Ask an Expert: Valentine’s Day edition with love researcher Sandra Langeslag

by | Feb 14, 2020

Learn about love, sex, attraction, marriage and strategies for the broken-hearted from the assistant professor and director of the NEM Lab.
Assistant Professor and Director of the NEM Lab Sandra Langeslag's research specialty is the neurocognition of romantic love. She’s researched emotion, attention, cognition, memory and more. (Photo by August Jennewein)

Assistant Professor and Director of the NEM Lab Sandra Langeslag’s research specialty is the neurocognition of romantic love. She’s researched emotion, attention, cognition, memory and more. (Photo by August Jennewein)

Romance is in the air. Or maybe it’s just extortion, as Jay Leno has famously said.

Regardless of whether you are celebrating in the spirit of Lupercalia, dutifully picking up a heart-shaped box of chocolates, hanging with your gals or hiding under the covers, the emotion at the center of Valentine’s Day speaks to most everyone.

“Virtually everyone falls in love at least once, and falling in love has a major impact on people’s lives,” Sandra Langeslag – assistant professor of behavioral neuroscience in the Department of Psychological Sciences and director of the Neurocognition of Emotion and Motivation Lab at the University of Missouri–St. Louis – wrote on her website.

Langeslag knows that more than most since her research specialty is the neurocognition of romantic love. She’s researched emotion, attention, cognition, memory and more – publishing more than 30 papers and book chapters on the subject.

In the spirit of the holiday, UMSL Daily sat down with Langeslag to talk love, sex, attraction, marriage and strategies for the broken-hearted in this latest installment of our Q&A feature.

As a researcher of love and attraction, what do you think of Valentine’s Day?

It’s really developed by stores to make money, but it’s fun. If people want to do something or get some reason to reach out to someone they have a crush on, it might work out. It’s not good if people then feel obliged to do something or if people are upset because they expected something and their significant other didn’t do anything.

For couples who have been in a long-term relationship, are there any strategies to make Valentine’s Day more meaningful?

There are reasons to assume that when you do new, exciting stuff with your long-term partner, that can sort of reignite the spark. You could do this anytime of the year, but you may use Valentine’s Day as a reason to go actually do it. It could even be going to a new restaurant that you haven’t been to, working out together. It could be something really new and exciting such as an escape room or some roller coasters. Doing something new and exciting together can activate something called misattribution of arousal. If you do something that that excites you, so working out or going on a roller coaster, you can misattribute that to the person you’re with.

One of my students is finishing up a study on if we can increase sexual desire for a long-term partner. We know that is often a problem, lust decreases over time, which may lead people to break up. We’re testing different strategies to see if people can increase lust.

What tactic do you think is going to work?

I think fantasizing about having sex with your long-term partner increases sexual desire for that partner. We had people think about, like, “Where would you want to have sex with your partner? What could you sext to them? What would you like to do with them? Or what do you want them to do to you?” I think that was the most effective one. It makes sense, but that’s a pretty easy strategy that people could do.

On the flip side, what are some strategies that a single or recently broken-up person can use to minimize negative feelings?

We have done some research on “Can we change how in love we are?” which may be helpful when you’re heartbroken or when you’re in love with someone who doesn’t love you back and you want to decrease your love feelings. Our research has shown that if you think about negative aspects of that person, that decreases love feelings. You think about how they were maybe not nice to you or how they did not put their socks in the hamper or why you will not be a good match together. That decreases love feelings, but it also makes people feel more negative. I think that it is a good strategy to get over a breakup sooner.

Another strategy is distraction. That doesn’t decrease love feelings, but it makes you feel better. If you go do other stuff – even if it’s just studying or reading but also going to the movies or hanging out with friends – that distracts you from the breakup and makes you feel better.

If you’ve been in a relationship for a long time, we know that love feelings decline over time. That’s natural and happens to almost everyone. If you are otherwise still happy in your relationship, it may be helpful to increase your love feelings. We’ve shown that thinking about positive aspects helps, so thinking about what you like about the other person or how they’ve been nice to you or why you are such a good match. That increases love feelings and even looking at pictures of your beloved really increases love feelings. Especially if you’re maybe apart for a little while, looking at pictures really helps.

Do you know why?

Thinking about negative aspects of your ex or positive aspects of your current long-term partner is based on emotion regulation literature. We know that we can regulate our emotions very well to change how angry we are, how sad or scared. We applied that to love, and that works, too. Looking at pictures, that’s more like an induction method.

Induction is where you can make people feel a certain way, for example, by making them listen to sad music or letting them think back to a time that they were very angry, and so looking at pictures of your beloved will really increase your love feelings, at least temporarily.

Classic pop culture advice is to wallow after breakups and, say, watch sad movies, but it sounds like that’s counterproductive.

