Inside Love

“Love is many things: the protective love of a mother for her child, the passion of a couple newly in love, the deep love of long-term companions and the divine love of God, to name just a few. Some cultures have 10 or more words for different forms of love, and poets and songwriters always find myriad aspects of love to celebrate. Is there anything universal behind all this diversity? As Pope Benedict recently asked in his first encyclical letter: Are all forms of love basically, in its many and varied manifestations, ultimately a single reality?” (New Scientist – 29 April 2006)

There are many kinds of love which are induced by a varied collection of motives. Romantic love is probably the most intricate of them all, and there are many reasons for that. First, romantic love does not seem to follow many of our decision-making rules: you can fall in love with anyone, at anytime, and without any precedents.

Second, the concept of romantic love has been developed, propagated and nurtured, becoming to some extent intrinsically related to the very meaning of human life. Third, and maybe most important of all, love generates an astounding rush of adrenaline – a rapturous sensation of being out of control, like endeavouring in a great and unique experience.

Love seems to derive from a blend of environmental and genetic factors. Before the scientific study of love originated in the 70s, much of our perspective on the concept was based in the work of poets, artists and philosophers. Albeit love remains a complex matter, there are some cues as to why it is such an appealing one.

Romantic Love and the Western Civilisation

Human societies have idealised love for a long time. The historical development of the concept of love in western societies has followed some kind of periodical fashion throughout the centuries. Greeks and Romans perceived love as some kind of interesting force which had no connection with marriage. Courtly love, in the pre-renaissance period, promoted the idea of romance and it included particular concepts which were unique to a man/woman relationship. Such love was considered as a challenge and virtue by knights, but still there was no relationship with marriage. With the development of the church, romantic love was restricted and lust viewed as a transgression for the society.

With the Renaissance period, the idealisation of a woman as the object of love was the starting point for a shift of perspective, and the first concepts of love in marriage developed. Classic literature played its role in finding a reciprocal meaning in the relationship (Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet was written in this period). In the age of reason, around mid-18th century, emotional love fell out of fashion among the upper classes and intellectuals – a new approach based on reason, objectivity and productivity was formed. Later on, seduction and flirting took place through mythical characters such as Don Juan de Marco and real characters such as Giovanni Jacopo Casanova.

Modern romantic love developed through the balance of couple relationships, the concepts of free marriage and equal rights, and the idea that romantic love could be possible in any relationship. Dating started around the 1920s as an innovative approach to partner selection and premarital relationships became more open, intimate and practical. Romantic love was vastly promoted through books, novels, movies and the television. From the 1980s, love hit the internet – whilst dating and flirting became part of social dynamics in almost every instance. Nowadays, romantic love is practically a part of anyone’s life goals.

The Beautiful Chemistry

Scientists have devoted some time in investigating the neurochemical pathways that regulate social attachments, particularly the study of hormones and neurotransmitters which could be involved in the expression of love. The prairie vole – a small rodent that is perceived to be part of nature’s exclusive list of mammals which are fond of monogamous relationships – became an object of study for this matter, and it produced some impressive results. These animals not only spend their whole lives with the same partner, but they also seem to enjoy spending time with one another: observation showed that prairie vole couples groom and protect each other, nest together, and become affectionate and attentive parents.

Research performed on the prairie vole has shown their attachment to each other produces hormones called oxytocin and vasopressin. However, these voles also have the appropriate receptors for the hormones – which puts them in the 3% selected list of monogamous mammals, including humans.

But there is more to it. Whilst higher levels of oxytocin and vasopressin (and their receptors) play a major role in bonding relationships, neural circuits associated with rewards are responsible for the addictive feeling that love produces. When in love, couples experience euphoric states which seem to originate from the same pathways which are activated during consumption of stimulating drugs such as cocaine (high levels of the neurotransmitter dopamine). We seem to be literally addicted to love.

Love, Learning and Social Dynamics

The process of falling in love is vastly determined by social dynamics and learning. Humans develop their perspective on romance and love from childhood, based on their interaction with parents, friends and others, and in their individual experiences. By the time they reach adolescence, most people have some kind of blueprint of their ideal partner.

Research shows that the majority of people look for similar partners – same interests, same age, same social stratum, and so forth. People are conditioned by their past romantic experience, which explains why some individuals date the same type of person throughout time. Love also seems to have a major impact in perception. Research performed with ‘newly-in-love’ individuals shows that both the perspective of each other and the outside world is changed due to the exhilarating feeling of being in love. Brain areas controlling social judgements practically switch off whilst neural reward systems enhance the emotional link between the two people. Love, as they say, is blind.

In social love dynamics, first impressions can be decisive. Conditioning and genetic predisposition determine the process of choosing a potential partner: the leading motive of choice is appearance and body language (55%), whilst style of speaking (38%) and the person’s actual speech (only 7%) are the other less influential criteria. Laughing together, gazing into each other’s eyes and sharing emotive experiences also seem to fit in the love recipe.

Fisher and the Love Stages

Helen Fisher, a researcher at Rutgers University, suggests that love can be divided into three overlapping but separate stages: lust, romantic love and long-term attachment.

Lust would constitute the sexual craving highly induced by hormones and neurochemical reactions in the brain – a cocktail of oxytocin, vasopressin and endogenous opioids. Romantic love derives from the attraction and sharing of feelings between couples. Affection, idealisation, change in behavioural patterns and reciprocal responses in this stage derived from a mix of neurochemical influence and social needs.

Fisher argues that romantic love is unstable – but the final stage known as attachment is the basis for long-term relationships and the process of building a family. Such stage invokes feelings of social comfort, security and emotional union. Because all these stages are perceived to be independent, they can occur simultaneously and with different intensity in men and women.

Delis and the Passion Paradox

Dean Delis offers an interesting insight on love in his book “Passion Paradox”. According to Delis, one partner is more in love – or emotionally invested in the relationship – than the other. The more love the loving partner wants from the other, the less the other feels like giving.

“The more in love partner is in the one-down position, whilst the less in love partner occupies the one-up position. Men and women can occupy both positions at various times.”

The author affirms that virtually everyone experiences love’s two sides in the same way (pleasure and pain). It does not matter whether your past experiences moulded you to be a particular person – no one, even the emotionally healthy person, is exempted from the pain of love when it tips out of balance. In this context, love relationships would produce a paradox: ‘one-downs’ try harder as they feel insecure and want to get back in control.

They attempt to enhance their attraction power. The goal of such effort is to gain emotional control over the relationship as to avoid the nightmare of rejection (that means winning his or her love). But the catch is: if you prove too appealing to the one you want – to the point where the other person is clearly more in love with you – the relationship will fall out of balance.

When such an event occurs, you have become the ‘one-up’ or, if you are frightened by your partner’s distance, you have become the ‘one-down’. It would seem that the very urge to attract someone, to bring another person under emotional control, contains the potential for upsetting the balance of the relationship. This is due to the fact that the feeling of being in love is biochemically linked to the feeling of being out of control. Once you feel completely in control or sure of another person’s love, your feelings of passion begin to fade: vanishing the challenge or excitement of the relationship.

“The passion paradox is one of the most familiar experiences in working with couples. One person wants more sex, more time talking, more commitment than the other. A study of male-female relationships done at Yale University found that in 19% of relationships both partners were “equally involved” in the relationship in general.

In 36% of partnerships the woman was “less involved” and in 45% of partnerships the man was “less involved”. This imbalance is partially due to a personality difference between people who enjoy connecting and people who enjoy being separate. The research shows that there are slightly more men who enjoy being more separate, but the difference is not huge. Whichever way the paradox runs, the result is often quite painful for both partners.”1