The Neuroscience Behind Why We Love, Who We Choose and Partnership Happiness

In the area of partner compatibility, the work of Dr. Helen Fisher into the brain substrates of romantic love and attachment stands out as quite unique and phenomenally interesting. I would like to offer you a brief summary here.

Dr. Fisher has spent decades taking brain scans of thousands of subjects, hoping to discover the substrates of couple attraction and compatibility that could be applicable to people from every country and culture in the world. Her work has revealed that there are 4 Universal Temperament Dimensions that explain who is attracted to whom and what makes for longterm happiness in couples. Further, each of these 4 Temperament Dimensions appear to be associated with a different brain system.

The first group, the Explorers, have brains that are primarily dominated by the Dopamine System. She defines their central traits as Curious/Energetic and reports that they tend to display the following personality characteristics:

  • Novelty and adventure seeking
  • Susceptible to boredom
  • Impulsive/unpredictable
  • Restless
  • Enthusiastic
  • Curious: many interests
  • Open minded
  • Addiction-prone
  • Independent/self-reliant

The second group, the Builders, have brains dominated by the Serotonin system, with the central trait of being Cautious/Social Norm Compliant. They tend to display the following personality characteristics:

  • Observant of social norms
  • Following the rules
  • Respectful of authority
  • Orderliness
  • Adherent to plans
  • Exercising self-control
  • Conscientious
  • Sociable
  • Harm-avoidant

The third group, the Directors, appear to have Prenatal Testosterone primed brains with the central trait of being Analytical/Tough-minded. They tend to display the following personality characteristics:

  • Self-confident
  • Forthright and assertive
  • Emotionally contained
  • Enhanced visual-spatial perception
  • Keen understanding of “rule-based systems”
  • Acute attention to details
  • Deep but narrow interests
  • Less socially aware
  • Poorer emotional recognition
  • Less eye contact
  • Less verbal fluency
  • Reduced empathy
  • Extreme sensitivity to rank
  • Can experience emotional flooding such as rage

The fourth and final group, The Negotiators, have Prenatal Estrogen primed brains with the central trait of being Pro-social/Empathetic. They tend to display the following personality characteristics:

  • Agreeable
  • Cooperative
  • Intuitive
  • Empathetic
  • Nurturing
  • Generous
  • Trusting
  • Drive to make social attachments
  • Heightened memory for emotional experiences
  • Reading emotions in others
  • Contextual, holistic and longterm thinking

In examining relationship compatibility between individuals with these 4 Universal Temperament Styles, Dr. Fisher has found that Explorers who are primarily novelty seeking, energetic and curious are most drawn to other Explorers who share these same traits. They want to find a partner who is curious, open to new experiences and wants to go on adventures with them.

Likewise, Builders who are primarily conventional, cautious and rule abiding are also drawn to other Builders like themselves. The Builder wants to build positive social relationships and ties, and enhance a sense of belonging by following social norms and they want their partner to share in this objective with them.

So what happens if members of a couple are mismatched in terms of their personality styles? She posits that an Explorer will feel controlled and tied down when in relationship with a Builder and a Builder will feel the limits of their patience tested with an Explorer. The Explorer wants to break the social rules that the Builder is trying so hard to uphold and seems quite unaffected by relationships and ties breaking down and a sense of conventional belongingness disrupted. One can imagine how stressful this can be for both parties.

Now in the case of the testosterone primed analytical, tough-minded Directors, they are actually disproportionately attracted to their opposite, the estrogen primed Negotiators who are imaginative, intuitive, compassionate and socially skilled. You can imagine this as a somewhat traditional male-female romantic relationship dynamic, though the Director is not always a man and the Negotiator not always a woman. The example that Dr. Fisher offered is the union of Hillary and Bill Clinton, where she is the tough minded Director and he the compassionate and socially skilled Negotiator.

Two testosterone primed Directors or two estrogen primed Negotiators might experience a very positive friendship but the necessary chemistry will be missing to add that romantic element to their relationship.

There is a lot more information about these temperament styles and their relationship sequelae that you can read about on Dr. Fisher’s website, www.helenfisher.com, as well as have the opportunity to take her personality test.

 

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