JOHANNA MAYER: The other day we got an email from a listener, Eric. Producer Elah Feder, would you like to read it?
ELAH FEDER: I would like to read it. OK. Hi. I absolutely love the Science Diction podcast. Definitely excited when a new episode comes up in my Podcasts app. We can also be heard on Stitcher, Apple Podcasts, Spotify, and more. Thank you, Johanna.
I was wondering if you could explore the origin of the word honeymoon. It seems like another one of those words where everyone knows what it means but has no clue where it came from. Keep up the great work. Eric Benanti.
JOHANNA MAYER: Honeymoon. It seems like a word that would have a lovely origin story, doesn't it? Honeymoon, what could be lovelier? I'm imagining it started with a kind of wedding celebration where you dance under the moonlight and spoon feed each other honey from those bear-shape jars, which would make the dancing tricky but not impossible for those in true love's thrall.
And then I imagine the honey dancing became an extended two-week honeymoon rave and then a vacation to Cancun and finally, a pejorative, a metaphor, the honeymoon phase, a good time that just doesn't last. Maybe you pictured something like that too? Here's what we actually found out.
It wasn't until about the late 1700s that the word honeymoon meant a trip that you take after your wedding. As for literal honey, a lot of people claim there was an old tradition for newlyweds to drink mead, which is made from honey. I really wish that were true, but alas, we were not able to confirm it.
The real origin is a little more bittersweet. So according to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word honeymoon, from the start, described a kind of love that wanes as the moon does. Another early interpretation that's perhaps even more glum was love that lasts no longer than a month.
So the moon in honeymoon is a direct reference to lunar cycles, as in a month. And honey, presumably, is the sweetness of that time. The first time honeymoon showed up in print was in 1546 in a John Heywood poem.
LEXI ATIYA: As a whelpe for wantonnes in and out whipps, so plaied these tweyne, as mery as thre chipps.
JOHANNA MAYER: Lexi Atiya, PhD student in medieval studies at the University of Toronto, reading a little excerpt for us.
LEXI ATIYA: Ye there was God, quoth he, whan all is doone. Abyde, quoth I, it was yet but hony moone.
JOHANNA MAYER: So nice poem, kind of bummer of a meaning.
LEXI ATIYA: Basically, there's a narrator, who is presumably Heywood, and someone has come to him for advice about marriage. And Heywood is describing these two different neighbors that he had who had two different marriages that went awry for different reasons. So in one marriage, it was a young man who married a woman who was poor. And in another marriage, it was a young man who married a rich, old widow.
JOHANNA MAYER: The part you just heard was about that first couple, the young man and a poor woman.
LEXI ATIYA: And it's basically saying that initially, they were really in love with each other and really happy, and then the kind of reality of their financial situation sets in, and their marriage sours. So this is describing the period before the marriage sours.
JOHANNA MAYER: But is the honeymoon phase a real thing, like something that's actually happening in our brains? So there's been research on this. During those early phases of a relationship, there is a chemical bonanza happening. First, dopamine flood. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that motivates us to pursue pleasurable things like money and sex, and when we fall in love, our brains are awash in it.
One group of researchers used an fMRI to scan the brains of people who'd recently fallen in love. And when the researchers showed them pictures of their lovers, this teeny little area of the brain called the ventral tegmental area, or the VTA, lit up. The VTA pumps out dopamine, sends it to a bunch of different brain regions, hence feelings of intense focus, craving, euphoria.
And you know how in those early phases it's like your partner can do no wrong? A different group of researchers popped a few lovebirds into a brain scanner, and they found reduced activity in the amygdala, which is involved in decision making and social judgments and processing danger. So one is dampened?
The researchers think you may be more likely to view your partner through some rose-colored glasses, make you a little more trusting. Researchers have also looked at serotonin levels and people who say they fell in love within the past six months. And they actually found reduced levels, which seems kind of strange because serotonin is associated with contentment or well-being.
People with obsessive compulsive disorder tend to have lower serotonin levels. And the researchers speculated that lack of serotonin might be what leads to those obsessive, irrational feelings about our new love. So yes, the honeymoon phase is a real thing, but that doesn't mean it's all downhill from there.
CHRISTINE PROULX: We have this lay idea that the honeymoon period is fantastic, and then things just tank.
JOHANNA MAYER: Christine Proulx is the gerontologist at the University of Missouri.
CHRISTINE PROULX: You know that saying, the honeymoon is over, that the only place to go after the honeymoon period is downhill. And as someone who's studied marriage for the last 20 years and who's married herself and likes to believe there's maybe an alternative explanation for happiness, I was pretty driven by trying to better understand, does this really happen? Because I didn't think it did.
JOHANNA MAYER: So Christine put together a big review of a ton of scientific literature on the honeymoon phase and marital satisfaction to try to pick out some patterns, and a couple of caveats here. First, when they're talking about the honeymoon phase in new studies, they're usually talking about the first two to four years after a wedding, even though many relationships these days exist for years before you get married.
It's just kind of tough to pin down the real start date of our relationship. Was it the day you met, the date of your first kiss? You get it. And second, the vast majority of these studies were on cisgendered, hetero couples.
Christine says a big reason for that is that for a long time, queer couples couldn't get legally married. And if you don't have a wedding date, then there's the whole issue about pinning down the precise start date. Just a quick note here that Elah Feder would like to say that clearly, there's important research to be done on gay love, a flame which Elah says burns unabated for all of time.
ELAH FEDER: OK, that was recorded earlier. I just wanted to pop in to amend that. In light of recent events, gay love lasts-- I've calculated this-- three years, two months, eight days. All right. Back to the episode.
JOHANNA MAYER: So Christine did this big review, read up on some of the patterns of relationships and marital satisfaction, and she's suggesting that it all comes together to support something she calls the honeymoon as ceiling effect.
CHRISTINE PROULX: The majority of couples, they start marriage pretty satisfied, pretty happy, and they're able to stay there, which is way better than honeymoon is over, right? But that said, what we found was that very, very rarely does it get better than where you might be in the early stages of the relationship.
JOHANNA MAYER: So even though the honeymoon won't last forever, according to Christine's findings, it does sound like you can have just as satisfying a relationship later on, different, but just as good. But of course, there's a flip side.
CHRISTINE PROULX: I have colleagues who look at people who are thinking about calling off a wedding, and I feel like that research matches well with our finding where if you're marching toward that wedding date or thinking about marriage plans and you're not really satisfied in your relationship, I feel like the message is it's probably not going to get better than what it is right there.
JOHANNA MAYER: This is not to say that improvement in marriage doesn't happen. Christine says couples can totally get better in certain areas, like negotiating or conflict resolution and stuff like that. But on the whole, the current research shows that overall levels of marital satisfaction, honeymoon phase is pretty much as good as you're going to get.
But you're not doomed to an inferior love for the rest of your time together. You can still spoon feed each other honey. You can still dance under the moon.
Eric, I hope this answers your question. If you have a word that you want us to cover, you can call in, leave us a message. We might play it on the show. Call 929-499-WORD. That's 929-499-9673.
Science Diction is produced by me and senior producer Elah Feder. Daniel Peterschmidt is our composer. They sound designed and mastered this episode. Special thanks this week to Michael Lorber and the anthropologist Helen Fisher, who's researched the honeymoon effect on our brains.
Find more on our website, sciencefriday.com/diction. Nadja Oertelt is our chief content officer, and she's recently transitioned away from playing air guitar to air balalaika. Here's just a little taste.
I am in awe of her talent. Nadja actually offered to perform at any of our weddings for free. She says she's worked a few gigs already and--
NADJA OERTELT: They start marriage pretty satisfied.