Welcome to the beautiful, danger fraught world of Commitment.
Commitment is a place few authors dare to tread. Committed couples? Where’s the romance in that? (Confession: I totally think you can write a great romance with married characters and this is why EVEN VILLAINS FALL IN LOVE exists.)
Traditionally life after the wedding is summed up in one of two ways: They Lived Happily Ever After -or- The End.
One sounds like life was all roses and wedding cakes for eternity, and the other sounds just a little like I Married An Axe Murderer. Neither of those are very promising for story writing. Luckily, science hasn’t been as cynical of the committed life as fiction writers. I would go so far as to suggest that happy married life is one of those well kept secrets that only the locals know about.
So why aren’t happy faces making the headlines? First, good news doesn’t sell, second, Commitment is a very difficult stage to explain. There are so many variables that people can (and have) devote a lifetime to explaining why some couples stay together, and others fall apart.
The Science Behind Commitment
The euphoria of early Lust is gone. The feel-good rush of oxytocin from phenomenal sex wears off. Here is another victim of Cupid’s arrow, in love. And now the fore brain steps in, crushing the screaming hind brain with the sharp stiletto heel and makes a choice.
Do I love this person?
“I cannot fix on the hour, or the look, or the words, which laid the foundation. It is too long ago. I was in the middle before I knew that I had begun.”
– Mr. Darcy answering when he fell in love
Like so many, Darcy confused love with Lust. He was well in Lust with Elizabeth Bennett within moments of meeting her. The true love came later when he acknowledged that there was more than a physical desire. The moment of acknowledgment, when you make a conscious decision to be in love, is when the Commitment phase starts.
This can overlap the other stages. Scientific evidence suggests that love isn’t even a matter of sequential stages, but a cycle [reference].
We are familiar with the daily light cycle: sunrise, sunset, darkness, sunrise again.
Think of love in the same way: initial Lust and desire, Attraction and fulfillment of Lust, conscious decision to protect the object of Lust that becomes a self-less design in the form of Commitment, True Love incites feelings of Lust.
If you really want to drive a scientist crazy start an experiment with too many variables (things that could vary). For instance, ask them to find out what makes a person age 30 fall in love. The age and gender can be controlled. You might be able to narrow down the data but asking only women of a certain nationality, religion, or region, but after that? Variables! How were they raised? What books do they read? What food do they eat? It all plays a part.
For the sake of my sanity we are narrowing a very broad and complex topic down to the easy to identify variables :
– Personal Prejudice: Freud has a field day with this and while he isn’t used by psychologists today, he didn’t have a point: your brain is hardwired to notice certain things. The fore brain (stilettos and STANDARDS) makes a concious decision about who you will date. This involves looking more than jaw lines and rippling pectorals and moves into the area of noticing social cues, indicators of wealth, past relationships, and expectations of what you want.
No matter how well suited an individual is from an evolutionary stand point your personal prejudices will get in the way. Did you get burned by someone named Chris in high school? The chances of you falling in love with another Chris are low. Did you adore your parents? You’ll probably marry someone like them. Are you looking to move up socially? The chances of you falling in love with someone from a lower social strata are limited.
– Sphere of Influence: Some people divide this into Peer Group and Family, but I don’t. By age 25 most people have either moved past their nuclear family or have become friends with them. If you are writing YA or historical fiction you can use the Peer Group vs Family influence as conflict, but for our purposes here they are the same.
The Sphere of Influence is what people you care about will say about the relationship. The classic example is Romeo and Juliet. They were falling in love, definitely in Lust, but the disapproving family killed their chances of Commitment and brought about a tragic end.
A more modern example might be a college student posting a picture of someone they met on FaceBook and asking all their friends if they should go for it.
How much the Sphere of Influence affects a relationship depends on how much each individual involved relies on other people’s opinions to make choices and establish their sense of self-worth. The weaker an individual’s sense of self is, the more they rely on the judgments of the Sphere of Influence.
– Social Conjecture: This aspect of expectations has the least influence on whether or not a couple form a Commitment. This is what you think other people you don’t know think you should do. If you think society is pushing you to have a career before marriage but none of your friends actually say so, the idea falls here. You think society wants you to work more than marry, but there is no proof or weight to the idea.
This can also include taboos or laws that prevent a relationship from developing.
– Physical: Repeat after me: I cannot love someone I have not met.
