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Love And Marriage: What Monogamy Outside Of Wedlock Says About Commitment

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What does the science say about love, marriage, and commitment? | Alamy

I've long thought about the power of love and the value of marriage. I grew up in a conservative Mormon household, where I saw my parents endure a difficult divorce and long stretches of singlehood, but eventually, they both found love again. As a late 20-something, the idea of marriage crosses my mind from time to time, and I can't say that I'm completely sold.

Perhaps that will change, but maybe I'm onto something here--the same thing that has proven successful by many, many same-sex couples, and well-known partnerships such as Goldie Hawn and Kurt Russell, Tim Burton and Helena Bonham Carter, and even Ludwig van Beethoven and his "immortal beloved" (well, maybe this last example wasn't terribly successful, but it sure was romantic, in that Romeo and Juliet kind of way).

In fact, the number of couples living together has more than doubled since the 1990s, according to the Pew Research Center.

What makes me uneasy about marriage is not the idea of committing for a long period of time, even a lifetime. It's the idea of a state-sanctioned commitment--a piece of paper forcing the wedded into a love-based legal agreement. Lo and behold: "You release all of the societal demands, and yet these partnerships become extremely stable,” said neurobiologist and love expert Dr. Helen Fisher via telephone.

"We've studied the brain circuitry of romantic love and attachment. There's no doubt that these evolved over millions of years. They are well below the cortex," she said.

This is an important distinction since the brain evolved in a layered, inside-out fashion. Below the cortex lies the primitive "lizard brain." But it's not like we're just talking about animalistic sex here.

"We've evolved three different brain regions that correlate to the sex drive, romantic love, and deep attachment." Dr. Fisher said. "When you climb in bed with somebody, any stimulation of the genitals will push the dopamine system. [During sex, we see] an increase in dopamine, vasopressin, and oxytocin. Also there's an increase in testosterone, and dopamine can sustain feelings of intense romantic love."

We've long known that vasopressin and oxytocin are highly correlated with feelings of bonding and attachment--so in essence, having sex with someone primes the brain for romantic love.

In order to understand the idea of love, commitment, and marriage from a scientific perspective, the brain on love is a good starting point. (See the interactive graphic below.)

Not-so-famously, Charles Darwin, the father of modern evolutionary theory, also struggled with the concept of marriage, actually writing about it in an 1838 excerpt from one of his journals.

Darwin understood the distinction between a biological urge to love and a societal pressure to commit through marriage. Although there's really no way to know the answer, I wonder if the decision to commit to one another in spite of a marriage certificate is a more significant demonstration that true love really can stand the test of time.

One thing I do support is the concept of renewing a marriage every so often.

"Margaret Mead once suggested, I think in the ‘60s, that once you get a marriage license it's like a driver’s license that you would have to renew. It's an interesting idea, to get marriage licenses with a renewal clause. People who want to get remarried would be a little more present,” Dr. Fisher said. “We're very present with our friends because there's no contract that keeps us together. So we keep an eye on our friendships. When it's 'til death do us part, you can do whatever you damn please. I wouldn’t be opposed to a marriage license with an expiration date."

Do you think marriage licenses should be renewed each year? Is marriage a necessary demonstration of long-term commitment at all? Let me know in the comments section below. Talk nerdy to me!

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