The One: A Millennial Search for A Partner

by Maria Marcos

Admirably functioning personal relationships rarely are considered as effects of our human biology, but our ability to function as a team of two relies on more than just personality. Although the development of personal preference and disposition make relationships more complex, many couples don’t realize that healthy relationships function well based on biological evolution and the way our brains are wired.

In the context of male-female relationships, there are important traits that distinguish the female brain from the male brain. Structurally, the female brain has a larger prefrontal cortex (PFC), insula, hippocampus, and anterior cingulate cortex (ACC). The PFC controls the emotions of the brain and also the amygdala, which contains ideas of instinctual behavior. The insula processes the gut feelings, the hippocampus stores memories, and the ACC controls decision making. Apart from being structurally larger, these areas of the brain are also more active in females. Scientists believe that in the male brain, the temporal parietal junction (TPJ) and rostral cingulated zone (RCZ) are the centers of brain activity in social situations. The TPJ is more active in the male brain and is responsible for problem solving, and the RCZ accounts for what is socially accepted and unaccepted.

In the context of a relationship, women are in search for a mate that will provide them with love and stability. That seems pretty obvious, but the scientific explanation is less so. To find the answer, we begin thousands of years ago with our prehistoric ancestors. Since the gestation period for humans is nine months, our ancestral female relatives were searching for males that would protect them through the nine months of pregnancy. Even though the human brain has evolved since ancient times, the female brain has retained some of that ancient hardwiring, explaining why women search for a suitable mate that will provide them with stability. A preference among women for taller, athletic men, may stem from this past evolutionary desire.

Like females, males also have their ancestral hardwiring intact. The goal for our prehistoric ancestors, like living beings of any species, was to reproduce to pass on their genes. For males, this meant reproduction with a fertile female. Louann Brizendine, MD, discusses in her book, “The Female Brain”, the “visual clues” of fertility and health. Young and energetic women with smooth skin, symmetrical corporeal features, radiant hair, plump lips and an hourglass figure with bigger breasts are seen as more fertile. These traits are signs of high levels of estrogen, and thus tend to attract more men because the male brain has evolved to associate these features with reproductive health. Similar to females who look for muscular males because their brains are subconsciously looking for someone who will provide them with safety and stability, males subliminally look for females with high fertility levels in order to propagate their genes.

Both males and females subconsciously chose their partners based on their physical features and in the hopes of finding the best genes to breed with. Females generally look for physically strong males who can provide security during the months of pregnancy, while males strive to pass on their genes by looking for fertile females. Although it may be clear what characteristics males and females look for in their partner, how can they possibly know where to find “the one”?

In her second book, “The Male Brain”, Brizendine compares the male mating styles to the mating tactics of the side- blotched lizard. Each lizard of the male gender has a different colored throat that corresponds to the lizard’s mating style. The orange throats use a tactic described by Brizendine as an “alpha- male harem strategy.” This lizard has his own clan of female lizards that he constantly mates with. We can equivocate the orange-throated lizard to the typical womanizer—a guy who’s just not willing to leave bachelorhood. There are also, however, side-blotched lizards with blue throats. These lizards are the so-called “one” because they choose to couple with and protect one female. But why are certain males, as Brizendine states, “confirmed bachelors,” while the others are caring monogamous partners? In a Swedish study, it was uncovered that men whose genetic code contained a longer coding region for the vasopressin receptor were more likely to settle down than remain unattached. If a female is searching for a monogamous partner, these are the ones to look for.

When the female brain falls in love, hormones and neurochemicals like estrogen, testosterone, dopamine and oxytocin flood the brain. This reaction is similar to what occurs in the male brain, except the dopamine would be mixed with testosterone and vasopressin. This rush of neurochemicals and hormones is analogous to the initial effects of drugs. It can cause people to become addicted to their lover in the early months of the relationship and will continue on for six to eight months. The release of oxytocin and dopamine in females are produced by physical interaction, even something as simple as hugging, causing them to feel as if their partner is a drug and they cannot live without him. A woman could just see the man that she has been romantically involved with and oxytocin can be released into her brain. Similarly for men, testosterone and physical interactions fuel the production of vasopressin, causing an enhancement in awareness, energy and aggression. This surge of testosterone and vasopressin hormone can cause the ancestral possessive and territorial alpha- male to emerge. These hormones alert him of the danger of having his mate “stolen” due the surge of activity in the “fear-of-rejection center,” (as Brizendine describes) located in the amygdala and the “mating area” in the hypothalamus. The emergence of the alpha-male shows that males in love strive to protect their mates, which leads them to become possessive.

Modern humans underestimate the science involved in relationships. We have feelings and personal desires, preferences and contextual limitations that prevent some relationships and create others. With the evolution of the human species come different criteria for searching for mates apart from body type. Furthermore, many people find their humanity in their partner. As said aptly by Pitt student Claire Schafer, it “gives your life meaning,” in a sometimes seemingly inconsequential world. Whether this is the effect of dopamine and/or vasopressin, or the product of personal values, people are still on the search for the “one.”