I know this breaks the hearts of all the Fangrrlz out there, but Justin Bieber does not love you. No. He doesn’t. You may lust after him, and Edward Cullen, and Harry Potter but it doesn’t change a thing. If the person doesn’t know you exist, they can’t love you.
You can’t love someone who doesn’t know you. You can Lust after them all you like, but it isn’t love.
Please note: Physical ability to fall in love does not mean physical proximity. Many happy couples maintain faithful, long-distance relationships. For all those long-distance relationships to work there has to be a moment where you meet physically, catch the persons scent, and let the hind brain do its job of assessing genetic compatibility.
– Emotional: I think the biggest symbol of this is the wedding ring. In Western society the wedding band is a clear indicator that the person with the ring is Off Limits. Body language and behavior will also signal whether a person is willing to engage in a relationship of some kind.
Emotional indicators are often confusing, and this is great source of conflict for a writer. It is a great source of doubt and confusion for anyone dating.
A person can Lust after anyone they want, but there needs to be a positive emotional response from the Lustee if the relationship is going to have a happy ending. Even in asexual or aromantin individuals there is some level of emotion, it may not lead to a sexual relationship, but sex isn’t required for romantic relationships of any kind.
– Reciprocation: You cannot love someone who doesn’t know you exist, and you can’t establish a Committed relationship of the romantic kind with someone who doesn’t reciprocate. When someone says, “I’m so in love! Why won’t he notice me?” the answer is, “You are in Lust. That’s the norepinephrine talking. Get a life.”
The chemicals from the first stage of Lust make you obsess over someone. The cuddly feel-good chemicals of Attraction come when the person begins to pay attention. The Commitment stage of love is a mutual choice. Unless they make the same choice as you, it isn’t Love, it’s infatuation.
If you are writing a romance of any kind please print that sentence out and tape it above your monitor. One sided affection is creepy-stalker-love. Not romantic!
Most researchers would put religion under Sphere of Influence, and yet again I disagree. Spiritual or religious belief is a amalgamation of personal prejudice, sphere of influence, and social conjecture and I think it needs it’s own space.
What religion does that social mores don’t is offer a long-term consequence to your actions. It’s more than getting snubbed at dinner parties because you married the wrong person, it’s the personal belief that your choices in love will have eternal/immortal consequences. And then it adds another layer of social expectation on top of that.
Picture this scene some 3000 odd years ago:
Boy: Father, I’m in love!
Dad: Great, what’s his name son?
Boy: I fell in love with a woman, Father.
Dad: What? NOOO!!! What in the name of Zeus do you think you’re doing? This is a conservative Hellenistic household and I won’t have you shaming the family name by bringing your liberal Jewish smut in here!
Boy: But, Father! I love her!
Dad: Oh, no you don’t! You can’t love a woman! They’re barely smarter than cattle! Now, put on your toga like a good boy and we’ll go to church.You’ll go to the orgy and you’ll like it!
Despite the hind brain kicking you and insisting that two of one gender to not evolutionary sense make, society has often pushed away from evolutionary tendencies to secure homosexual, incestuous, or caste -based relationships as the norm.
Society is very fond of forcing the naturally slutty human being into monogamous, or infertile, relationships. And religion with the threat of eternal damnation and/or the end of the world for not marrying your sibling is often the mechanism of enforcement.
What makes these spiritual beliefs different from Sphere of Influence is that the beliefs learned in childhood are so firmly ingrained in the Personal Prejudice that a person may not even look outside the walls of their spiritual belief when considering love or a long-term relationship. It becomes a block to ideal evolution on multiple levels.
Procreating with a sibling is a Bad Idea (looking at you House Lannister), but other things (only marrying in a tribe, race, religion, or caste) can be equally limiting the dispersal of genes. And nobody but a geneticist will care about this in real time, which makes this a fun fact to remember when writing societies that tightly control the movement of genetic material.
Romantic love and sex are always consensual. Everyone involved should be happy and enthusiastically willing. There are many opinions on what is right or wrong, or what makes the ideal relationship/couple/parenting group, but that is always a personal choice. Don’t judge someone else’s happiness. If it’s working for them, and it’s a consensual relationship between adults, you smile and let live.
There is too much hate in the world, and if you take on the mantle and title of Romance Author than your job is to bring a little more happiness and love to the world. So make sure it’s an inclusive happiness.
Stages of Love: Lost and Rough-Hewn Spears
Stages of Love: Attraction and Rejection
Stages of Love: Commitment and Happily Ever After
Writing Realistic Relationships (the basics)