In my previous article on love, it may have sounded like I was dismissive of the importance of romance in long-term relationships. Like the word ‘love’, the word ‘romance’ has a lot of baggage associated with it that I believe is problematic. But psychologist Barbara Fredrickson provides a perspective that potentially gives comfort to both romantics and pragmatists in her 2013 book Love 2.0, referenced in this article in the Atlantic magazine.
First, some background. If you have been paying attention to the news you know that neuroscience, the study of the brain, is getting a lot of attention these days. One of the interesting findings of neuroscience research is the extent to which the human brain is built for relationship. For example, specialized mirror neurons enable us to mirror or model other people, giving us the ability to empathize and synchronize with them.
For a wonderful presentation of neuroscience and relationship, read the book A General Theory of Love by Thomas Lewis, Fari Amini and Richard Lannon, psychiatry professors at the University of California, San Francisco. In the book, the authors describe how some orphanages in the early part of the 20th century implemented a policy of not touching infants in an attempt to keep them from getting sick. This resulted in high mortality rates; it turned out that the lack of touch was much more harmful to the babies than any germ.
This is all to say that we are fundamentally relational beings who need connection with others to thrive. The exact nature of the connections we require is less well defined and understood.
Dr. Fredrickson posits this as something she calls positivity resonance, which she describes as more or less synonymous with the usual use of the word ‘love’. She describes love, or positivity resonance, as
the momentary upwelling of three tightly interwoven events: first, a sharing of one or more positive emotions between you and another; second, a synchrony between your and the other person’s biochemistry and behaviors; and third, a reflected motive to invest in each other’s well-being that brings mutual care.
As I said in my earlier article, it is debatable whether it makes sense to say that positivity resonance is love. Nonetheless, I think that is reasonable to think of positivity resonance as the kind of experience that we perceive as connection with another person. You can think of it as love or as one of the building blocks of love.
In modern Western societies, the relationship commitment institutionalized in marriage is generally initiated because of experiences of positivity resonance between two people. The person you want to build a life with is someone with whom you experience emotional connection, i.e., positivity resonance.
In the beginning of an intimate relationship, instances of positivity resonance often seem easy to come by. Once you are sharing day to day life with someone they can become less frequent. Infatuation mellows into something less intense.
Often this happens simply because one or both people stop trying to create or pay attention to shared emotional moments. There always seems to be something else to do, something important. In more extreme situations, couples can get into a tug-of-war over who is going to get acceptance and acknowledgement from the other, which erodes the investment in each others’ well being.
Although a lack of instances of positivity resonance may not erode the commitment you make to your relationship, it can make it harder to remember what made you want to make the commitment in the first place. Certainly it makes the relationship considerably less enjoyable and desirable. Thus expert marriage counselors often encourage engaging in activities designed to reignite the ‘spark’ in the relationship — i.e., the moments of positivity resonance.
Because positivity resonance is essentially an emotional experience, it cannot be formulated or summoned up directly, for the simple reason that emotions are products of the unconscious and therefore not under our conscious control. All we can do is put ourselves into optimal conditions for positivity resonance to occur and, as the saying goes, let nature take its course.
This is where romance comes in. In its most helpful form, romance is about creating an environment conducive to positivity resonance, an environment rich in sensory stimulation and physical proximity. Dr. Fredrickson emphasizes the potency of eye contact for creating positivity resonance; score one for the cliché of lovers gazing into each others’ eyes!
One common problem is that different people connect with feelings, their own and others’, via different paths. One person’s idea of a setting conducive to positivity resonance might be an elegant dinner with flowers and soft music; another might feel positivity resonance arise after a shared conquest of a sheer cliff face while rock climbing.
Since positivity resonance is a shared experience, a setting that promotes it has to do so for both people in the relationship. This doesn’t necessarily mean that both have to have the exact same experience. One person might be swept up in admiration or empathetic excitement for a partner’s experience, but somehow the experience has to resonate back and forth between both of them.
Moments of positivity resonance are important to having the kind of experience most of us desire in a committed intimate relationship. They can’t be manufactured, but they can be cultivated.
Philosopher Julian Baggini summarizes it well, saying that love is “more than just a powerful feeling. Without the commitment, it is mere infatuation. Without the passion, it is mere dedication. Without nurturing, even the best can wither and die.”