Dr. Val Farmer
Rural Mental Health & Family Relationships

How I Met Your Mother

February 8, 2010

How did you meet your husband or wife? What do you remember about that initial meeting and what happened between you? If you are single and unattached, how do you know if someone new is interested in you?

Timothy Perper, a Ph.D. biologist from Philadelphia and author of the book, "Sex Signals: The Biology of Love," has scientifically observed and studied the courtship process at church socials, singles bars, singles clubs, etc. He and his associates - anthropologist David Givens and psychologist Monica Moore - observed for more than 2,000 hours each. They also interviewed participants and analyzed their written materials as they described the courtship exchange.

So what happens?

Boy sees girl. He gazes at her. Girl sees boy. She returns his gaze. Person A bravely approaches and makes an overture of greeting. Receiving this interest and attention makes person B feel liked, rewarded and happier. Person B responds to person A’s greeting in a positive fashion, making person A feel liked, rewarded and happier. Person A then responds to person B's response and makes a response of his or her own.

They are showing each other interest and attention that creates an inward emotional response. The sequence goes through many important escalations - approach, talk, turn, touch and synchronize their body movements. There is more continuous and unbroken gazing. They fully face each other. They talk some more. If not immediately aroused by the prospect of the relationship, they choose to be susceptible to arousal by allowing the sequence to go forward.

Intimacy is built by an exchange of increasingly intimate signals. Their mutual signals produce increased arousal and involvement. The couple mirrors each other's growing erotic and emotional involvement. This desirable sequence unfolds over time and leads to an entranced fascination and infatuation and a feeling of "falling in love." At some point sexual intimacy completes the sequence.

Women and courtship. Monica Moore details the role of women in actively initiating, maintaining and escalating these encounters. Armed with rejection strategies, a woman’s response decides the pace of the relationship. By deciding whether to initiate the next step in the sequence, she can actively select which man she wants in her life and which she will reject. Women are full partners in the courtship process. They make the hard choices about the future of the relationship by calibrating their responses.

Women are usually well aware of their role in how to encourage or reject overtures and their intended and actual effects on men. Men are usually oblivious to this process.

Wives whose husbands have had affairs are ferociously angry with the "other woman." They are equally upset with their husband when he downplays or tries to minimize the other woman’s role in the affair. Wives fully understand the power of the other women to influence or escalate the courtship sequence by seductive behavior.

However, even if a man isn’t fully aware of the process, he can still be good at it. If a man is good at courtship, he will understand that the relationship needs to evolve with a mutually acceptable and "negotiated" rhythm. By reading a woman's signals accurately, a man can synchronize emotionally with her and not push for more intimacy than she wants. Both want to know and understand each other and attend to each other intently.

How intimate? What determines how fast the relationship will lead to sexual intimacy? Often it relates to what a woman expects and wants from sex. If a woman believes that sex and love are necessary for each other, she will slow the sequence by calming him down or themselves down. She may choose not to become sexually intimate until a public declaration of commitment, an engagement or until marriage.

Perper feels - contrary to what some sociobiologists believe - that couples do not choose each other on the basis of an assessment of reproductive capability, wealth or parenting potential so that their future children will thrive. For those of 16 to 21 years, he feels courtship is a case of, "neat, cool, pretty, drool, yum." They enjoy how the courtship sequence makes them feel as they emotionally bond.

Why mate? Perper feels the evolutionary logic that two hormonally-driven young people use are, "two people are better than one," and, "together we are likely to survive."

Perper believes that some courtships are misguided because of the emotional neediness and/or loneliness of the couple. Their emotional bonding is based on an expectation that their partner will meet all of their needs. The unpleasant reality is that the courtship intensity wears off. Partners find out that they don’t really know each other, are mismatched or don't know how to respond emotionally to each other’s needs.

Success in courtship depends on powerful emotions engendered by mutuality and responsiveness to each other's needs. Emotional support and belonging are powerful human needs. When a couple sees future prospects of love and support as likely, they want to stay with each other. Erotic attraction brings them together and love keeps them together.