The days of one-night stands are over – anthropologist
The coronavirus pandemic has not only been a health crisis but it has put our relationships to the test as well. We talked about love and human relations in the post-coronavirus era with Helen Fisher, anthropologist and chief scientific adviser for the Match.com dating service.
Sophie Shevardnadze: Helen, so great to have you on our program back again. But I mean, this time around, what times to be talking about humans and human relationships because before the pandemic, we used to pat someone on the back to show support or compassion. And we used to shake hands to, you know, greet somebody, and we used to offer a hand when you were actually helping someone literally. But with all those things from now on, do you think it's gonna be a sign of carelessness, ignorance as opposed to what they were before? Will all this touchy-feely behaviour become an unacceptable thing as the social norm?
Helen Fisher: I think to some extent, and for a period of time, I mean, once we get the antidotes to the virus and vaccines, I think that people will get back to touching and kissing and hugging each other. You know, we are mammals. We are built to touch and kiss and hold each other. But I do think that we are going to be more careful with people that we don't know. I think we're in an age of transparency, in an age in which you get to know somebody very well before the touching starts and before the kissing starts. And I think this is particularly important for singles because, you know, when you're married to somebody, you're going to get the virus or not get the virus but you're not moving out. You're not leaving the person. But when you're dating, when you're courting... I think it's going to be the age of transparency, the day of the one-night stand is now over, at least for a while.
SS: We get to talk in detail about that. But just like you said, it's going to come back the whole hugging and kissing, it's just question of time. We just don't know how much time. I mean, it could take up to a year or two to get that vaccine out, actually properly test it until we actually start using it, right? So before that, because a year or two is also a long period of time. Physical contact, because it's part of our nature, like you're saying, it's a vital non-verbal means of communication. The touching and stroking triggers the endorphin system in our brain. If all those things will be excluded from our social habits for that time being, for a year or two, where will we be getting those endorphins and oxytocins from?
HF: You know, you can fall madly in love with somebody who you've never met in person, you can feel feelings of deep attachment when somebody over the internet says something that's really endearing. You can even fall in love with somebody without ever touching. I mean, these are basic brain systems, and they just live within us and you know, suddenly you read a good poem and you can even start to cry. You can read an email that makes you mad and suddenly the brain circuitry for anger becomes active, and you can certainly be talking to somebody and they can tell you how much that they love you or that they are dying to kiss you or hold you and you can begin to feel that feeling of deep attachment. So these are basic brain systems that can be really triggered almost at any time. Now, it's better to do the hugging, no question about it. And when you have sex with somebody with orgasm, there's a real flood of oxytocin and vasopressin and you can feel feelings of deep attachment. But you can feel all those feelings just from getting a beautiful birthday card from somebody who loves you. These brain systems are not going to die, just because we've got a virus. They're very primitive. You know, we've evolved three distinctly different brain systems for mating and reproduction, sex drive, feelings of intense romantic love, and feelings of deep attachment. And any one of them can be triggered even over the internet, even through FaceTime.
SS: So when you're saying the one-night stand era is over, at least for now, how much will we be re-evaluating physical contact? Will it become a more intimate form of interaction, more exclusive than it is now?
HF: Yes, I definitely think so. What's interesting now is we're seeing the rise of the whole new stage in the courtship process. You know, prior to this pandemic, people met on the internet, and then they went out and met in person. Now, during this lockdown, they've met on the internet and then spent hours on the internet, you know, doing video chatting, either on FaceTime or Zoom or Skype...Getting to know somebody before the kissing starts. And I do think that this new stage of courting on the internet will remain after the pandemic subsides simply because it's logical. You know, in the old days, and they just before the pandemic, when you went out and met somebody for the first time, you know, there's always this uncomfortable thing. “Am I going to kiss her?” “Should I kiss him?” “Do we hold hands?” It's gone. It's off the table when you're courting on the internet with video chatting, you know, sex is not involved. Money is also not involved. You don't have to decide, you know, do we go to a fancy restaurant? Do we have a fancy drink? Do we go to a coffee bar and spend 20 minutes and very little money? Money's off the table and sex is off the table. And what is on the table is self-disclosure. What people are doing much more during this pandemic is having conversations with each other. So, and in terms of singles, they're doing much more courting on the internet. So by the time they get to the first date, they will have already done a lot of self-disclosure, which builds intimacy. They will have already known that they want to meet this person, and that they want to kiss this person, that they dare hug the person because they've had this transparency already. So we're going to see fewer first dates, but they're going to be much more meaningful first dates and I think that kissing is going to start very rapidly because these people have already gotten to know each other. So I think among people who really know each other that transparency is occurring. They're talking about where they've been, who they've touched, that they feel safe themselves. And I think there's going to be just as much intimacy between people who really know each other and have good conversations before the kissing starts.
