Nancy: The Mathematics of Love

Can love be explained by math equations?

Can love be explained by math equations?

All right, it’s time for a confession: in addition to being a word-loving, fiction-writing, reader type of person, I love math. I’ve talked before about my love of spreadsheets and using them to break down and track writing progress with Excel commands. But it goes much deeper than that.

I loved math classes and even math homework. I spent my first year in college as a bio-chem major, and my favorite homework assignments involved stoichiometry – the expression of chemical reactions as mathematical equations. (If I’d had half as much love for the hands-on labs as I did for the equations, I might have become a biochemist after all.) I’ve even looked at theoretical math equations and wished I’d studied long and hard enough to interpret them for myself. In short, I’m kinda weird.

Given my weird math affinity, you can imagine my delight in hearing a TED talk about the mathematics of love (not to be confused with the love of mathematics). In this talk, Hannah Fry, a PhD in fluid dynamics, discusses how mathematicians working with experts in other fields such as psychology have come up with some math formulas to explain success in dating, choosing the best mate, and staying with a chosen mate long-term.

For example, psychologist John Gottman was able to correctly determine, 90 % of the time, which couples he met were going to get divorced by using mathematical equations to calculate the negativity threshold. Dr. Fry defines this threshold as “how annoying the husband can be before the wife starts to get really pissed off, and vice versa”.

And here’s where Dr. Fry’s mathematics talk came back to writing for me. Especially in romances, we strive to create the idea of HEAs for our couples, to convince readers that our couples are headed down the path of future togetherness. The data in these studies reveals that, perhaps counter-intuitively, it isn’t the couples with high thresholds for negativity (meaning they put up with a lot more negativity before confronting their partners) who are likely to stay together.

It’s those couples with a lower negativity threshold, those who are quicker to confront their partners, who are more likely to make it. It seems this is because that confrontation translates to constantly working on the relationship. It is, in a sense, an ongoing relationship repair process.

This finding got the wheels in my writer brain spinning. While readers are unlikely to realize there’s a math equation that can predict a couple’s propensity for a long-term HEA, they might intuitively interpret the couple’s ability to confront and negotiate with each other as an indicator of relationship success.

Galileo wrote, “Mathematics is the language in which God has written the universe.” Mathematicians are committed to proving him right by discovering math equations to explain all things in the universe, including love. The math geek in me thinks they might be onto something. What do you think?

7 thoughts on “Nancy: The Mathematics of Love

  1. This is so cool! (I like math, too, but I had a problem with my math 12 teacher, so dropped it and never took another math course again, which was a stupid move on my part.)

    I think there are two opposing tropes going on here. Of course, there is the one trend where the “soul mates” find The One, and have a low negativity threshold. “You and me against the world, baby!”

    But then there is the other trope, where the hero and heroine annoy the hell out of each other, but can not resist the passion (and often basic compatibility) that underlies their relationship. These guys are a lot more interesting to watch interact, sometimes. You know that other old chestnut, where people annoy the hell out of each other because they are too similar? That one works for me, too.

    I suppose it’s about how we are writing the relationship — are we going for realism and comfort, or for escapism and redemption? Or some other combo?

    I’m trying to figure out my hero and heroine’s underlying conflict with week. Thinking about this already puts a few jigsaw pieces into slots . . . .

    • I think it’s a fine line between enjoying the h/h annoying each other and worrying that they’re just too incompatible. And different people are going to have different comfort levels with the amount of conflict between lovers.

      The way they negotiate their boundaries and needs is important, too, and can strike people very differently. I remember when we read Heaven, Texas in our McD class, and a some of us (me included) could not get past Bobby’s final affront to Gracie. I read it as him publicly humiliating her, and if I’d have been her friend, I would have told her to catch the first bus out of town. Others thought that his own later ‘humiliation’ of letting her beat him at a game of trivia about football made up for it. Nope. Nope, nope, and nope. As a reader, I couldn’t forgive him, and in the version of their post-book story in my head, they were divorced within two years. Not that I have a strong opinion about it, or anything ;-).

      • Oh, that’s too true about readers drawing different lines between “spunky banter” and “annoying as hell.” I didn’t have such a strong reaction as you did to the humiliation aspects of Heaven, Texas. In real life, I’ve seen women stay with complete losers and drunkards who had a little bit of charm. So it wasn’t a huge stretch for me to imagine Gracie sticking to her hunky, rich football player who does give in (albeit a tiny bit) in the end. Not the kind of relationship I’d want for my own daughter. But, I can roll with it in fiction.

        My own “oh, they are NEVER going to make it” is that old movie — title is slipping my mind right now, but I think it was called The Front Page in one incarnation. The newsroom rom-com, where they bicker and bicker and bicker, and the girl winds up dumping her fiance so she can stay in the news business. And for some reason, she thinks she has to date the editor again to get the thrills of the newspaper business. I have a feeling they’ll divorce again in three years, marry again in another three years, divorce one more time, and then finally get married again after they both retire. And then one of them will poison the other.

        I’m not allergic to the plot, but I am dissatisfied with the movie.

      • In this font the color difference is subtle enough that my little old lady eyes didn’t pick it up. I should have known you’re too organized to let that slip!

  2. Although I can’t say I loved math class or math homework, I did wind up with a degree in it nonetheless. Patterns are what I find the most interesting, as Hannah mentioned in her talk:

    “love, as with most of life, is full of patterns and mathematics is, ultimately, all about the study of patterns”

    I like the concept of the “negativity threshold.” That intuitively makes a certain amount of sense. Not being willing to let things fester should mean that small problems are less likely to be big, deal-changing problems. Something to keep in mind as my characters are living and growing together.

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