the first place. Many women spend their 20s having sex with guys who excite them, then “settle down” with some boring cubicle monkey who wears pleats and drinks Bud Light. I can imagine confronting the thought that that’s the entirety of your romantic future to be daunting.
    Why do we feel jealousy? Why do we want our partners to be monogamous? On one hand, it’d be fun to have sex with other people. On the other, if my wife did the same, I’d divorce her and never talk to her again. So I can’t justify the double standard. Even if I’m able to separate the physical pleasure from the emotional. She’d do the same. Obviously, having children would complicate things.
    That’s not logical of me, but it’s how I feel and I can’t explain it. Why does it bother me what my wife would experience pleasure from someone other than me? If she goes and gets a massage from someone other than me and it feels great, I’d be happy for her. But for some reason, if she experiences pleasure from having sex with someone else, it would bother me.
    Maybe that’s because I know that sexual pleasure leads to emotional attachment – much moreso for women. And I can’t have the women I’m investing resources into building a life with being romantically attached to anyone but me. Maybe it’s because I know sex makes babies and I can’t risk fathering a child who isn’t mine.
    The entire institution of marriage is illogical. You’re signing a contract to be faithful to one person with the state. It’s an archaic institution created by the Church. And in the vast majority of cases, a divorce will be far more detrimental to a man than to a woman. Why do we do it? For some tax advantages? So that our children’s parents don’t think we’re weird (If they don’t, we’re doing it wrong)? So that we can sign legal documents together (actually a big deal, but can be achieved legally through other means)?
    None of it is rational. But this world we live in isn’t rational. Personally, I got extremely lucky in finding a wife who shares the majority of my very specific and non-negotiable values and beliefs. I love having a partner in life, love, and business whom I love and who’s always there for me. I’m excited to raise children together and impart our values and beliefs onto them. It’s a compromise.
    I spent a long time having sex with different women and having no problem forming an emotional attachment. It would be nice to do that again once in a while. But I won’t because I value my relationship much more than that. And if one day, we grow apart and one of us wants to have sex with other people more than we want to be together, then we’ll split. And the years of being together will not have been for nothing.

  5. Thanks for a beautiful blog. Being in a relationship for over 40 years, I resonated strongly with the part about lifetime partners being hormonally and cognitively imprinted in us in ways few other kinds of relationships do.

  6. My favorite Valentine’s post this week!

    I’m especially interested in the chemical interplay bit…for instance, how oxytocin is at once the “love hormone” and the “amnesia hormone.”

    It’s secreted when we first fall in love…and during orgasm, labor and breastfeeding (when the child also secretes it, in response to the parent)…and it supports bonding.

    But it also acts to erase memories of earlier bonds…strengthening NEW bonds at the expense of the old and allowing us to form new patterns of connection.

    Norman Doidge talks about this in his book on neuroplasticity: The Brain that Changes Itself. It’s a fascinating read.

  7. So glad you used the word “romantic”. You have to go back to the real, knock-you-dead, soul music of the 60’s and 70’s — largely from black singers who got very little radio play — to appreciate that power. My favorite old soul song full of that feeling is “Baby, Don’t You Weep”. (Might have been Percy Sledge who sang it. What a voice.) Then there’s “Ruler of My Heart” (Irma Thomas). And “December, 1963 – Oh What a Night” (Frankie Valli) has a certain something too. Great dance sequence to that song in the movie, “Jersey Boys”.

    1. Have you heard of Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes?

      Teddy Pendergrass was a member of that group, and basically the star of the group

      Their song, “I miss you” is one of my favorites

      Such and incredible song

      1. Yes! Great group!! (“I Miss You” and “If You Don’t Know Me By Now.”) Wonderful! BTW I guessed that “Baby, Don’t You Weep” was sung by Percy Sledge. Actually it was Garnet Mimms. What a powerful voice and true, deep soul. ( “One Girl” and “You’ll Lose What You Got”). Mimms also sang a knock’em dead version of “Cry,Cry, Baby”. Although Roy Orbison was not a soul singer, he has one song that qualifies :”In Dreams”. Maybe you know it. Thank you, Andrew, and if you have another favorite, please share. Oh….as for Percy Sledge, I think he sang “True Love Travels on a Gravel Road”.

  8. ….”the most romantic stories are those you’ll never find in a store”. Nice touch. And true. ‘True love travels on a gravel road.’

  9. Does one have to be involved romantically with someone to be fully primal? Can’t I just do more sprints or something? I’ll even eat organ meat. Please say it’s not so!

    Seriously, thanks for including this very thoughtful paragraph for those who currently “choose” to be single:

    Not everyone desires this kind of affection or is prepared to give or receive it, of course. Maybe we don’t feel drawn that way or it’s not the right time in life to cultivate it. These are thoughtful and honest responses, which I think too few people conclude about themselves.

  10. If you would like to read a really great book on this topic, check out A General Theory of Love by Thomas Lewis, Fari Amini and Richard Lannon, psychiatry professors at the University of California, San Francisco. The book examines the phenomenon of love and human connection from a combined scientific and cultural perspective. It attempts to reconcile the language and insights of humanistic inquiry and cultural wisdom (literature, song, poetry, painting, sculpture, dance and philosophy) with the more recent findings of social science, neuroscience and evolutionary biology.

    Grok on!

  11. Interesting post, Mark. I think that some people express romantic feelings through their creativity, so that in a sense, their music, art, writing, or other creative expressions, even science, serve as a form of sexual expression also. I believe there will always be those who just don’t have in them to be romantically involved with others. Perhaps in primal cultures, these people were elevated to important roles. And I think that it’s not uncommon for women, as they transition into menopause, to share more in common with the village crones. The books mentioned above sound intriguing, and I will look into them. As usual, interesting and enlightening comments.

  12. Thanks, Mark!
    Exactly: romance is not dead.
    And yes, we have a free will.
    We choose every single day!
    Yes to romantic love!