Hibernation Theory: Why Fall is Biologically Ripe for Relationshipsby Andrea Bartz on November 07, 2011
Light a little candle (hell, make it a heat-producing bonfire): The warm season’s officially over, and with it the careless nights of sweaty kisses and tan-on-tan skin. And with the chilly weather comes an instinctual drive for daters: Find. Mate. Now.
“Summer dating and fall dating are very different things,” says John Sharp, MD, a Harvard psychiatrist and author of The Emotional Calendar. “In the summertime, people are looking for a passionate, carefree fling. But in the fall, we’re interested in finding someone with long-term potential.”
In fact, some unofficial Facebook analysis notes a big bump in breakups in March and April, when we’re gearing up for summer fun, but a nadir in the couple-y fall months.
The upshot? Biology is on your side if you’re looking out for the Big L. Autumn is the season of Serious Relationships.
Looking back on the long reach of human history, we’ve always placed a huge premium on, uh, not dying. And back in our hunter-gatherer-fighter-of-sabre-tooth-tiger days, pairing off with a cave-buddy before the difficult winter months increased our odds of making it until spring. “Having a mate to look after you and help provide sustenance during those long winter nights increased your odds of survival,” Sharp says. But in the carefree summer months, surviving was an easier task, so we didn’t evolve to get a hunker-down drive during wet hot American summers.
Patrick Waring, 26, lives and dates in Madison, Wisconsin, where the winter windchill once dipped to—wait for it—83 degrees below zero. So he can vouch for the whole survival aspect of seasonal dating. “Winter is actually life-threatening here,” he says. “If you’re in a relationship in the winter, you’ve got an awesome space heater in your bed. But if you miss that window in the fall, it’s over. An actively hostile environment is not a great setting for picking up chicks.”
But even in warmer regions, ones that lack frosty fall nights and icy mounds of snow, humans feel the same deep drives. “Around the world, even in places where there isn’t much variation in the weather, there’s still seasonal cultural variation,” Sharp says.
I See You, Baby
One such American universal: Summer’s the season of skimpiness. “Everybody’s hotter in the summer,” says Jeremy Nicholson, Ph.D., a psychologist in Boston. “It’s called sexual signaling. We show off the things that attract mates”—our shapely legs, healthy bronze glow, rippling muscles, the whole nine. And although men are more visual creatures, and are thus more turned on by the added skin, sexual signaling increases for men during the summer months, too, Nicholson adds: “What’s sexier, a bunch of guys going snowboarding or a shirts-skins pickup game?” (Even here in unathletic Brooklyn, home of the HowAboutWe HQ, the indie boys switch from skinny jeans to jorts when the mercury rises. Hot.)
And when everybody looks imminently jump-able, the last thing we want to do is settle down. It’s another one of our psychological quirks: The more choices we have, the less satisfied we are with any given option. (That’s why you’re happier with your dish from a small, well-curated menu vs. an 8-page list of entrees.) When the weather chills and we put some clothes on already, the world no longer seems brimming with options, so it’s easier to pick a partner and settle down. [Please see “Why Women Look More Like Girlfriend Material in the Fall.”]
That even applies to the skin-fest that is Southern California. “No one’s wearing a bikini in the winter,” says Sarah Phelan, 26, a Los Angeles native. “In summer, everyone’s on the beach, but when it gets cold, the weather dips into the 40s and we refuse to go outside.”
Super SAD True No-Love Story
That last bit—the disinclination to put on a parka and go somewhere—highlights another piece of the Hibernation Theory puzzle. Thanks to the short days and lack of natural light, our Circadian rhythms run off the rails in winter, and many of us suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder (and yeah, it’s hard to be all “PARTY!” when your brain chemicals are bumming you out). Even those who don’t fall along the clinical spectrum tend to feel more sluggish during the winter.
That extends to our grooming practices, too—we pack on pounds, grow white as milk and refuse to shave (and anecdotally, unshaven legs are inversely related to the likelihood of a hook-up, wouldn’t you say?). “That’s another reason it’s nice to have a Special Someone during the cold months,” Nicholson says. “Then you have a partner who loves you even with your scruffy face or stubbly legs.”
Psychologists point to one last reason entering a relationship suddenly seems like a good idea come October or November. We might start pairing off because, well, everyone around us is pairing off, too. The scientific term is scarcity: When we perceive that something is becoming harder to obtain (like a given store’s supply of Tickle Me Elmo’s back in that fateful holiday season), we want it, and we want it now.
“In summer, it seems like there’s an endless supply of available mates,” Nicholson says. “But as the ranks seem to dwindle, as they pair off or head inside or put on more clothes and appear less approachable, there’s a scarcity effect.” Nicholson likens it to that 1 a.m. scramble in bars — all of a sudden you realize the singles are becoming duos, and if you don’t actually quickly, you’re going to go home alone. The result: Macking ensues.
Phelan, the California girl, puts a more reflective spin on it. “In summer, I don’t have time to think about dating. I’m constantly running around and seeing my friends,” she says. “But in fall, my social life slows down a bit, so I get a moment to realize ‘Oh yeah, I am single…’ I guess I have time to miss doing couple things.”
There you have it: Now’s the perfect time of year to shake off the sun-dazed hook-up frenzy and start daydreaming about apple-picking and sharing one of those weird hand-holding mittens.