Wednesday,23 August, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1332, (16 - 22 February 2017)
Wednesday,23 August, 2017
Issue 1332, (16 - 22 February 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Happily ever after?

St Valentine
St Valentine

So you pledged your everlasting love this Valentine and promised to be faithful and loyal forever and ever. Despite your fervent sincerity, you were telling an untruth. It was not your intention of course. This has nothing to do with you personally. This has to do with human nature.

By nature we are not monogamous. Only three per cent of all of Earth’s mammals are monogamous. But man is not one of them — neither is woman.

Infidelity is not intended. It just happens. It happens to all kinds of people, in all walks of life. Long ago a tenderhearted bishop Valentine had a deep belief in romantic love and it caused his death. His legend however lives on. Valentine defied orders by Emperor Claudius II, and welcomed young lovers who wished to be joined in holy matrimony. Claudius, who believed that single men made better soldiers, threw Valentine in jail, and executed him on 14 February 200 AD. It was not till 496 AD that Pope Gelasius ordained Valentine, patron saint of love and 14 February as St Valentine’s Day.

This ancient feast of love and lovers was celebrated as far back as the fourth century BC, when Romans engaged in an annual young man’s rite to passage, to meet and court prospective mates. The feast, Lupercalia was dedicated to the god Lupercus. To replace the pagan feast the church assigned the day to the martyr St Valentine.

What is this thing called love? This mysteriously, magical, many-splendoured thing, which defies all human logic? What makes your knees go weak, your palms sweat, what breeds those butterflies in your stomach, what makes you stutter, stammer shake and blush?

Science believes it finally has the answer. It is simply a change in the chemistry of your brain when you meet someone you are attracted to. That chemical is phenyl-ethylamine, (PEA), closely related to amphetamine and produces the same effect. PEA also sets off a chemical chain reaction in the brain, releasing the neuro-transmitters dopamine, as potent as morphine.

These chemicals have a profound impact on the limbic system of the brain, which is the seat of emotion. The cortex, responsible for logical thinking, is over-ruled by the limbic system. Out goes logic, in comes love. You cannot think straight, you are drunk with passion. Does that make love an addiction, literally? Yes.

So you are in love, but for how long?

Anthropologist Helen Fisher of Rutgers University, in her famous book Anatomy of Love, as well as other scientists, have concluded that after a certain period, the brain’s natural “highs”, cool down. How long is that period? It varies from 18 months to three years. The result at best is attachment, at worst, separation.

Hard as it may be to accept, the strongest drive in nature, regarded even stronger than hunger, is just a matter of chemistry.

Such a let-down. This glorious feeling that has inspired writers, musicians, poets, painters, artists throughout the ages is nothing more than a chemical state.

Lovers have no need to know that — not this week — but like a candle, the truth sheds light and cannot be avoided. The euphoric state will fade and man tends to stray, craving the chemical effects he once fell for.

Accept it. We are polygamous, not monogamous.  

Society imposed monogamy. Society imposed marriage.

Dr Daniel Kruger, social and evolutionary environmentalist at the University of Michigan concludes: “Like most mammals we are a polygamous species. Monogamy is invented for order and investment but not necessarily because it is natural.”

In the whole of the animal kingdom, of the 5,000 species of mammals, only a handful form lifelong monogamous relations, like the “love-birds”, a rodent called the “prairie vole”, the “albatross” and a couple of others.

Evolutionary psychologists suggest that men are more likely to stray, partially due to a primal urge to spread genes. But of late, women have been emboldened and empowered by their economic independence.

During the 1950s, the famous study on sexual behaviour, the “Kinsey Report” by Dr Alfred C. Kinsey (1894-1956) concluded that by age 40-50 per cent of men and 26 per cent of women had extra-marital relations. It caused quite a storm of opposition.

Recent studies showed a significant increase in deviance. Conservative estimates find 60 per cent of men and 40 per cent of women will seek other relations, toppling the traditional male prestige.

No longer alone with a licence to cheat, men are now forewarned. More exposure for women means more opportunity.

Technology has also redefined and broadened the definition of “betrayal”. Entire affairs are sometimes conducted online.  Texting, Facebook, Twitter, etc, are increasingly suggestive, sometimes even leading to matrimony.

Post-war environment, wrought with pain, destruction and the futility of life, erodes the rigid morals of our society. It is not because by nature we are deceptive, selfish or cruel. Neither is it a question of right or wrong. It is the great recurring theme of human nature.

Romantic or obsessive love is a refinement of mere lust. Actual behaviour of love is similar to obsessive, compulsive behaviour.

Maybe “Love is not love/ when it alteration finds”, wrote Shakespeare, but in this the 21st century it has added totally new dimensions. Nonetheless, it retains the essence, therefore love — for love is life — love rules without rules… be it for a moment or a month, for one or many, spread it around on Valentine’s and every day.


“And if I loved you Wednesday/ Well, what is that to you?  

I do not love you Thursday/ So much is true.”

Edna St Vincent Millay (1892-1950)

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