Last night, I had dinner with a cousin with whom I haven’t had a real discussion in a while. She, an alum of Harvard and Stanford and now a federal prosecutor, is some 10 years my senior. Suffice it to say, we’ve rarely had much common ground from which to stimulate discussion at Passover every other year, when I was going through my awkward phase (OK, it’s still going, but you get my point). Now, for really the first time, we could share a meal, a drink and carry a conversation.

Naturally, as tends to be the case with family, the dialogue inevitably turned to relationships. We spoke about hers (she’s been in one for 18 months), mine (previous, not current) as well as our siblings’. An analogous thread became obvious — Cahans, as a family that gravitates towards high-stress occupations (doctors, lawyers, the whole shtick), appear on the surface to date characters far more, shall we say, ‘relaxed’ than us. I guess there’s something in the water.

In any case, the law of romantic complements dictates that we are compelled to seek the yins to our yangs. Indeed, opposites attract. That always was the espoused truth for interactions in physics, as with physical interactions. So the relationship parallels we noticed are none too surprising, according to the traditional doctrine.

However, recent research shows that the eternal mantra of synergistic differences in relationships may not be valid.

A fascinating article from the statistical blog FiveThirtyEight, titled “In the End, People May Really Just Want to Date Themselves,” challenges the pervading logic. The article, through thorough statistical analyses based on data sets from eHarmony, illustrates that “birds of a feather flock together.” Further, the avian phenomenon takes flight in two ways: firstly, people generally prefer those with traits like them and secondly, everyone prefers certain traits, and indicate even stronger preference with regards to those which they, too, personify. To clarify: everyone likes blue birds. Red birds like blue birds. Red birds also like red birds. But blue birds really like blue birds. Amazingly, 23andme data actually codifies this nesting logic at the genetic level as well.

Now, to use another metaphor, this explains why we order what we order when we get to the restaurant. But how do we find the restaurant in the first place?

Another article, this time from practical-science blog Nautilus, titled “Casual Sex May be Improving America’s Marriages,” sheds some light on the question. The piece, written by the Chief Scientific Advisor to Match.com, reveals a seemingly paradoxical point: one-night stands might actually be helping American marriages. The author, Dr. Helen Fisher, explains that one-night stands are but the initial step in a sequential, “slow love” process. Thereafter, the progression moves to “friends with benefits” (“commitment-lite”), and then “devoted mating partner” (“commitment-heavy”), and then finally, formal marriage. ‘Deliberate’ seems the adjective of choice in comparison with the full force gale of historical companionship. Partnership must be personified before being signed into the legal codes.

Nonetheless, there has been ample handwringing over the millennial marriage issue. Much has been written on the delayed nature of millennial marriages. Numerically speaking, the average pre-marriage relationships takes between 18 to 34 months and 46 percent fewer millennials are married between ages 18 to 32, when compared to the baby boomers.

What to make of the concern?

It seems to me that the concern is misplaced. Neuroscientific research suggests two distinct timeframes in the early life of romantic relationships. The first, dominating the first eight months of relationships, is a sort of euphoria — the technical term being “limerence.” Neural circuitry in the subcortical, dopamine-rich, immediate reward regions is most active. The second timeframe blooms during the eight- to 17-month period, and reflects a sort of romantic commitment. Neural circuitry in the caudate body, associated with reward deference, is most active. In other words, the romantic lens does not widen to include a long-term horizon until between eight and 17 months. Assuming couples wait around a year after engagement to get married, this falls right into the average pre-marriage length for relationships mentioned above.

So, though in my previous piece I mentioned the “rationality” of millennial relationships, perhaps my word choice was off. Rather, our relationships appear intensely and intimately visceral. Driven by an incessant fear of a risk on the one hand and a slowly developing neuro-sensory attachment on the other, we are relying on our own feelings to navigate the seas of romance more than ever. We are waiting until we’re ready because that’s when it feels right. We are partial to those most like us because they feel familiar, comforting and consistent amidst an ocean of uncertainty.

The other thing I forgot to mention about Cahans is that, for some odd reason, there hasn’t been a marriage yet in my generation. Long-term companionship abounds, but legal partnership is nowhere to be found. Maybe we should date people more like us. Or maybe we should go out more (that much is certainly true). Or maybe, just maybe, we, like so many other millennials, are just trying to weave our way through the waves that so poignantly symbolize the ups and downs of love.

No rush.

Eli Cahan can be reached at emcahan@umich.edu.

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