There are different regulation strategies, and each of those may have its own merit. We do know that it is helpful to accept feelings. If you’ve gone through a breakup, and you’re sad, then that makes total sense. It is probably helpful to accept that this is a really crappy situation and that you’re sad, and that’s OK. That will ironically probably make you less sad. That’s one strategy that will not affect your love feelings at all, but it may decrease your sadness a little bit. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with doing that. Eventually, you’ll need to move on, so thinking about negative aspects of your ex may then help.

“Love” is a very encompassing term in English. There’s romantic love and there’s lust and also familial and friend love. Is there actually any difference there, or are they all the same thing?

People don’t agree. Love, the way I view it, and some researchers agree, is this overarching term, and it entails lots of different types of love. Lust would be one type of love, even though lots of people actually don’t call it love, but I think it is a form of love. Then we have infatuation, which is the passionate love, which is usually the early stages when you’re nervous and have butterflies in your stomach, and you’re blushing. Then there is attachment or companionate love, which develops over time. If you’re in a long-term relationship, that will increase over time, and it’s a very calming state where the other person can calm you down. It’s relaxing just going to sit on the couch with them. You could also feel attachment or companionate love for friends or family members or even pets. That is something that’s not necessarily romantic love whereas most people will call infatuation romantic love.

Across sexes are there differences among all those forms of love?

There are definitely some gender differences but not a whole lot. I think, typically, women are more intensely in love than men. That has to do with evolutionary psychology where women only have one egg a month, and if that gets fertilized, they become pregnant and that takes at least nine months and then breastfeeding and then an infant. If women decide to have sex, that can help have long-term consequences, so they need to really think about that. For men, it’s the other way around. They have millions of sperm, they could have sex multiple times a day. For them, it’s more like, “OK, if this woman is slightly nice enough, let’s give it a try.” Men, their evolutionary strategy is to be not picky at all – just have sex with as many women as possible. That’s best for their genes. Whereas women need to be very selective. That’s the best evolutionary strategy for them.

I think a lot of gender differences relate back to that biological difference. Then in terms of, for example, age, that would be very interesting to study. It will be interesting to test how love changes across the lifespan.

Then there’s of course, cultural differences, too. For example, in India, there’s arranged marriages, and we know that love can grow over time within those marriages, whereas in western marriages that are not arranged love decreases over time.

Why is that?

I don’t know. Let me start by saying that I’m definitely against forced marriages. I don’t think that’s a good idea. But, you know, there are cultures where arranged marriages are common and people are OK with that. Research has shown those marriages can be very happy. Whereas in the U.S., but also Western Europe, we tend to marry out of love. To us arranged marriages sound maybe terrible, like how can you marry someone that you maybe have never met or don’t love? But our non-arranged marriages often fail ­– about a third or half end in divorce. Who can say that our strategy is the superior strategy?

Do you have any thoughts about monogamy versus polygamy? Is it in our brains or a social construct?

Typically, people only feel passionate love or infatuation for one person at a time. We can feel attachment or companionate love for many different people at a time – your romantic partner but also parents and friends and children. Helen Fisher is an anthropologist, and she states that what humans actually evolved to do was serial monogamy. You are monogamous with one person, you have a baby with them, and then you stay together until the child is old enough to not need parents anymore 24/7, which she says is around the age of four. Then the best strategy would be to move on to a different partner so that you can have a child with a new person to increase your chances of having successful offspring. She says that’s how humans evolved.

Actually, you see that a lot because many people have multiple partners over their lives even though marriage is supposed to last until one of us dies. It often nowadays doesn’t, and we move on and maybe get married again. Maybe we’re slowly going back to what we were “supposed” to do.

Are we still driven by the biological imperative in contemporary society?

When I teach about this, I always say the goal is to reproduce, but I’m not saying “you” need to. I’m not saying you’re unsuccessful if you don’t, but from an evolutionary perspective, the goal is to have as many children as possible. Now, of course, we think about that very differently. We have contraception, and I’m glad we do. We have other goals in life, and it’s perfectly fine if you don’t want to have children, or you can’t have children and lead a perfectly successful and fulfilling life.

But from evolutionary perspective, your goal … this is getting technical. There’s a theory that I like by Richard Dawkins, who wrote “The Selfish Gene,” which says that the unit of evolutionary selection, natural selection, is not an individual but the genes. Your genes want to reproduce themselves, and in order to get there, they need to make you want to have sex. Basically, your genes make you do these things that maybe you don’t want. For example, unprotected sex on a one-night stand is nowadays not a good idea for STDs, pregnancy. But from your genes’ perspective, that’s the way to go. So that’s why it’s difficult for people to use a condom, for example. Even though they know they should, their genes are kind of telling them, “No, don’t do it.”

UMSL Daily does not advocate listening to your genes. Practice safe sex!

Jessica Rogen

Jessica Rogen