Saturday, July 6, 2002
M A I N   F E A T U R E

Love is... made to order

Forget that pounding heart and thunderbolt of passion, an American psychologist claims he can manufacture love to order. Tracy McVeigh reports from London.

YOUR heart pounds when you see them in a room that seemed empty before they arrived. The thought of them makes you smile, ridiculous songs suddenly seem touching and every call is a disappointment if itís not from them: you are head over heels in love.

Unplanned, unexpected and, most of all, uncontrollable. Chances are high it will end in tears but we are all well-versed in the theory that itís better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all, and that there are plenty of other poignant cliches that can be trotted out to soothe the heartbroken.

Love is...


But while most of us seem content to put faith in the process of waiting for that almighty thunderbolt of passion before partnering off into a long-term relationship, one prominent American psychologist believes it is time to wake up to the reality that we have been going about it all the wrong way.

With one in three British marriages ending in divorce and a new generation angst-ridden about love, sex and relationships, the idea of allowing ourselves to be led by passion is, undoubtedly, a far from reliable system.

Now Robert Epstein, Harvard graduate and editor-in-chief of US magazine Psychology Today, wants to try a different approach. He is about to embark on an experiment, using himself as a guinea pig, to see if he can manufacture love.

Through therapy, counselling and specially planned Ďretreat breaksí, Epstein will attempt to learn to fall in love with a female volunteer and she with him. The pair will sign ĎLove Contractsí, agreeing not to have sex with anyone else during a set period of months and to commit themselves fully to the programme and to each other.

At the end, Epstein hopes he will not only prove there is an alternative viable approach to romance, but he will also have for himself an all-new, fully counselled-to-fit partner and, of course, he will have a book deal and a television show.

The man who would turn Sex and the City into Therapy and the City believes he is tapping into a major problem: "We are desperate in the West for new ways to approach love and romance. Our current system is broken beyond repair. Itís absurd. And Iíve never seen anyone suggest a viable alternative. The truth is we are simply blinded by passion." The divorced father-of-four should know as he says his own foray into wedlock was driven by lust and "complete idiocy".

"Lust-driven romance is idiotic and the way we love and make relationships is idiotic," he told The Observer newspaper in London.

"I first raised the idea of a Love Contract in a magazine editorial, I didnít solicit applications but all of a sudden, I was getting hundreds of letters from women. By now I have had about 1,000 letters. I just had a $ 1,200 air ticket sent to me by one woman who wants me to fly out to her private island for a meeting."

Epstein says he wonít be bribed, but he is starting to feel the pressure of being a wanted man.

"Iím a very serious guy, I have a PhD from Harvard and I like to think I have gained a professional reputation for being an innovator. I have had some negative reaction from colleagues but far more have offered their help in the counselling process. I am really excited about this, itís a serious experiment but itís also my life and I think it will work. In fact, Iím amazed it hasnít been done before.

"The idea is that we have to learn to let go, to express feelings without fear, to go with what we feel. Men arenít very good at that, especially British men, I hear.

"These are the traumas which prevent us from thriving in new relationships and we have to learn to communicate them, get over them, and really commit. Most people use therapy and counselling when the damage is already done and the relationship is beyond repair, this way you start off with it. I, of course, also hope there will be plenty of lust, too, but you cannot mistake lust for love."

But not everyone is convinced. "Nonsense. You cannot love to order," said Dr Dorothy Rowe, British author and psychologist. "Love is an emotion. Itís the meaning of a situation, an immediate reaction.

"Itís like forgiveness, you can act in a forgiving way but you cannot will yourself to forgive. Feeling forgiveness is beyond your control; itís an emotion. You can kid yourself but one day it will come out. We all know how we ought to behave, we all know we ought to love all of our relatives, but we donít and cannot make ourselves.

"Itís like arranged marriages. If you try to co-operate with someone, do your duty, have children then eventually you might find you love that person. But itís after a long, long time of testing one another out.

"There are a lot of people who are happy to settle into a relationship because they see marriage as a life-long commitment, they wouldnít dream of divorce; others need a passionate sexual feeling that will develop into love.

"Yes, there is much romantic nonsense about love, like that awful Ďlove means never having to say youíre sorryí ó anyone knows the people you love are also the people you can hate most keenly." But even the scientists are open to the idea that we, adaptable creatures that we are, could create love in the therapistís office and overcome the slavery to our hormones.

Professor John Russell of Edinburgh Universityís Medical School has been examining the chemistry determining our romantic behaviour and said that, in scientific terms, everything about love and romance has a sole purpose ó mating.

Research has shown that chemicals released during sex actually cement relationships by encouraging people to stay together.

"The hormones have important roles in determining who we are with and drive our behaviours," said Russell.

"For example, the hormone oxytocin encourages people to form a strong emotional bond and the same chemical encourages bonding between a mother and her child.

"When sexual intercourse takes place, as we have found looking at animal models, there is a bond formed which lasts for a long time. In biological terms, attraction and romance is intended to lead to sex to perpetuate the species, and there is a series of processes which lead to interaction between the sexes, or indeed the same sex in the case of homosexuality.

"But to force a pattern of behaviour in order to engender these sort of feelings in two people? Well, humans are very complex but also very adaptable."

The adaptation Epstein has in mind is in part based upon his own experience as his own failed first marriage ó which produced four children ó was based on Ďidioticí attraction.

"Thereís no question I bought the myth, the myth pedalled by Hollywood. But loveís blinding passion has had its day.

"I am now sifting through the letters to find a suitably compatible candidate and I would hope we have plenty of lust but itís not enough and itís not everything. We really ought to distinguish lust from love." But are we ready to let go of our romance, our lust-driven disasters brought on by rose-tinted ideals? Would Casablanca remain one of the most popular films ever made if Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman had not smouldered across the bar with unspoken longing, but instead pulled up a third chair for the therapist and discussed their compatibility. For Epstein, happily ever after the Love Contract way is a real vision for the future, and as the new romance involves a whole team, he predicts a new industry will spring up to facilitate love through learning.

"Itís lovely, itís romantic, and, of course, no one, no church or politician or group, can possibly object to this.

"Itís inevitable, itís going to happen and weíll all be a whole lot happier for it, believe me."