Confession: I’ve always hated self-help books. I don’t believe there is a one-size-fits-all guide to being a better, smarter, fitter, richer, happier, more successful person.
I don’t believe in love at first sight and I’m not even sure monogamy is the best choice for everyone. And, like almost all of us, I’ve had my heart broken on several occasions.
Not the classic CV of a love guru then. But I do believe in science. I have a degree in neuroscience and I have spent most of my working life as a health journalist. Over the past 15 years of writing about the brain, I’ve come to the realisation that it has made me an accidental expert on all manner of self-help topics — including how to find, and keep hold of, a lasting, loving relationship. If only it had dawned on me earlier.
Helen Thomson who has been writing about the brain for the past 15 years, shares her science-based advice for finding a partner, predicting divorce and mending a broken heart (file image)
By understanding what happens in our brain as we fall in love, how that changes throughout our relationships, and how our innate biases might help or hinder our attraction to someone, we can all do better at the game of love.
Here, then, I present my best science-based advice — on how to find a partner, predict divorce and even mend a broken heart.
HOW TO WOO AND WIN OVER A LOVER
Over the years, I have been on my fair share of online dates. In fact, it wasn’t until date number 25 that I finally met Alex, my husband.
Our first meeting was great. We both felt an immediate physical attraction and our conversation flowed easily. But on our second date — a walk by the Thames — things didn’t go nearly so well. He was hungover and the conversation was stilted. A third date was looking less and less likely.
Then, just as we were preparing to say our goodbyes, an elderly woman suddenly collapsed at my feet. She was shaking uncontrollably, clearly having a seizure.
I ripped off my jumper to protect her head while the fit took its course, then placed the woman in the recovery position. Meanwhile, Alex phoned 999 and shouted to passers-by to see if he could find a medic.
It was all pretty dramatic, and it changed the course of my life. Why? Because I’m convinced it was the only reason we ended up agreeing to meet again — and then had a much better third date that led to a fulfilling relationship and marriage.
In fact, my experience tallies with numerous scientific studies showing that either a dramatic setting or meeting someone when you’re physiologically aroused increases the chance of having romantic feelings towards them.
Research suggests meeting someone when you’re physiologically aroused or in a dramatic setting increases the chance of having romantic feelings towards them (file image)
That’s because of a strong connection in the brain between anxiety, arousal and attraction. In the classic ‘shaky bridge’ study, carried out by psychologists, men who met a woman on a high, rickety bridge found the encounter sexier and more romantic than those who met a woman on a low, stable one.
A visit to a funfair works wonders, too. Photos of members of the opposite sex are more attractive to people who have just got off a roller coaster, compared with photos of those waiting to get on.
For the same reason, you should think carefully about what type of movie to share with a date. Why? Because couples feel more loved-up after watching a suspense-filled thriller than a calmer film — even a romantic one.
Chat-up lines are a waste of time. His impression of you is based 55 per cent on body language and 7 per cent on what you actually say
The theory is that the adrenaline rush you get from danger, panic or excitement may be misattributed in the brain to the thrill of attraction.
There are a few other ways to get a potential partner’s heart racing —like your choice of clothes. The colour doesn’t matter so much as wearing whatever makes you feel most confident.
This may sound obvious but it can really make a difference. When asked to rank mugshots of women, men consistently chose pictures of women who were wearing their favourite outfits.
And this was despite the fact that the women had been asked to keep their expressions neutral — and their clothes weren’t even visible. The way the women felt about their appearance was apparent in their faces, even though they weren’t consciously aware of showing it.
Another tip: when you’re trying to make conversation with someone you fancy, use lots of short, snappy words of encouragement — like ‘go on’, ‘OK’ and ‘I see’. In scientific tests, individuals who do this seem to be rated as more attractive by their date. Which isn’t that surprising, really, given that it makes you feel listened to and interesting.
It’s estimated that a stranger’s impression of you is based 55 per cent on your appearance and body language (file image)
What about chat-up lines? If you’re approaching an attractive man or woman in a bar, you may be frantically trying to formulate the perfect opener. Sorry, this is a waste of time. In reality, your body gives away a great deal before you open your mouth. When you meet a stranger, it’s estimated that their impression of you is based 55 per cent on your appearance and body language, 38 per cent on your style of speaking and a mere 7 per cent on what you actually say.
