Let’s face it, most of us would like to get a better handle on the where’s, when’s, why’s and how’s of love. And now that neuroscience is starting to tackle questions that were previously left to poets and philosophers, there’s a glut of love and sex advice out there—supposedly guaranteed by the objectivity of cold, hard science. You’ve seen the headlines: His Genes Make Him Cheat! Love Doesn’t Last! Bareback Sex Cures Depression! But before you go believing the headlines (and changing up your behaviors), it’s best that you take a closer look at what these studies can really tell us about those two old friends, love and sex.
The Line: His genes make him cheat.
The Study: Researchers at Sweden’s Karolinska Institute found that men who had a certain variation of a vasopressin receptor gene were more likely to suffer marital discord.
The Bottom Line: The researchers did find a significant correlation between men who had the 334 variant of AVPR1A, a gene that codes for a vasopressin receptor. Previous work in animals has shown that the density of vasopressin receptors in certain regions of the brain was linked to monogamous behaviors—so, of course, headlines screamed about infidelity. Only two little problems with that conclusion. One: genes are not deterministic—and there is no behavior that can be distilled down to a single gene. Two (and perhaps more importantly): The researchers at Karolinska never asked any of their study participants about infidelity directly. Ooops
The Line: Semen is a natural anti-depressant.
The Study: Gordon Gallup, a researcher at the University of Albany, found that females who were having sex without condoms were less depressed. Gallup theorized that semen might be a natural anti-depressant.
The Bottom Line: This is a correlational study. Just because A is linked to B and B is linked to C doesn’t mean that A is linked to C. But beyond this basic rival hypothesis type analysis, there are a lot of things Gallup didn’t measure in this study—semen exposure outside of condom use and the reasons why these women made their specific contraceptive choices. The last bit is a biggie: women may have chosen not to use condoms because they were more religious, in a happy, monogamous relationship or for some other reason that might better explain the differences seen in mood measures.
The Line: Men and women can’t be friends — sexual attraction gets in the way.
The Study: Researchers at the University of Wisconsin Eau Claire asked students (along with a close friend of the opposite sex) to come in and fill out some questionnaires about friendship and romance. They found that men, regardless of whether they were dating someone else, tended to admit having strong attractions to their female friends. They also reporting thinking their female friends were into them.
The Bottom Line: Even long before When Harry Met Sally tackled this particular topic, the idea of platonic friendships between men and women has been debated—again and again and again. Never mind that there are plenty of examples of platonic friendships between men and women out there in the world. But the biggest problem with this study is the sample. I’m not sure that college kids’ views on romance and friendship are really representative of the world at large.
The Line: Passionate love can only last for two years.
The Study: There have been several studies in the past decade that have come up with 2 years as a magic number when it comes to love. Donatella Marrazitti, a researcher at the University of Pisa, found brain chemicals like oxytocin, testosterone and neurotrophins increase when someone falls in love. But then go back to baseline after two years. Arthur Aron, a researcher at SUNY Stony Brook, found a similar trend with happiness ratings.
The Bottom Line: These changes don’t mean that love can’t list. It’s possible that, in humans, two years is the length of time required to solidify a bond between two people. Again, these are correlation studies—and it’s hard to suss out what exactly is mitigating these changes. Other studies have shown that passionate love can be sustained over time—and certainly for much longer than two years—but it’s unclear why some relationships fizzle out and die and others go the distance.