When we hear Frank Sinatra singing about “that old black magic called love,” most of us can identify. We recognize those head-over-heels, reason-out-the-window feelings that appear early in a relationship. The effects of falling in love are so powerful and uncontrollable, it’s as if we have been either enchanted or bewitched by some supernatural force. This is because the chemicals whizzing around our brains and our loins make us do and think strange things that we cannot seem to rein in with reason. That’s why it’s called “falling in love”—like gravity, you can’t help yourself when you start to stumble.
And look at what we do when we fall “madly” in love. Obsession, delusion, and paranoia are all part of the irrational thoughts and behaviors that come with this territory. We believe in the unbelievable. We develop little quirks of behavior and superstitious routines that help us cope with the uncertainty of romance. If we feel lucky to have found love, some of us try to control that luck through acting out weird patterns of behavior that we would normally dismiss as irrational.
For example, we are all familiar with traditional lucky talismans such as black cats and four-leaf clovers, but many of us also develop more personal and private superstitions that make us feel more comfortable on a date or during the early stages of a relationship. It could be wearing the same lucky shirt, always arriving for a date at exactly the same time, or making sure our partner ends the telephone conversation with the same signature sign-off. We’ll do anything to keep the magic alive. Most of us engage in this superstitious behavior, but why?
The answer might be in our brains and the way that it copes with uncertainty. Uncertainty is an unpleasant state to be in, as it leads to anxiety. Whenever we experience something that seems uncontrollable, such as falling in love, we seek to gain control. In fact, we cannot really help ourselves. Our brains are wired to seek out patterns in the world—especially at times when we are uncertain about outcomes. And what could be more unpredictable than the early whirlwind of a passionate romance?
Whenever we are unsure of ourselves, or the prospect of loss is great, many of us engage in activities that we believe are somehow linked to securing what we want in life. How does the brain do this? To begin, it picks up on unusual events or happenings when things have gone well in an effort to repeat the success. If things go well again, very soon we see the ritual as responsible for the outcome. It’s like making a wish that comes true, but instead of wishful thinking, it’s superstitious behavior. It’s exactly the same mechanism operating in athletes who engage in pre-game rituals or gamblers who have to play certain machines or do things in a certain order. Once a superstitious ritual forms, it can be very hard to rid oneself of it.
Maybe we shouldn’t always try to act rationally, but rather allow ourselves to occasionally go with the emotional flow and comfort that rituals can provide. The irony is that if you try to stop yourself from being superstitious (which often one cannot), then you feel more anxiety, which in turn leads you to seek more control. This is because superstitions operate at the emotional level in the brain, and while we can try to apply cold logic, heated emotions are very difficult to regulate through reason. We might tell ourselves to get a grip, but deep down our emotional brain is firing on all cylinders.
So love, romance, and the fear of loss is the perfect recipe for superstitious behavior. With time, you can learn to relax as priorities shift to other concerns in a relationship such as setting up home, the prospect of children, or seeking a secure financial future. As we gain more control over the situation or the uncertainty weakens, we may feel less of an urge to engage in superstitious behavior. Ultimately, we should recognize in ourselves and in our partner that love can make us believe in the unbelievable.