SS: What you're saying and describing right now, it seems to me like the online video-romancing that we got to see during the pandemic, during this, like two or three months, could actually resolve into changing completely the paradigm of dating. Like you said, before you’d think twice: ”Do I want to see this person or not? Do I go to a fancy restaurant or not? Or should I kiss or not?” And now, you’re locked down in your house for two to three months. So you see this person almost every day on video. And this becomes a sort of new confession-like psychotherapy where you confess and you have the need to tell them everything about you and they do the same thing. I mean, the level of openness about oneself has never been higher to my perception because I've been speaking to people and they're like, “oh my god, this is huge”. Every dating app right now has video, because it has become the biggest thing ever, talking lengthly on video with the other person. And it's so comfortable because if you want to end the date, you just, you know, click stop and the video itself…
HF: So we're gonna kiss fewer frogs, by the time you go out and meet somebody in person, you're going to know that, you know, all this self-transparency has occurred, you've created the intimacy with that person and now you know: “I'd like to go to a fancier bar, spend more money on the drink, and do some kissing and hugging”. You know, we're going to kiss fewer frogs and I do think you're absolutely correct that this is a new stage in dating, dating and courtship on the internet, before you meet in person. And in many respects we are moving forward to the past, I mean, a century ago, people did a lot of talking before they ever actually went out on the date. So it's slowing down the courtship process. And I think that slowing down is actually very healthy. Because all of my data show that the longer you court, and the later you wed, the more likely you are to remain together. So we may even be seeing more stability in our partnerships. But you know, courtship has always been changing. You were suggesting that this is a big change. It is. It's a huge change. But you know, if you think about when the automobile came in, in the United States, by the late 1940s or early 1950s, a lot of people were able to afford an automobile, a car, and what did they get then? A rolling bedroom! I mean motels, you know, I mean, it changed courtship, the automobile. The birth control pill changed courtship. Actually going way back several thousand years ago, when we invented the plough, that changed courtship. So courtship is always going to change. And what's interesting about this new twist of dating on the internet, video chatting, it's actually going to change courtship I think in a very productive way.
SS: It's funny you say that courtship before was about, you know, taking your time to get to know each other and talking to each other, and more time you take to court the stabler relationships get... So that is the thing that leads me to the thought that the relationship that will start during the Coronavirus or coming out of the Coronavirus will be much more stable than the ones that we've seen before. So in a way, we're sort of like rewinding and going back to the basics. There's this classic sci-fi story by Sheckley, all dating in the future is done through services like real-life Match.com, and when the protagonist finally loses all hope with them he sort of resorts to his matchmaker chaperone auntie to find him a match. So it's so funny. Do you feel like people may be getting tired of the 21st-century ways of finding romance and the old school courtship is actually coming back?
