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Office Hours With Dr. Jim
by James Houran, Ph.D

In this column, "Dr. Jim" honestly and candidly answers your questions about dating, love and sexuality. He doesn’t tell you what you want to hear – he tells you what you need to hear. Dr. Jim is committed to offering you guidance based on responsible clinical practice and hard data from the latest scientific studies. Send Dr. Jim your questions today for consideration in an upcoming issue.

This Week:
Best Valentine's Day Gifts
Is Love Really Blind?
Are Men Really Afraid to Commit?

Valentine’s Day is around the corner. What gifts would you recommend?


That’s an excellent and often times tricky question, because Valentine’s Day can lead to conflict and feelings of depression and even if you don’t receive the right gift. However, science can help out here. One research study I conducted last year found that the majority of men and women want to receive some type of token on V-Day. But, the types of gifts men and women want to receive are not the same, and this difference seems to reflect a craving for different sentiments from their partners.

Men seem to prefer gifts that represent respect, personal recognition or admiration from their partner. On the other hand, women seem to prefer gifts that represent a public display of affection and one that reinforces the couple's identity. So, assuming that your partner is like most of my research participants, some recommended gifts for men include jewelry with personalized engravings, items related to their favorite hobbies or pastimes, and music, movies and computer games. Some recommended gifts for women are flowers that are delivered to their work or another public place, as well as items that can be showcased to family and friends such as new clothes, jewelry, or special photographs of them with their significant other – something that gives your lady a special story to tell about you two among her closest confidants.

Is Love Really Blind?
Yes and no – how’s that for a straight answer. What people call “love” is not a static state, but rather it seems to be a dynamic and evolving biopsychological condition. Some experts have even called it a “mental illness!” Why? – Because people who are “in love” tend to act irrationally. It’s not entirely your fault, because in the early stages of a relationship we seem to be acting on “biological autopilot.” The feeling of being in love is amazing – even addictive for some – but we don’t always make the best decisions when we are on these types of emotional highs. After all, you shouldn’t drive a car while under the influence. Likewise, you shouldn’t make life-altering decisions while under the influence either. And make no mistake… being in love can be a lot like driving a car while intoxicated. Let me explain.

Current wisdom suggests there are three different systems in the brain. One system is for sex drive or lust and is associated primarily with testosterone levels in men and women. Sex drive is considered to be separate from other forms of affection, although often we experience lustful urges within the context of loving relationships. The second brain system is associated with romantic love or what we feel as obsessive love and infatuation. High levels of natural stimulants called dopamine and norpenephrin, and probably low levels of another stimulant, serotonin, seem to promote feelings of giddiness, elation, euphoria, sleeplessness and loss of appetite. Finally, the third chemical system in the brain appears to regulate feelings of emotional attachment via a different set of chemicals in the brain called vasopressin and oxytocin. We experience the effects of these chemicals as a sense of calmness, peacefulness and security with a long-term partner. These feelings typically come later in a relationship, as it deepens and matures.

The point is… when we are “in love” we truly are acting under the influence of some powerful chemicals. While this process is entirely natural, we must be careful to balance indulgence and passion with caution and rationality. If you don’t maintain control and a sense of awareness in those early stages of a relationship that are dominated by lust and romantic obsession, you really will be acting with blinders on!

Are Men Really Afraid to Commit?
I promise to do an article on this important topic. Psychologists refer to Fear of Commitment (FOC) variously as Fear of Intimacy, Commitment Phobia, Fear of Dependency, or, more broadly, “intimacy issues.” In the end, all these labels are describing the same general behavior – a fear of becoming too emotionally invested in a relationship and making ones self vulnerable to being emotionally scarred.

It’s a stereotype that FOC is rampant among men. However, this is more of a myth than a legitimate reality. Research reveals that men tend to report somewhat stronger FOC than women, but this gender difference is grossly exaggerated and is in truth very minute. In fact, some of my past research on the subject has found that the sexes are about equal! A forthcoming journal article based on that research reports that an individual’s “readiness to commit” is associated more with age than gender. That is, the older a person is, the less fear of commitment they report. However, this trend doesn’t hold for those over 60 years of age. At later ages, FOC seems to sharply increase. Thus, young and older people, those on opposite ends of the age spectrum, resemble one another in their FOC. Those between 35 and 59 years old report the least FOC.

Let me leave you with some interesting facts about FOC:

» Engaged couples show the greatest commitment to their partners, followed by married couples. People living apart show the least commitment.

» People who are low in FOC recognize that relationships take work, and they even expect to disagree occasionally with their partners. They also believe that unconditional love is possible. Nevertheless, they’re also willing to do what ever is necessary to work out their problems.

» People who are very high in FOC believe that they’ll likely leave their partner or that their partner will leave them early in the relationship. They view serious relationships akin to giving up their freedom and independence. For instance, they have difficulty thinking about fidelity to one person for the rest of their lives. They also tend to be extremely idealistic and want someone who is “completely perfect” for them.

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