Shattering myths about male love and passion

Edge.com 2013

Helen Fisher

Biological Anthropologist, Rutgers University; Author, Why Him? Why Her? How to Find and Keep Lasting Love

Men

Scientists and laymen have spent the last 50 years dispelling myths about women. I worry that journalists, academics and laymen will continue to perpetuate an equal number of myths about men. Annually in 2010, 2011 and 2012, I have conducted a national survey of singles, in collaboration with a US dating service. Together we designed a questionnaire with some 150 queries (many with up to 10 sub-questions) and polled over 5,000 single men and women. We did not sample the members of the dating site; instead we collected data on a national representative sample based on the US census. All were “never married,” divorced, widowed or separated; none were engaged, “living together” or in a serious relationship. Included were the appropriate number of blacks, whites, Asians and Latinos, gays, lesbians, bisexuals and heterosexuals, rural, suburban and urban folks, and men and women from every age group (21 to 71+) and every region of the United States. These data paint a different portrait of men than do America’s chattering class.

Foremost, men are just about as eager to marry as women. In the 2011 sample, 68% of men in their 20s wanted to wed, along with 71% of women; and 43% of men (and 50% of women) hoped to have children. Journalists have suggested that men want children because they don’t have to change diapers. Moreover, men universally confront an intruding thief and men generally drive the family car through a raging blizzard. Men do their variety of childcare.

Men aren’t “players” either. When asked about their approach to dating, only 3% replied, “I would just like to date a lot of people.” Men are just as eager to find a partner; indeed, men find loneliness just as stressful. And men are far less picky in their search. In the 2011 sample, only 21% of men reported that they “must have” or find it “very important” to have a mate of their ethnic background (versus 31% of women); only 18% of men (as opposed to 28% of women) “must have” or find it “very important” to have a partner of the same religion; men are less interested in a partner of the same educational background and political affiliation; and 43% of men between ages 30-50 would make a commitment to a woman who was 10 or more years older. Women are the picky sex.

Men fall in love faster, too—perhaps because they are more visual. Men experience love at first sight more regularly; and men fall in love just as often. Indeed, men are just as physiologically passionate. When my colleagues and I have scanned men’s brains (using fMRI), we have found that they show just as much activity as women in neural regions linked with feelings of intense romantic love. Interestingly, in the 2011 sample, I also found that when men fall in love, they are faster to introduce their new partner to friends and parents, more eager to kiss in public, and want to “live together” sooner. Then, when they are settled in, men have more intimate conversations with their wives than women do with their husbands—because women have many of their intimate conversations with their girlfriends. Last, men are just as likely to believe you can stay married to the same person forever (76% of both sexes). And other data show that after a break up, men are 2.5 times more likely to kill themselves.

In fact, women seek more independence when in a committed relationship. Women want more personal space (women 77% vs men 56%); women are less eager to share their bank account (women 35% vs men 25%); women are more eager to have girl’s night out (women 66% vs men 47%); and women are more likely to want to vacation with their female buddies (women 12% vs men 8%).

Two questions in these annual surveys were particularly revealing: “Would you make a long term commitment to someone who had everything you were looking for but with whom you were not in love?” And “Would you make a long term commitment to someone who had everything you were looking for, but to whom you did not feel sexually attracted?” Thirty-one percent of men were willing to form a partnership with a woman they were not in love with (as opposed to 23% of women). Men were also slightly more likely to enter a partnership with a woman they were not sexually attracted to (21% of men vs 18% of women). Men in their 20s were the most likely to forego romantic and sexual attraction to a mate; the least likely were women over 60!

Why would a young man forfeit romance and better sex to make a long term partnership? I suspect it’s the call of the wild. When a young man finds a good looking, healthy, popular, energetic, intelligent, humorous and charming mate, he might be predisposed to take this opportunity to breed—despite the passion he might have for another woman, one whom he knows he would never want to wed. And when the “almost right” woman comes along, the ancestral drive to pass on their DNA toward eternity trumps their sexual and romantic satisfaction with a less appropriate partner.

The sexes have much in common. When asked what they were looking for in a partnership, over 89% of men and women “must have” or find it “very important” to have a partner whom they can trust, someone in whom they can confide, and someone who treats them with respect. These three requirements top the list for both sexes in all years. Gone is the traditional need to marry someone from the “right” ethnic and religious background who will fit into the extended family. Marriage has changed more in the last 50 years than in the last 10,000. Men, like women, are now turning away from traditional family customs, instead seeking companionship and self-fulfillment.

In the Iliad, Homer called love “magic to make the sanest man go mad.” This brain system lives in both sexes. And I believe we’ll make better partnerships if we embrace the facts: men love—just as powerfully as women.

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