Why Does Romance Exist? 3 Evolutionary Theories, Explained

As a species, we love romantic love. Hearts, marriage, eternal vows of commitment, soppy letters: it's our bread and butter. But romance itself is actually kind of a scientific puzzle: what is it for? There's a significant question mark over the question of whether any animals feel romantic love in the same way we do, but what's clear is that we humans certainly love talking about it, writing about it, showing it, and generally obsessing over it. But why? Romance isn't strictly necessary to get laid, after all. Why don't we just couple up, have babies, and not let any of the pink-red nonsense cloud our minds? Where did romance — that strong expression of deep affection and devotion — evolve from, and does romance have an evolutionary purpose?

It turns out that romance's significance and evolutionary purpose have had scientists stymied for years, with many competing and eliding theories running around about what it's for. Romance of the early, all-consuming kind is a distinct experience in the brain, combining oxytocin, vasopressin, and dopamine to give a rush akin to addiction. Beyond the frilly Valentines and corny films, this is very powerful stuff. Many theories about romance seem to combine to be part of one big picture, but there's no official consensus on what it's really doing hanging around, making us feel bad when we watch Jack fall away from Rose in Titanic.

So what's romance doing and where did it come from? Why can we feel so intensely about another person when they may eventually break our heart and steal our I Love Lucy DVDs? As you get bludgeoned by romantic imagery of all kinds this Valentine's Day, let's go plunging into three theories about what romance may actually be for.

The Pair-Bonding Theory

This is one of the most famous theories about romance's evolutionary purpose, though it's not without its controversies. In 1987, scientists Cindy Hazan and Phillip Shaver published a paper that put romance firmly in the practical camp. They said that romance was basically a form of "pair-bonding," designed to make humans attach to one another in adulthood in the same seriously strong way that babies attach to their parents. Previously, scientists had just looked at this "attachment theory" in relation to kids, but Hazan and Shaver had a new idea. They thought romance attaches us because we need to raise kids together.

The pair-bonding theory is pretty simple. Babies in human history had a better chance of surviving with two parents rather than one, because they're kind of underdeveloped and helpless. Romance, that dizzying rush and deep attachment, evolved to cement people together so that they'd stay together as a unit while they raised a kid. Not particularly glamorous, but it's been a pretty dominant theory for a long time.

Pair-bonding is part of a whole spectrum of thinking about humans, monogamy, and raising kids. Romance is seen as a kind of solidifying glue for couples to stay together, part of a series of evolutionary strategies like women's hidden menstrual cycles (so we don't know when they're ovulating and couples can have sex all the time) and men's long penises (so couples can have sex in many different positions, including intimate face-to-face) to keep parenting couples together.

Pair-bonding has had its controversies, though. Some theorists don't think we're an innately pair-bonded species and don't automatically raise kids in a nuclear family; the whole "it takes a village to raise a child" thing is popular in many cultures. If a lot of people take care of a kid, rather than just the two parents, then romance doesn't necessarily need to be part of the picture. And other sceptics think the whole idea isn't nuanced enough; romance changes, after all. What purpose does the ebb and flow of romantic love have beyond raising kids? Maybe we just, well, enjoy it.

The Peter Pan Theory

Technically called the developmental-immaturity theory, this one's kind of awkward. It's a variation of attachment theory too, but it's a bit weirder. The theory goes that we're actually kind of childlike as a species; because humans are born without being fully independently developed so they can fit through the birth canal, we're much slower to reach adulthood than other primates. We're mostly hairless and reach sexual maturity much later — and our brains continue to be kind of childish for a long time.

So the theory goes that romance is just us being a bit childlike: we're repeating the same need for safety, affection, and intimacy as we had with our parents, only with a partner instead. Creeped out yet? Sounds like Freud would like this one.

The Rosy Sunglasses Theory

That phrase comes from Professor Robin Dunbar and his book The Science Of Love, and it poses a slightly different view on what romance actually does. According to Dunbar, "it's the rosy sunglasses of romance that are needed to overcome our scruples and social reserve and give us the courage to get started". Romance, in other words, is Cupid being a bit blind; it gives us an idealized view of our partner, a frisson of amazingly positive feelings, and pushes us to make a deeper commitment, believing it to be safe. It helps us to take the risk that's involved in forging a relationship.

It does seem that romance has a distinctly dizzying effect on the brain. A now-famous 2010 study found that viewing pictures of a romantic partner when you were in the first nine months of your relationship seriously activated the "reward pathways" in your brain and actually reduced your experience of pain. Humans naturally want to avoid being emotionally hurt, or dividing up their stuff in a divorce; the intense feeling of romance makes us forget all those risks and go jump off the figurative cliff for love.

It's tough to come to any conclusions about all this. One thing everybody agrees on, though? Romance seems intensely powerful, even if its purpose is unclear. So go on, send that anonymous note to the cute person in Accounting; evolution says it's probably a good move.

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Images: Francesco Hayez, Gillray, Pierre Auguste Cot, Vignette auf einem Dresdener Liebesbriefbogen/Wikimedia Commons