Can we ever understand love? Laura Mucha wants to find out. She has interviewed hundreds of strangers, from the ages of 8 to 95 in more than 40 countries, asking them to share their most personal stories, feelings and insights about love. The result is her debut book Love Factually – published by our friends at Bloomsbury Sigma – which draws on psychology, philosophy, anthropology and statistics. It combines evidence, theory and everyday experience and is the perfect read for anyone who is curious about how we think, feel and behave when it comes to love.

In time for Valentine’s Day, we asked Laura a couple of questions about what she has discovered…

Laura Mucha breaks down some of the myths about love in Love Factually

Is monogamy ‘natural’?

Very few animals are sexually monogamous, and DNA testing has shown that many of those we thought were, aren’t. Swans, for example, can mate for years, even for life, but in any given clutch of eggs, 40% contain at least one fathered by a different male. Out of 4,000 mammal species, only a few dozen are monogamous, and of the world’s 300–400 primates, only nine are – our closest living relative, the bonobo, definitely isn’t (they seem to have sex at every available opportunity).

Monogamy isn’t actually the norm in humans either. Of the 160 countries examined by the OECD in 2009, 44% accepted polygamy. Add to that the high rates of infidelity in many ‘monogamous’ cultures, as well as the number of people who try non-monogamy (21% in a large US study) and monogamy seems to be less ‘natural’ or ‘universal’ as many might believe.

What’s important in a partner?

Mun Hee, a videographer from South Korea, explained that, although his ideal girlfriend did not have to be attractive (the reason being that he didn’t think he was), she did have to be kind. The evidence suggests he’s not alone in seeing kindness as essential.

In a study of more than 10,000 people across 37 countries and 6 continents, people were asked to choose what they thought was most important in a romantic partner – and rather than looks, intelligence or wealth, men and women thought it was ‘kindness and understanding’ that was most important. 

Love Factually book cover

Laura's book is available now

Does everybody want a relationship?

In a recent UK study, 49% of single people said they didn’t want to find a partner – benefits of being single included being able to choose how to spend their time, not being ‘nagged’ by a partner and spending money as they liked.

‘I think at this point in my life I’m happier than before, because when you’re in a relationship you make sacrifices to make the other person happy,’ explained Milena, from Colombia. ‘Now that I’m single, I enjoy myself – I eat what I want to eat, I eat in bed, I watch TV whenever I want, I wear the clothes I want to wear, go out when I want to go out. I do what I want to do whenever I want and whenever it makes me happy.’

Although choosing to be alone can be down to a subconscious fear of commitment and loss (something I describe in more detail in the book), it can also be a conscious and considered choice. As well as all the benefits of freedom, research suggests that it’s better to be alone than in dysfunctional or deeply unhappy relationship. In a study of 8,528 people in China, Japan, Taiwan and South Korea, those who were married but dissatisfied had poorer health than those who had never married.

Are married people happier than unmarried people?

A national US survey conducted almost every year since 1972 until now, with data from over 40,000 people, found that married people were happier than people who were divorced, widowed, separated or had never married. But that’s a little over simplistic – it doesn’t, for example, take into account relationships that are unhappy, abusive or dysfunctional.

‘I was just crying more than smiling,’ explained Valentina, from Spain. ‘I was a very jolly, happy, friendly person that loved travelling, loved going out, meeting people, and suddenly I became like a grey cloud. I wasn’t happy at all… my friends said, “It’s good that you have a relationship, but it’s not a healthy one, it’s toxic.”’

Perhaps it’s even more nuanced than that – perhaps marriage doesn’t make you happier, it just makes you less unhappy than being single. A long-term British survey that followed thousands of people for years found that marriage didn’t actually make people happier in the long-term – but it did protect them from becoming less happy over time (which is what happened to people who stayed single). It looks a bit like this:

Marriage happiness chart

Do people in happy relationships cheat?

While it's easy to blame infidelity on relationship difficulties, happy couples also cheat. In one study, a hefty 56% of men and 34% of women who had cheated rated their marriage as either ‘happy’ or ‘very happy’. But if they were happy, why were they unfaithful?

When asked this question by researchers, people provided a variety of answers, including: career advancement, a need for conquest and power, exploring sexual identity, to combat feeling inadequate, escapism, fun or a desire for variety. Claire, in Frankfurt, who dated married men, explained, ‘I think they were a bit bored with their lives. They had been married a while, they had kids. They each made excuses for their cheating, like, “My wife doesn’t understand me,” which meant that I could say, “Don’t worry, I understand you.”

But it’s not always as simple as that. People also cheat for reasons they’re not aware of, for example introducing insecurity into the relationship because they crave independence or exploring a part of themselves they have denied or buried.

Is there a better age to settle down?

Based on marriages in England and Wales in 1976, 53% of women who married when they were 20 or under divorced within 30 years; compared with 23% of 30-34 year olds and only 7% of 45-49 year olds. In other words, the older women were when they married, the less likely they were to divorce (at least within 30 years).

That means that being single on Valentine’s Day might simply mean you’re waiting to make the right decision (assuming you want a relationship in the first place) – even though you might feel judged or stigmatised for it.

‘A lot of my friends in their late 20s or early 30s don’t have a boyfriend or girlfriend, they are not in a hurry and they are fine. I feel sorry for them because Chinese culture and Chinese people put them under a lot of pressure,’ said Tammy from Chengdu, China. ‘There are more and more people who don’t have a boyfriend or girlfriend and they are called shengnu or shengnan, which means “leftover girls” or “leftover boys”.’

Love Factually: The Science of Who, How and Why We Love is published by Bloomsbury Sigma and is available to buy now for the reduced price of £11.89 on the Bloomsbury website, using the code LOVE30.