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What Is Love?
In our society, in songs, movies, and books, when someone feels an overwhelming sensation of longing for another person, we refer to it as love. This yearning may overtake everything else in a person's life and unleash previously undiscovered energy. It involves simultaneous feelings of ecstasy and agony because of our hopes for, and doubts about, the reciprocation of our feelings.
Being "in love" is one of the most exhilarating emotional states, and many people associate it with the greatest happiness in life. Most of us carry some kind of romantic love story with us, which may be based on novels, poetry, movies, or personal experience. The intensity of the feeling and its hold over our thoughts and actions are so extraordinary that we may remember it our whole lives. We may chuckle inside recalling the foolish things we did when madly in love and how anxious we were to get even the smallest shred of attention from the beloved one.
When we fall in love, the world seems different, and our heads spin with fantasies and dreams. It feels as if we are under a spell. Nothing matters except the beloved. The exhilaration mounts into ecstasy if the beloved person reciprocates our feelings. No wonder that most people yearn for this sensation and that its portrayal is so central to the arts and entertainment.
The most powerful stories in our culture center on love. Consider Paris and Helen in Greek mythology, Cleopatra and Mark Antony, Romeo and Juliet — the greatest poets and writers mesmerized readers with their love stories. But is it conceivable that Romeo's intense feelings for his Juliet were not love?
Erich Fromm radically challenged the idea that love consisted merely of intense feelings. He differentiated falling in love from the state of love. He argued that the overwhelming sensations we experience when falling in love in fact are not love at all but a state of infatuation. This claim stirred up quite a controversy. But anybody who has ever been in love knows that the obsessive, all-consuming feelings of the early stages of a romantic relationship don't last. Eventually they fade, and while we still may feel very affectionate toward the beloved, we are not as infatuated as we were in the beginning.
Even couples still very much in love after decades admit that there is a distinct difference between the early and later stages of their relationship. Many marriages actually begin to crumble over the disillusionment that sets in when these very intense initial feelings begin to fade.
About half a century after Fromm, methods of biological analysis provided new insights into the phenomenon of romantic love. Researchers compared the blood levels of several hormones in individuals who had recently fallen in love with those in single people and people in long-term relationships. They found higher levels of cortisol (a steroid hormone released in response to stress) and a number of other differences among blood hormones in the group that had recently fallen in love compared to those in long-term relationships. Furthermore, differences in hormone levels correlated with more intense feelings of falling in love, and hormone levels returned to normal in later phases of a relationship. The precise combination of hormones responsible for the emotions that arise when we fall in love has not yet been fully elucidated, but they include dopamine, oxytocin, glucocorticoids, endorphins, and amphetamines. These are hormones that may induce states of euphoria and, in the case of oxytocin, foster attachment. Indeed, the powerful effects of some of these hormones have been compared to those of cocaine. Cortisol is also released when we are stressed, which explains why falling in love also has some uncomfortable effects, such as anxiety and sleeplessness.
New tools for studying the brain and nervous system have also yielded novel insights into love. Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) studies comparing the brains of two groups of people — those who had recently fallen in love and those in long-term relationships — corroborate the findings from blood-hormone analyses: they show some distinct differences in brain activity during these stages. Specifically, the brain areas associated with compulsive behavior were much more active in people who had recently fallen in love than those in long-term relationships. These findings may explain our obsession with love during this phase.
Furthermore, studies show that the rise and fall of blood hormones associated with the falling-in-love phase are quite consistent and predictable. Typically, hormone levels return to the normal range after one to four years of courtship, and this decrease correlates with the fading of the intense feelings of being in love. Divorce rates peak at four years of marriage, suggesting that breakups may be linked to falling levels of love hormones and the associated decrease of powerful sensations.
Blood analyses and brain MRIs thus suggest that falling in love is different from long-term love. While falling in love, we are totally consumed with thoughts of the beloved. Elevated levels of dopamine induce a state of euphoria and energy that is difficult to match even with the use of powerful drugs. Research has revealed that we fall in love instantly — within a second of looking at a person. Subconsciously and at lightning speed, our brain runs through a list of criteria, and if these criteria are met, we fall in love. Because the list of criteria is extensive (and likely keeps expanding throughout our lives), we don't fall in love too often. Our criteria for falling in love are to some degree inherent, but they are also formed by our upbringing. If we pay close attention, we may recognize a pattern in the people we fall in love with.
