Be my Valentine (with some practice)
When it comes to finding and keeping true love, a lot of lonely hearts I know would willingly cast spells or light candles if they thought it would work. So what better time than a Valentine's Day month to look at a collection of books that promises clear directions on finding, keeping, and improving love?
Chemistry.com's scientific adviser Helen Fisher subscribes to the "better living (and loving) through chemistry" adage. Fisher studied 40,000 men and women to forge a new system of relationships, revealed in "Why Him? Why Her?" It's our brain chemistry and not our heart that makes us fall for someone, she insists. Each of us, she believes, is a mix of four personality types, which are governed by chemical systems in the brain. Are you a risk-loving "Explorer" or a more conservative "Builder"? A bold and competitive "Director" or an imaginative and intuitive "Negotiator"? Fisher helps you figure it out and then shows you which type you might do best with. (Directors want Negotiators, but Explorers do best with their own kind.) Not sure where to find that sexy Builder? Fisher's study showed that each type tends to gravitate to a specific location. Drive to the suburbs for a Builder, but take the city subway to find your Explorer. With such clear directions, love, for Fisher, simply doesn't have any excuse to be blind anymore.
While Fisher's labels still make me just a little uneasy (can we all really be typed so easily?), her scientific studies and reporting on love are fascinating. Kissing boosts your level of oxytocin, the chemical of trust and attachment, and her studies show that a bad first kiss can sour a relationship before it has even begun. Love can last. Brain scans of people who have been married for over 25 years show activity in brain regions linked to passion, attachment, and sex drive. You may already have your dream lover, but you'll want to read this for the many insights on the science of love.
Professional matchmaker Patti Novak, the star of A & E's "Confessions of a Matchmaker," isn't concerned about types. Love, she insists, comes when you are ready for it and when you love yourself first, and in "Get Over Yourself!" she's just the person to show you how. What's best about this book is the voice: tartly funny, smart, and on target. Face your inner demons and heal them, she urges. Learn to forgive. Stop putting up roadblocks to romance because you're afraid of getting hurt. Her questionnaires and quizzes, peppered throughout the book, are not lab tested, but they do point out where the holes in your self-esteem might be.
Novak urges you to create your own relationship records to see the patterns and mistakes you may have made in the past, so you can avoid them in the future. Someone who can't flirt is just insecure. Someone who is too picky is probably afraid of rejection. If you're always picking partners who don't treat you well, figure out why, forgive yourself, and move on. Novak also foolproofs a date by advising you to know your dating weaknesses and prepare for them. If you take hours to get ready, start earlier. Shy? Write out some possible conversation topics and practice in front of a mirror, and never, ever talk about the 15 cats you own, or your ex.
Novak's a hoot (she says there are three things that should not be the size of Texas: your hair, your ego, and your list of dating requirements), and the book is great fun to read. Her tough love could lead you to true love, and at the very least, you'll feel better about yourself.
So let's say you follow the advice of these two books and you get into a relationship, but suddenly you're not so sure you're with the man of your dreams. Enter "Your Man Is Wonderful," by psychologist Noelle C. Nelson. This handy little tome advises you on how to love the one you're with by appreciating and bringing out the best in your mate.
Lovers pick at flaws that don't really matter, says Nelson, which doesn't create an environment where good qualities can flourish. Discovering what is wonderful about your partner is a surefire way to discover what is wonderful in you. Week by week, Nelson sets up tasks for the reader and adds examples from various women. You think your mate is stingy? Maybe he just wants to make sure he can protect and care for you. Nagging your mate about perpetual tardiness won't work, but if you praise him when he is on time, you might just get more of the same.
Nelson's book is a tad retro. She calls the round table of women who tell their stories "the Ladies," and some of the ideas are a little 1950s. She pulls out some old chestnuts: men don't like to cook, women don't quite trust men, and women silently pout and want their men to be knights. Still, Nelson does have simple and workable advice like remembering to say "Thank you" and finding the strength in so-called flaws. If nothing else, her book, and all the others, create an optimistic frame of mind that lends itself to - well, falling in love. And isn't that the real heart of the matter?
Caroline's Leavitt's novel "Breathe" will be published by Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill in next year. She can be reached at www.carolineleavitt.com.