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Here's A Scientific Reason For Why Love Is So Damn Hard

According to famed anthropologist Helen Fisher.

Posted on August 17, 2015, at 9:54 a.m. ET

Anyone who has been lucky enough to experience romantic love knows full well that it can be a complicated clusterfuck of confusion and emotion.


That’s because romantic love is primitive and powerful.

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According to anthropologist and noted love expert Helen Fisher, Ph.D., romantic love (not even sexual desire) is as basic as the drive for food or water. As part of her research, she has imaged the brains of thousands of people at different stages of sexual relationships using an MRI scanner. “As it turns out, the basic wiring for romantic love is way below the cortex, way below the thinking part of the brain, even below the emotional centers of the brain,” she told BuzzFeed Science.

But there is more to love than romance, and that’s where things get complicated.

Fisher argues that there are three separate aspects of love and that each is governed by different and unique chemical systems in the brain.
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Fisher argues that there are three separate aspects of love and that each is governed by different and unique chemical systems in the brain.

Fisher argues that each of these systems has a specific evolutionary function with the ultimate goal of passing DNA on to an offspring who can survive past infancy.

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The drive for sex gets “you out there looking for a range of partners,” she told BuzzFeed Science. This drive makes you look at all the options that are out there so that you can choose the best mate possible.


Romantic love, on the other hand, focuses one's mating energy on a single particular person, which allows you to form a pair-bonded, child-rearing team. “[Humans] are very helpless babies that take a very long time to mature,” Fisher explained, “and the kind of person who goes around sleeping with everybody and not forming any kind of bond with them — a million years ago would probably not have had a lot of children because for millions of years people have needed a partner in order to raise their baby.”


Attachment, the final component of love, is all about tolerating your partner, according to Fisher. “I think the feelings of deep attachment evolved so they will need to stick with it first to tolerate this person ... long enough to raise one child through infancy,” she said. She argues that this occurs at about age 4, when children can be social with their peers and be taken care of by relatives and older children.

One catch is that we don’t experience these types of love by themselves or in that exact order.

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"Of course," Fisher added, "all relationships are going to be vast complex mixes of all three or maybe just two or one or whatever." Your drive to look for many partners will almost certainly overlap with your desire to be with a single person or with your desire to remain attached. That's where things can get messy.


A second catch is that life has changed a great deal since our ancestors roamed the African savannah a million years ago.


We are less reliant on pair-bonding to raise children, Fisher said. The real evolutionary need for feelings of attachment, she argued, covers the first four years of a child's life — the crucial infancy years. After that, there is less of an evolutionary need for pair-bonding and attachment.

Obviously, love is likely a bit more complex than that three-part description.

David Buss, a psychology professor at the University of Texas at Austin and author of The Evolution of Desire: Strategies of Human Mating, says that "human mating strategies are more complex" than the simple three-part classification of love Fisher describes. He thinks her ideas are a good starting point, but argues that a key problem with them is that gender-specific differences permeate all three systems, he told BuzzFeed Science.

What is clear, though, is that there is an innate human drive for humans to be pair-bonded whether you like it or not, even if it conflicts with other desires.

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Good luck out there, lovers!

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