HF: Absolutely. And we can see it in front of our faces. We're going to have fewer dates. Because we're going to meet the people on the internet. We're going to get rid of the ones that don't work on the internet, before we meet in person. And those first dates are going to be much more meaningful. Yes, I think there's going to be a lot less of one-night stands. I think we still will have friends with benefits. I call it slow love and I've written a lot about it recently. The mere fact that courtship is really slowing down, I mean, before the internet, before the pandemic, over 70% of singles started a courtship just as just friends. Oh, they're just friends. Talking to this person as just friends, then moving into friends with benefits... You know, you learn a lot between the sheets, not just how somebody makes love, but you know, whether they're kind, whether they can listen, whether they're sympathetic, whether they got a sense of humor, whether they can take any instructions. You learn a lot between the sheets about somebody. So they start out as just friends and move into friends with benefits and then they slowly tell friends and family about this new person, then they slowly move in together and later they wed. I mean, where marriage used to be the beginning of a partnership now it's the finale. The whole courtship process is slowing down and what this pandemic is done is slow it down some more. But you know, it's very interesting. When you mentioned something recently, any kind of catastrophe makes us take a look at who we are, what we've got, what we don't have, what we need, and I do think that more and more people are going to get serious out of partnership at a younger age. They're going to be very careful with them, courtship is going to slow down. But I think they're going to want to know every single thing about somebody before they marry. And I think they're going to take a long time understanding who somebody is. And as I mentioned that, you know, all of the data show that the more the longer the courtship is, the later you're married, the more likely you are to stay together. So here we have a pandemic that's creating chaos in every other part of our life. But in this particular thing called courtship and romance, it may be a bit of a gift.
SS: Could it also be because it's so chaotic around us and uncertainty is probably the most unbearable thing for a human mind that you need to look for some stability anywhere you can and then maybe the relationship and courtship is that stronghold where you can make it stable, and if everything around you is falling apart and the world as you knew it doesn't exist anymore, you at least have this, a stable relationship, and you can hold on to that and not go crazy? Do you think that could be also part of it?
HF: Absolutely. I mean, let's not forget the fact that I mean, I think also, you hinted at this before, I think it's creating a great sense of appreciation for the basics. But I also do think that it's going to be various people who break up after this is over, because it, you know...
SS: It’s happening already, I mean, the amount of divorces are unprecedented. I mean, on one hand, you're saying we're going to get more marriages out of the pandemic in the long-term. But then as we speak, people are divorcing in cosmic amounts.
HF: What's interesting is, you know, it came over in New York about Wuhan and about a huge, soaring divorce rate in China. But what they didn't say is it's probably also a soaring marriage rate too, and a soaring amount of people who really realise, “oh, he is the one”, “oh, she is the one”, “we've now been stuck in, you know, in one room for three months, and we were able to get along and solve our issues, and so I wasn't sure whether I should marry him or her whether I should make a long term partnership of some kind, and now I think I can”. So it's interesting. Now our news is always talking about the soaring divorce rate, but not talking about what is probably equally true.
SS: Why is it? Because we don't have the numbers yet? Or because to get the ratings it’s better to talk about divorces like it’s better to talk about death than love?
HF: Well, you're a journalist, and so I think your guess is better than mine. But my hopefully educated guess is that the press really sells more papers on the bad news than the good news. You know, in fact, my boyfriend just wrote a book called “The Power Of Bad” and how, you know, we do try to sell the bad and see the bad. In fact, the brain is very well built to remember the bad, there is a huge brain region called negativity bias and we tend to remember the bad. I mean, for millions of years in these little hunting and gathering groups it was nice to remember who your friends were. But if you didn't remember who your enemies were, you could die. So the brain is very well built to remember the bad and I do think that our newspapers sort of almost naturally tell you about the divorce rate. And maybe they don't collect much data about the marriage rate either. And also as much more than just marriage, I mean, you could collect data on how many people get married right after the pandemic, but I don't know if we could ever collect it on how many people decide, “okay, now we're going to live together”, “okay, now we're going to start a relationship”, “okay, now, we've been able to be together for three months, I think we can continue at it” because there's no data on that, that's not being collected. But I know the brain, you know, I think, you know, I and my colleagues have put over 100 people into a brain scanner, studied the brain circuitry of romantic love, and we're built to love, we’re built to live in... A lot of those people who are divorcing, vast majority will find a new love, a more stable love, and do it all over again. So, this pandemic is making all of us see who we are, what we need, what we don't have, and drive us to making the kinds of partnerships that will be more stable.
SS: I love what you're saying because I'm an old-fashioned girl, you know, and I like this whole old-fashioned courting and taking it seriously and getting to know each other and all of that, but like you've said, the phenomenon of, you know, friends with benefits is not going to completely disappear, right? We're still gonna have men, mostly men, of course, who are afraid of serious relationships and, you know, men tend to be serial daters.
