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The Science of Being Blinded By Love

Earlier this month, Metro UK reported on a husband who was left bankrupt by his Indonesian wife, who unbeknownst to him, had accumulated a gambling debt of £3.5 million [$4,878,702] prior to them getting married. According to the article, Christopher Forte was “blinded by love,” and didn’t notice until after he and his wife had split up that £169,000 [$235,571] of his (and his parents’) money had gone to pay a portion of her debt.

The money, his ex-wife claimed, was needed to show that she had assets in her bank account to get her visa sorted. “In retrospect it was absolute rubbish,” Forte told Metro. “I’m British, she was my wife and we could have got her a legitimate visa for a couple of thousand. But I didn’t realise that — I was in love. I would wake up, and she’d be in tears, saying, ‘I need another £15,000.’”

In this particular case, it seems Forte wasn’t so much blinded by love as he was ensconced in an alternate reality. Still, at some point or another, most of us have experienced a similar — albeit far less financially devastating — form of these metaphorical cataracts.

“Lovers in general, but particularly lovers at first sight, are often blind to the beloved’s negative traits and tend to create an idealized image of the beloved,” Aaron Ben-Ze’ev, a philosophy professor at the University of Haifa in Israel, wrote in his book In the Name of Love: Romantic Ideology and Its Victims.

The scientific evidence further validates Ben-Ze’ev’s point. In 2004, the BBC reported on a study that found that the brain scans of young mothers looking at pictures of their own children were similar to the scans of people’s brains who were romantically in love. “The researchers found that both romantic love and maternal love produce the same effect on the brain. They suppress neural activity associated with critical social assessment of other people and negative emotions,” the BBC reported.

Whether it’s love blinding you to a shitty diaper or a shitty person, bottom line, it blinds: As lead researcher Andrea Bartels explained to the BBC, the study concluded that love deactivates brain waves that we normally use for criticizing a person’s behavior, while strengthening the parts involved with the brain’s reward system.

Another 2009 study, reported by Scientific American, highlighted a different facet of love blindness: Based on a series of studies that showed attractive faces to couples, psychologist Jon Maner, of Florida State University, discovered that people in love spent less time focusing on pictures of faces of the opposite sex. According to Maner, this phenomenon is a mechanism aimed at preserving our species. “This whole research area is guided largely by an evolutionary perspective. These biases have been built into our psychology to enhance people’s reproductive success.”

Though neither Maner nor Bartels say exactly how love blindness works to ensure the human species continues, it can be assumed that any mechanism working to prevent two people from wandering outside of their relationship helps further the ultimate evolutionary goal of producing offspring.

Also, when it does happen, the pop-culture cliches hold true: Men definitely short-circuit more often than women. “Men seem to idealize women more than women idealize men,” wrote Ben-Ze’ev. “For example, a survey of love songs has found that females were more often described as ‘heavenly’ or ‘angels’ than males.”

The good news, Ben-Ze’ev writes, is that even though love can lead us to overemphasize good traits and ignore bad ones, ultimately, reality will settle in. “The initial ignorance of the person’s characteristics, which is expressed in idealization, is later replaced with a more realistic picture based upon new and more detailed information.”

Unfortunately for Forte, the realistic picture — that his wife was a gambling addict who had accumulated a debt of £3.5 million — didn’t quite settle in until he was out nearly $200,000 and living on his friend’s couch. But while this sort of emotional blindness obviously can be weaponized and taken advantage of, as with Forte, Ben-Ze’ev says that research has shown it’s also the best foundation for a long-lasting relationship. “Research has found that intimates who initially idealized one another and their relationships also reported a relatively greater increase in satisfaction and decrease in conflicts and doubts later on,” he writes.

The moral of the story: Being blinded by love is healthy and good. Giving away your life savings to someone without questioning it even a little bit? Yeah, that’s not so good.