Why do we fall in love? It appears to be nature's way of jump-starting a relationship. From the perspective of evolutionary psychology, the energy and euphoria generated in our brains serve to establish a strong bond between two people for the purpose of reproduction. Unlike the sex drive, however, falling in love functions not only to foster an environment for sexual intercourse but also to allow sufficient attachment between the partners that they will cooperate to protect the offspring beyond her or his most vulnerable period. Three to four years of coupling is generally sufficient time for successful childbearing and for guarding children through the stage of entire helplessness. After that, one parent is often able to safely raise the offspring to reproductive age — the critical goal for evolution. Since evolution is all about efficiency, falling in love only needs to last about three to four years.
This is a sobering view. Are all of these wonderful feelings just nature's way of inducing us to mate and reproduce successfully? Is love programmed not to last? Well, the answer depends on whether we equate the sensations experienced when we fall in love with those we experience when we love. To address these issues, we need to define love — which is not an easy task. For millennia, philosophers, spiritual leaders, poets, writers, and others have tried to define love, but we still have no widely accepted definition that takes into account all its complexities. Some philosophical texts contend that love cannot be defined at all.
Interpretations and definitions of love are strongly influenced by societal, philosophical, and spiritual beliefs. Thus, love may have different meanings in different cultures. And many of the feelings frequently associated with love are, in my view, not part of the spectrum of love itself.
Gottfried Leibniz, a German polymath and philosopher in the seventeenth century, defined love as the capacity "to be delighted by the happiness of others," which captures much of the essence of love. If we love somebody, we indeed derive a sense of bliss from seeing them happy. Most of us have known the contentment that comes from seeing the joy in our loved one's eyes. On the other hand, Leibniz's definition of love does not take into account the intensity of the lover's emotion or his/her active role in creating it. "Being delighted by the happiness of others" can describe both a fleeting moment of sympathy and the lasting, deep sensation of love.
A more precise definition of love might be the urge and continuous effort for the happiness and well-being of somebody (or something). Thus, love is a more intense form of caring or compassion. Love is associated with a stronger impulse, greater satisfaction, and more intense emotion than simply caring. But the border between compassion and love is not sharply delineated. It is a matter of degree — of the intensity of our feelings and our level of commitment, such as our willingness to make sacrifices for someone else's well-being. For example, we may chat with a neighbor once in a while. We like her, and when we hear that she has broken her hip and needs help with commuting or grocery shopping, we gladly offer to help. However, we would not quit our job or make some other big sacrifice in order to help her. These are things we would do for people we love, those to whom we are very close. Thus, our commitment to the well-being of others and our associated emotions determine whether we consider it love or merely compassion.
Just as we find it difficult to define love, we have no comprehensive understanding of how love originates. Contrary to the common view that love descends upon us without any conscious volition on our part, Fromm argued that love is an activity, something that requires enormous effort and concentration — in fact, an art. To master the art of loving, we must devote ourselves to it and give it priority over all other activities. Fromm argued that we can essentially love anybody if we commit ourselves to the effort. Loving is not a matter of the object of our love, but of the subject, meaning our own perception of someone we love.
Fromm's view of love was enthusiastically embraced by many but also met with criticism. Some people felt that such a sober, rational description left out the emotional aspects of love and ruled out the possibility of a unique bond between two people. Indeed, emotions are essential to loving. Everybody recognizes the sensation of delight in looking at a loved one and feeling the urge to hug and hold that person. These feelings persist after the falling-in-love phase: they are an intrinsic part of love. While Fromm was right to emphasize the active, conscious component of love, I believe he shifted the balance too far and created an overly cerebral, intellectual concept of love.
Love has both active and passive components. Active loving involves the conscious or subconscious prioritizing of loving over other human impulses. The emotions of loving, such as joy at seeing the happiness of the beloved, on the other hand, come naturally — that is, they are passive. These emotions are the spontaneous result of the act of loving. If we reflect on the most blissful emotions we have ever felt, we are likely to recall the joy of seeing the elation of a child or partner. This is the greatest reward for loving, filling our hearts with warmth and the utmost contentment. But to experience these ecstatic feelings, we must first have actively triggered the process of loving in our minds (consciously or subconsciously).
Unlike the emotions that accompany falling in love, the feelings we experience as a part of love will persist as long as we continue to work at loving. Actual love typically demands knowledge of the beloved — much more than we need to know in order to fall in love with somebody. Often, instant passion can be triggered merely by physical features or a brief encounter. This passion allows us to develop an idea of the beloved person that is largely based on our own hopes and desires and may not reflect reality. I recall the first time being "madly in love" when I was sixteen and spotted a girl in a dance club. I did not have the courage to talk to her but, mesmerized by her appearance, I drove twenty miles on my moped through rain and snow every day for weeks back to that same dance club in the hopes she would return — without ever having spoken a word with her. Thus, we may well fall in love with our perception of a person. As we spend more time with the object of our passion, that perception may conflict with the person's actual nature — which sometimes may lead to disappointment or disillusionment. The state of exhilaration, however, may mask the disappointment for some time (leading to denial). If two people have no adequate understanding of love at this point, their relationship stands little chance of surviving.