HF: Well, I like to disagree actually. I think that a lot of people think that... You know, I've studied love for over 40 years now and I'm now Chief Science Advisor to Match.com, I've been there for 15 years collecting scientific data. And every year, I do this study called “Singles in America”. We do not pull the Match members, it has nothing to do with the Match membership. It's a national representative sample of singles based on the US Census. And as it turns out, year after year, men fall in love faster than women. They fall in love more often than women. When they meet somebody that they are in love with, they want to introduce that person to friends and family sooner, probably basic mate guarding. When they get into a real partnership men have more intimate conversations with their wives or girlfriends than women do with their husbands or boyfriends, because women have their intimate conversations with their girlfriends. And men are two and a half times more likely to kill themselves when a relationship is over. So I've been trying to tell the world and maybe this is my opportunity that men actually are the more fragile sex when it comes to romance. When I put men into the brain scanner the way I do with women just the same and even gay people, frankly, this is the same brain system. This is a brain system like the fear system or the anger system. The brain system for romantic love it's actually like a sleeping cat, it lies way below your cortex where you do your thinking, way below the factories in the middle of the head that orchestrate the emotions. It's a basic drive. It's a basic drive to find life's greatest prize, which is a mating partner. And men probably fall in love faster than women because men are more visual. And men have a little less to lose. I mean, a woman is going to have that baby and, you know, then nine months and for millions of years it was dangerous parturition, delivering the child was very dangerous. And in every culture on Earth, women spend more time, you know, raising a child under the age of four. Now, men spend their lives for millions of years going and hunting dangerous animals so that they could feed that child so we are a pair-bonding species and men have for millions of years taken the responsibility of being a good father and a good husband. What's interesting right now is, you know, people are constantly talking to me about, oh, you know, technology is changing love, technology is changing everything. Well, technology is just enabling us to do the same old thing. I mean, all these dating sites are introducing sites. That's all they do is introduce you. The only real algorithm is your own brain. You got to get on the video chatting or meet them in person.
SS: Just to wrap up this amazing insight into the world of dating of today, do you think this pandemic could be also a great equalizer where men and women can come clean in terms of who they really are and sort of start a relationship based on that rather than on prototypes of how women or men should be? Do you think this could actually give it a little extra push, the whole Coronavirus thing?
HF: I think that extra push is very real, Sophie, very real, and I think it will continue. I think that after this pandemic is subsided, and people can then go out and meet in person, I think they will still do the video chatting beforehand because they don't have to deal with the money, they don't have to deal with sex, they can get to know the person, and they can get rid of what they don't want before they go out. So I think first dates are going to be much more meaningful. I think that people will come together after self-disclosure, after transparency has begun. And by the way, I'm crazy about millennials. I don't know how old you are, but I'm just crazy about the young these days. They want transparency. Even before this pandemic started they want transparency. And in fact, they're leading the way in terms of doing the video chatting, getting to know somebody before they settle down. As a matter of fact, 40% of singles today and even more millennials want self-acceptance before they catch feelings. One third of them want to get their finances in order and their career in order before they catch feelings. The young today are very serious. Everybody thinks, oh, they're just sleeping around. Sure. Everybody's always been sleeping around. Let's get a grip there. But the bottom line is, I love this term that they've invented - DTR - define the relationship. You know, the young want transparency, they want to know where this is headed. And they might have their one-night stands, but they're going to get rid of what they don't want rapidly. And they're putting themselves together. They're courting very slowly. This pandemic is making them be even more careful. They will continue to be careful, and they may usher in at least a decade, I don't know, a generation of more solid partnerships.
SS: Oh my God, I like this note. I like what you're saying. My sister is 20 years younger than me and I feel happy for her after this conversation. I feel like she's on the right path and at the right time, in the right moment. Thank you so much for this wonderful insight. It's been a pleasure talking to you. And I hope we get to talk maybe in a year’s time to analyse what from what we've just said came true or what not, it would be wonderful.
HF: I’d love to and I'll be following it. So I'll be glad to show what I find out. And you must tell me what you've discovered too.
SS: Absolutely. Thank you so much.
HF: Thank you.