To create the best first impression, adopt an open posture — which means never folding your arms. Or copy the other person’s posture.
Another tip is to synchronise your gestures and body movements, such as taking a sip of your drink at the same time as your potential date or copying the other person’s posture, which can help create a feeling of affinity. Most people aren’t conscious of being ‘mirrored’ in this way but evaluate those who do it more favourably.
What about eye contact? Any flirt knows that this can be emotionally loaded — and psychologists agree.
When pairs of strangers were asked to gaze into each other’s eyes, their feelings of closeness and attraction rocketed compared with, say, gazing at each other’s hands. More surprising is that one couple who met during such an experiment ended up getting married.
A recent study suggests putting effort into writing long screeds while pursuing a potential partner is a waste of time (file image)
After measuring brain activity during such gazes, neuroscientists found that meeting another person’s eyes activates regions of the brain associated with reward and pleasure. But make sure you don’t hold that gaze for too long. If it’s not reciprocated or you forget to blink, you risk making the other person feel very uncomfortable.
A few last words of scientific advice. If you use online dating sites, don’t sell yourself short. Most people pursue potential partners — ie you — who are roughly 25 per cent more desirable than they are themselves.
And while you may be tempted to agonise over the content of your messages to them, it’s probably not worth it.
I can speak from experience here. By my 24th online date, I had become thoroughly bored with writing long-winded messages, then getting excited by weeks of witty repartee and, when we met in person, knowing instantly I didn’t fancy the guy.
Turns out I was right to stop. A 2018 study found that the variation in pay-off for different writing strategies is tiny — suggesting that putting effort into writing long screeds is a waste of time.
HOW TO IDENTIFY ‘THE ONE’
Selecting a partner can be one of the most crucial decisions of our lives and we devote a huge amount of time and energy to it. So how do you know when someone feels right?
It has long been known that we tend to fall for partners who rank similarly to us in attractiveness, intelligence and status. But there are also less obvious rules of attraction.
Helen said it’s important to trust your instincts when finding a mate with MHC genes that are dissimilar to your own (file image)
One of these involves a particular set of genes, known as MHC (the major histocompatibility complex), which play a critical role in our ability to fight pathogens.
Ideally, what you want is a mate with MHC genes that are dissimilar to your own. That’s because this combination will produce healthier children with broader immune systems.
So should we all rush to have gene tests? Not necessary. Without knowing it, we tend to choose partners with dissimilar MHC genes.
Despite decades of research, it’s still not particularly clear how we identify these genetically suitable mates. It may be to do with smell — in experiments, people tend to rate the scent of T-shirts worn by those with dissimilar MHCs as more attractive.
Perhaps this is the true meaning of sexual ‘chemistry’.
The message, therefore, seems to be to trust your instincts — with one alarming exception. Women who take hormonal contraceptives tend to prefer men whose MHC genes are similar to their own.
This means that women on the Pill risk choosing a partner who isn’t genetically suitable, which could be a problem when it comes to having kids. It may also mean the couple aren’t as compatible as they think they are.
Helen revealed men find women’s scents more attractive when they’re approaching ovulation (file image)
As a science journalist, I was well aware of this when I started dating Alex. So after he proposed, I came off the Pill just to make sure my feelings hadn’t been masked by chemicals. (They hadn’t.)
Another thing to bear in mind is that attraction between the sexes fluctuates over a woman’s menstrual cycle.
Men find women’s scents more attractive when they’re approaching ovulation. This is also the time when males are more loving towards their partners.
As for women themselves, their preferences also change over their cycle. Near ovulation, they prefer masculine traits in men; at other phases in their cycle, they prefer less sexiness and more stability.
HOW TO HOLD ON TO LOVE
Do ‘happy-ever-after’ couples behave in fundamentally different ways from those who cohabit unhappily or divorce?
To find out, psychotherapist John Gottman — known as ‘the Einstein of love’ — and his team began years of detailed work observing newlywed, heterosexual couples as they went about their lives.
Psychotherapist John Gottman and his team claim the fate of a marriage is linked to how a spouse engages with their partner’s casual remarks (file image)
They came to an important conclusion: that the fate of a marriage is linked to how a spouse engages with the other partner’s casual remarks. Let’s say a husband comments on a car parked outside the house.
