Valentine love soars, infidelity dips

BOSTON - Love is an emotion, a decision and a state of insanity. Similarly, infidelity might be called love in disguise, a passionate madness. As Valentine's Day approaches, we will be lost in a swirl of hearts, flowers and romance. Millions of cards will be exchanged and it is estimated that up to 190 million roses will be purchased in the U.S.

Then we will see the spoiler, the Internet-fueled folly telling us that Valentine's Day is a time to stoop and snoop to catch a cheating spouse. Often citing wildly hyped-up numbers of supposedly unfaithful men, "mavens" simply ignore figures from nationally scientific surveys.

Infidelity in sports and Tinseltown is higher than in the general population, where rigorous research reveals that only a fairly small minority of married people are unfaithful over a lifetime. Why then would women want to search for cheating signs rather than love signs? Infidelity happens and love is elusive.

We think of love as a mystery and now it seems even more complex when one considers research that says love is like cocaine. In a small but often reported recent study from Syracuse University, we learned that falling in love takes two-tenths of a second, has a cocaine punch and sparks euphoria-inducing chemicals, most notably oxytocin. A naturally occurring bonding hormone, oxytocin can be activated during lovemaking.

Perhaps this split-second high is the vulnerable moment when love and infidelity get entangled in a destructive mix. In a modern-day drama, the married-with-children John Edwards lost his political career after falling into the arms of a woman who whispered, "You are so hot."

Despite the complications of love, there is a universal quest. I talked with Julie Spira, best-selling author of "The Perils of Cyber-Dating: Confessions of a Hopeful Romantic Looking for Love Online." She said, "At the recent Internet dating conference in Miami Beach, reports showed that visitors to online dating sites were at an all-time high, with over 116 million worldwide."

Bradford Wilcox, Ph.D., a sociologist and director of the Marriage and Family Project at the University of Virginia, tells me that there are three bright spots when it comes to marriage: "Divorce is down since the early 1980s. This is partly because people are rediscovering the virtues of lifelong commitment.

"Second, marriage is getting stronger among college-educated Americans. They have seen the biggest decrease in divorce, and their kids are now more likely to grow up with Mom and Dad, compared to two decades ago," he said.

Third, Wilcox, also an associate professor of sociology, added: "Infidelity has come down modestly since the 1990s. Americans are more likely now to express disapproval of infidelity than they were in the 1970s."

Citing the General Social Survey, financed by the National Science Foundation, he said that 22 percent of ever-married men and 14 percent of ever-married women said they had had an extramarital affair over their lifetimes. Also, infidelity overall has not increased over the last 20 years.

While cohabitation has been on the increase -- rather than a walk down the aisle -- if we look at studies that explore the brain's reaction to love, it appears that love and marriage have a future. In her upcoming book, "ReWire Your Brain For Love," Marsha Lucas, Ph.D., weaves together the ancient practice of mindfulness meditation (tuning in to the body) with the latest neuroscience findings to help couples and singles change their brains to build healthier relationships.

She explained: "I feel hopeful when I see that people are increasingly hungry for a real connection and willing to let go of their relationship-thwarting habits. Your brain is naturally wired for loving relationships -- but it does take work. Sometimes it requires remedial work. Many people did not get enough of the brain-integrating experience of healthy, secure attachments when they were young. The simple practice of mindfulness meditation is profoundly helpful in this.

"Neuroscience research from places such as Harvard, Stanford and UCLA support what I have been finding in my work. This is not hippie 'woo,' or New Age wishful thinking, and there's no religion required. The brain grows and changes in response to experience -- and the experience of mindfulness practice promotes brain changes that are highly beneficial when it comes to relationships," she said.

Lucas, a Washington, D.C., licensed psychologist and neuropsychologist, was on the faculty at the Emory University School of Medicine before entering her private practice.

(Rita Watson (www.ritawatson.com), an associate fellow at Yale's Ezra Stiles College, is a feature-department relationship columnist at the Providence Journal.)

(Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service, www.scrippsnews.com.)

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