Valentine’s in the Philippines is becoming like Christmas—a prolonged season. Which means you might have guessed what I’m going to write about: falling in love, staying in love.
I’m pretty much a cynic about romantic love, in part because of my training in science. I’ve taught “Sex and Culture” and “Exploring Gender and Sexuality” for almost three decades, which means I have to constantly update myself with the research on falling in love (yes, people can actually earn a living doing this kind of research), and the reports can make love seem drab, just a function of stimuli and hormones.
Because of administrative work, I’ve had to stop teaching these sexy courses and so I’ve sort of lost touch with the research. But there’s one particular area that has always intrigued me, and to prepare for this year’s Valentine’s column, I thought I’d revisit the literature.
I revisited the many studies on what American psychologist Robert Epstein, former editor of Psychology Today, calls “soulful gazing,” something which you can do as a class project, or even as a party game. Epstein likes to conduct classes, and seminars, where he pairs off men and women who are complete strangers. He asks each to first rate on a scale of 1 to 10 how each feels about the other—loving, liking, feeling close—and the results of course always show almost no feelings. The pairs are then asked to stare into each other’s eyes for two minutes. Just the eyes. They shouldn’t look at any other part of their partner’s bodies.
After the two minutes, he asks the research participants to evaluate if they felt an increase in emotions toward their stranger-partners. In one of his sessions, there was a 7-percent increase among the couples of feeling more in love. (This was a small group and it only meant one of the participants feeling a bit of love.) In terms of liking each other, the increase was 11 percent and for feeling closer to each other, the increase was 45 percent.
That was from just two minutes. Other experiments have longer periods of “soulful gazing,” with more reports of couples feeling closer to and liking each other more, or even falling in love.
These experiments tend to raise the eyebrows of the more staid academics, who view them as more like magic tricks. But these aren’t tricks. Out in the real world, people do recognize how easily we can fall in love… and warn about it. Grandparents tend to be more vigilant than parents. They watch young people and warn against their spending too much time together because they have seen, or personally experienced, the effects of that time together, especially when people do things together.
We know, too, how barkada (peer group) members get into dilemmas when they start to fall in love with each other, especially with confidantes. That’s not surprising because when you have long conversations with each other, “soulful gazing” occurs.
It’s all part of biology and natural selection. We’ve evolved to build social ties. Our survival in the world depends on how we socialize. Notice how infectious yawning and coughing and sneezing can be; we repeat what others do because we’re programmed to do that—a way of expressing solidarity.
The “soulful gazing” part is tricky. Staring is different from gazing. Staring is threatening; we know how a “masamang tingin” (dirty look) can become lethal in the Philippines.
Generally, we avoid eye contact with strangers and new acquaintances. As friendships grow, we subconsciously send signals allowing more eye contact, which can then create feelings of closeness.
Those feelings develop more rapidly when we’re vulnerable, as in difficult or dangerous situations. For disaster-prone Filipinos, it’s not surprising to hear stories of love developing amid a typhoon, especially between rescuer and rescued.
Poverty itself makes young people vulnerable, young girls in particular, who dream of a Prince Charming—even if he’s just a construction worker with a glib tongue and a way with the eyes—who will liberate her from a hard life.
It’s interesting how religious groups that offer retreats also warn participants about possibly falling in love when they are together. I’ve heard terms like “Vipassana romance” and “Zen fever”—used to refer to retreat participants who fall in love. Even if they remain quiet, simply being side by side for a prolonged period, and especially with their minds cleared of distraction, feelings of intimacy and of falling in love can emerge.
The research does show that “soulful gazing” won’t spark romance between relatives. (They tend to end up giggling and laughing.) Also, if you’re a straight man, staring into another straight man’s eyes won’t lead to feelings of intimacy; in fact, it may make both parties uncomfortable. (Oops, am I opening a Pandora’s box? Next time you do pare talk, and start feeling something different, you could suggest, Hey, want to watch this cowboy movie “Brokeback Mountain”?)
The practical side to all this research?
I warn young people not to confuse passion and love, which is easy to do. More difficult, they should also know that “love” develops all too quickly, all too randomly. It’s not surprising that we talk about falling in love: We “fall” because we’re vulnerable. In class, I warn my students about falling in love as a semester is about to end, as people spend time together rushing term papers and reviewing for final exams.
We’re vulnerable, too, when we’ve just fallen out of love, broken off with someone. I’ve seen so many people jumping out of the frying pan (a bad partner) and into the fire (a worse partner, who just happened to be around at the right time).
Something new I picked up, though, in reviewing the studies, especially in Epstein’s work: If “soulful gazing” works for falling in love, he proposes, then why not use it to stay in love?
He notes how, in the United States, relationships start off with a lot of fireworks, then proceed to falling in love, then to passion, but that this fades with time. In cultures with arranged marriages, complete strangers fall in love gradually during the marriage, and there are studies showing that the love in such marriages may surpass that of marriages that resulted from romantic love.
Epstein’s advice is for couples to find ways to make each other vulnerable again. Do things with a bit of danger (ziplining?), that are “physically arousing” (in the gym, not the bedroom), or simply do new things together because then you end up talking about the new experiences.
As we grow older, we would probably think it’s corny, cheesy, or silly to hold hands and stare into each other’s eyes, but try anyway. Put away that cell phone or tablet next time you eat out, and do some “soulful gazing.” You just might realize that, indeed, you fell in love with this person because you were vulnerable, but after all these years together and all the doubts you had—why him/her?—you still end up feeling: “And why not?”
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