The wife has a choice. She can either engage positively with him in her response — perhaps asking what car he would buy if he had unlimited funds. Or she can answer minimally or not at all.
In follow-up experiments six years later, the couples who had stayed together responded positively to such remarks 87 per cent of the time. The figure for those who had divorced was just 33 per cent.
Over decades of research, Gottman has found there are four things that are more corrosive to a relationship than anything else. They are: contempt, superiority, criticism and stonewalling.
The most negative is contempt, involving direct insults and sarcasm. But the best predictor of divorce is superiority — feeling that you are better than your partner
Criticism is another sign of a relationship going nowhere, as is defensiveness, such as responding to a complaint with righteous indignation. If you behave in this way, you aren’t taking any responsibility for the problem.
Meanwhile, stonewallers withdraw emotionally from an interaction. Rather than look at their partner, they tend to look down or away.
Helen said people who accept their partner’s apology are more likely to stay together than those who don’t acknowledge it (file image)
So how can you be confident you will avoid all these negative traps? Based on extensive research, Gottman has come up with five important questions you should ask yourself at the start of a relationship.
If you can answer yes to all of the following, you are more likely to stay together for the long haul.
Are you being treated with love, affection and respect?
Do you feel there’s mutual nurturing and support?
Do you really like spending time with this person, so that the time flows like wine?
Is it easy to be together?
Do you like yourself when you’re with this person?
HOW TO KISS AND MAKE UP
One secret of success in a relationship is how you make up after a fight. But don’t imagine that an apology is all that is required to make everything right again.
The key is accepting that apology. People who accept their partner’s apology, regardless of how inadequate it is, are more likely to stay together than those who don’t acknowledge it.
THE SECRET TO FIXING YOUR BROKEN HEART…
It’s a sad fact that, no matter how much we want something to work out, sometimes it just doesn’t.
Like most of you out there, I have had a few relationships that have ended with obsessive texting and crying under a blanket.
And when you’re in the midst of heartache, there’s nothing more earth-shattering than the physical and emotional pain of unrequited love.
Why does it hurt so much? Well, being in love is a lot like addiction — both activate the reward system in our brains.
So it’s not surprising we find it difficult to give up a habitual compulsion to see, hear or touch the object of our desires.
When anthropologist Helen Fisher studied people who had recently been left by a partner, she found activity in the brain that resembled the cravings seen in gambling or substance abuse.
And don’t let anyone tell you that the pain isn’t real — her team also found activity in areas of the brain responsible for physical pain and anxiety. There is, however, a common drug that may help — paracetamol.
It seems unlikely that it might help to overcome emotional heartache, as well as subduing a painful headache, but science tells us otherwise.
That’s because physical pain and social pain, such as that caused by a rejection, are controlled by overlapping neural systems.
Paracetamol acts centrally, easing pain by blocking chemical messengers in the brain, so it makes sense that it may also help to cure heartache. In studies, paracetamol taken daily for three weeks has helped people experience significantly fewer feelings of hurt than those who take a placebo.
The effect is increased if you also spend time each day thinking about forgiving the person responsible for your pain.
A word of warning, however: recent research suggests that taking paracetamol also reduces empathy for other people’s suffering.
Since we rely on empathy to be decent human beings, this raises questions about the impact of taking paracetamol for a prolonged period. And that’s before we even consider the risks associated with taking any drug, particularly for more than a day or two.
All in all, if you are suffering from heartache, it may be safer sticking to a simpler approach.
Just like any addict, you need to cut off your supply — so no calls or texts or spending time staring at old pictures.
Then replace your fix with something else that gives you a burst of the feelgood hormones dopamine or oxytocin.
Exercise will ramp up your dopamine, and bodily contact (for example, a hug) and social interaction (such as seeing close friends) can raise oxytocin.
What’s more, over several months the areas of the brain responsible for feelings of attachment diminish in activity. In the end, time does heal.
That’s something my mum always said, and it turns out to be true.
Adapted by Corinna Honan from This Book Could Fix Your Life by New Scientist and Helen Thomson (£14.99, John Murray), out on January 7. © 2021 Helen Thomson. To order a copy for £13.19, go to mailshop.co.uk/books or call 020 3308 9193. Free UK delivery on orders over £15. Promotional price valid until January 15, 2021.