Love is a drug. No, really it is. Though it lives in the brain, dopamine (a.k.a. romantic love), is doing the heart's bidding. (Pavlo Palamarchuk/AP)
Roses are red, violets are blue
Guys who blow Valentine’s Day
Learn the real meaning of rue.
I am going to get right to the point. Listen up guys: Valentine’s Day is an important event in your love calendar and it requires a plan. The biggest mistake that many of you will make is to pretend otherwise.
To develop the bullet-proof tactics required to emerge unscathed on February 15, you will first have to overcome the almost irresistible temptation to dismiss Valentine’s Day as a colossal hoax perpetrated by a mercenary greeting card industry, a cabal of florists and treacherous Hollywood script writers. Believe me, I understand the righteous impulse to blame these shameless exploiters of our romantic anxieties. But you must be disciplined and you must understand that they are not your real problem.
Your real problem is that Valentine’s Day is a test that you must take and no excuses are allowed. Think of it as the equivalent of the annual inspection you are required to get for your car. You pass or you fail. The guy at the garage does not say: “Looks like you have taken pretty good care of your car since last year’s inspection so I am going to let you slide on the broken headlight bulb.” No, he fails you without the slightest qualm or hesitation. The rules are the rules.
You may have heard about John Gottman, the relationship psychologist, and his “magic ratio.” His research indicates that successful relationships require a ratio of at least five to one positive to negative interactions. In my experience, his formula requires an annual adjustment. On Valentine’s Day the value of positive interactions should be doubled and the value of negative interactions should be multiplied by at least 365 (i.e. the number of days you must wait for a do over).
For the uninitiated, the purpose of Valentine’s Day is to establish that your relationship has enough dopamine in its tank to make it another year. Researchers have identified dopamine as the biochemical underpinning of romantic passion. Your partner wants to know if you have enough of this stuff and Valentine’s Day is the annual inspection system that was designed to deliver the verdict.
The same researchers have discovered that testosterone (lust) and vasopressin and oxytocin (compassionate love) also play an important role in the viability of romantic relationships; however, your Valentine, for better or worse, already has more than enough data on your testosterone level, and your vasopressin and oxytocin levels can be deduced from your good deeds. The mystery substance, requiring its own holiday and elaborate detection system, is dopamine.
Dopamine is also associated with obsession, cravings, and addictions. So why does your mate insist that you prove your relationship tank is topped off with such a notorious chemical?
Men who have figured out the answer have been reluctant to share it with other men for the same reason that they don’t share their favorite fishing spots. Fishing, like Valentine’s Day, is a zero sum game: more fish for you means less fish for me. For someone to be a Valentine’s hero, someone else must be the Valentine’s goat.
I have reached an age (or perhaps my oxytocin level has spiked) where I want to speak up and do my bit to lessen the carnage of this fraught day in February. So code of silence be damned, here’s what you need to know: The reason your mate insists on an annual dopamine inspection is that it provides crucial evidence on the credibility of your pledge to stay together.
Steven Pinker, a cognitive scientist at Harvard, has done some exacting analysis of what he calls the “paradoxical logic” of romantic love. If we were purely rational creatures, making purely rational choices at every opportunity, the odds are that during the next year we might find a better mate. Your partner wants evidence that you will not be making rational calculations in the coming year that could result in selecting a partner with greater mate value. She wants proof that you are driven by a biological, irrational and irresistible yen for her. So on Valentine’s Day you must communicate that you are irrationally crazy about her. You must show her the dopamine.
If you don’t get this right you will exude a nasty little chemical which I call the Valentine pretender pheromone. She will instantly detect this biological scent when you show up with the last sad bouquet available at the convenience store, a hastily selected card from the CVS rack and no dinner plans. She is seeking a high level of dopamine, not dopiness.
It’s not a perfect system, but it’s the one we have. As Tony Soprano, himself no stranger to confusion about love and romance, once mused: “What are you gonna do?”
The views and opinions expressed in this piece are solely those of the writer and do not in any way reflect the views of WBUR management or its employees.