Many people resist the notion that the intense feelings that accompany falling in love can be dismissed as mere infatuation. Some also reject the distinction between infatuation and love as purely academic and inconsequential. But this distinction actually matters tremendously for our lives. The falling-in-love phase invariably ends. If we interpret the fading of these intense feelings as the end of love itself, we may question the whole basis of our relationship. Couples are often distraught when they realize they are not as crazy about each other as they were in the beginning. Instead of acknowledging the ephemeral nature of falling in love, they often break up to look for a new rush in another partnership — only to repeat the cycle. Partners who expect to remain in a state of euphoria forever will inevitably be disappointed.
The ensuing disappointment not only causes heartache for the couple but often has devastating consequences for the people around them, especially children. The cliché of "lovesick fools" holds some truth: when our minds are flooded with the hormones of falling in love, our judgment can be impaired. MRI studies of the human brain have consistently shown that brain areas responsible for decision making are greatly influenced by the emotions that accompany falling in love. When the infatuation phase of courtship ends, lives may be thrown into disarray.
My friend Ben met his wife, Sandra, at work right after college. Ben fell in love with Sandra almost instantly in the office hallway. He had barely spoken with her, but he was captivated by her looks and her vivacious, funny style. His obsession with her grew, and soon he found himself fantasizing about her most of the time. When he ran into her in the office, his heart pounded, and he froze. He desperately wanted to ask her out on a date, but he felt so awkward in her presence that he could not do it.
It was Sandra who took the initiative. She had noticed Ben, too, and was attracted to him. They went for a drink after work and found themselves talking for hours. Everything felt right, and they felt as if they had known each other forever. They became inseparable. After three months of dating, they moved in together. After another eight months, Ben asked Sandra to marry him. Sandra got pregnant in the second year after their wedding and again one year later.
In the beginning, everything seemed perfect, and they never quarreled. Over time, however, tensions began to rise. Rather than go back to work, Sandra wanted to stay at home with the children. Struggling to earn enough money to support the family, Ben took on a second job and felt increasingly tired. When he came home, he wanted to do nothing but eat and watch television. It seemed to him that Sandra did nothing all day except play with the kids, while he was working himself into the ground. When he wanted to spend more time with his friends and Sandra objected to his going out without her, he became resentful.
Sandra was irritated by Ben's messiness and his unwillingness to help out at home. She had noticed early in their relationship that Ben was untidy, but at first she was only mildly amused, and she always cleaned up after him. Gradually she grew angry and resentful when he left things in disarray, feeling overwhelmed with housework and childcare and upset at not getting any appreciation from Ben.
The incredible attraction they had felt for each other faded away. Ben felt drawn to other women at work, and Sandra fantasized about one of her friends from college. They fought almost daily, usually about trivial things. They grew further and further apart, and six years after their wedding they consensually filed for divorce.
What happened? How could the intense feelings they had felt for each other disappear? When they met, they had no doubt they were made for each other. Both had been sure that what they perceived as true love would last forever.
In truth, Ben and Sandra never loved each other — at least not in the sense that I use the term love. They fell in love but never made the transition to true, mature love. Ben and Sandra enjoyed their blissful emotions but failed to make the continuous effort that love requires. In other words, neither of them put the other's happiness and well-being above everything else. When their infatuation-boosted hormones ebbed, they did not work at fostering love. Eventually, the realities of life caught up with them.
Excerpted from "The Forgotten Art of Love"
Copyright © 2017 Armin A. Zadeh.
Excerpted by permission of New World Library.
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Table of ContentsIntroduction
Chapter I. What Is Love?
Chapter II. Why Do We Love?
Chapter III. Love as an Art
Chapter IV. Self-Love
Chapter V. Love and Romantic Relationships
Chapter VI. Love and Sex
Chapter VII. Love for Our Children
Chapter VIII. Love and Religion
Chapter IX. Love and Society
Chapter X. Love and the World
Chapter XI. Love and Human Differences
Chapter XII. Happiness and Health from Love
Chapter XIII. Love and the Meaning of Life
Chapter XIV. Mastering the Art of Love
Chapter XV. A Call for Teaching Love at School
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