8/6/10: Love, one of the most central components to human life, is such an amorphous concept that it is nearly impossible for people to completely agree on what it actually is or means. That is some of the beauty of love, but also some of the reasons we find ourselves confused. The following is a crash-course in what psychologists understand of “love”, and I hope that it may highlight new ideas, or name some things that can help you in your own journey of understanding it.
Types of Love
One thing that hinders our understanding is that the English language is actually quite limited in describing different forms of love. We lump love for a spouse, a child, a pet, a job, a higher power, yourself, a good meal, and family members into one generic word. Other languages have specific words for different types of love, so the best we can do is make up some new ones. So this post is going to cover “romantic love” and “committed love“, two of the most often confused and discussed in my office.
This is the type of love that is the stuff of countless poems, songs, films, and fantasies. The all-consuming, heart-skips-a-beat, shooting stars in the sky during a kiss, can’t wait until he/she calls, crazy kind of love. Most committed partnerships start here (romantic love usually doesn’t last more than a year), in the phase of intensity, “connection”, longing, focus, and feeling that is hard to describe and feels special. What a ride this can be! This is the stage where people generally describe being “in love” or “falling in love”, and is the stage of courting and being in a state of “fusion”.
Two of the most commonly examined explanations from this come vastly different angles. First, biologists and evolutionary psychologists have very recently begun to conclude in consensus that romantic love is anything but romantic:
“…early-stage romantic love is a developed form of a mammalian drive to pursue preferred mates. (Previous research has) concluded that it was a goal-oriented motivational state (rather than an emotion) that uses subcortical mammalian reward/survival systems, helping to explain why early-stage romantic love affects behavior so profoundly.” (Fisher et al, 2010, p.51).
The characteristics of someone in romantic love “…include focused attention on the preferred individual, rearrangement of priorities, increased energy, mood swings, sympathetic nervous system responses including sweating and a pounding heart, emotional dependence, elevated sexual desire, sexual possessiveness, obsessive thinking about him or her, craving for emotional union with this preferred individual, affiliative gestures, goal oriented behaviors, and intense motivation to obtain and retain this particular mating partner.” (Fisher et al, 2010, p.56).
Some recent work in neuroscience as examined the brains of people in romantic love. They found that the brain areas involved with making judgments and with sense of self. What this means is that when we are in romantic love, out ability to make judgments about situations and the other person is actually impaired, and we lose our sense of individuality and over-identify with the other (Xu, et al, 2010).
Another perspective on this comes from the idea that romantic love is really just an illusion created in our minds. Some sociologists have looked at how romantic love is portrayed in media and passed along through stories to create a fantasy, and an illusion about finding a “magical other”, that when tested with reality, does not hold.
Jungian psychoanalysts take this idea further, and see romantic love as a “projection” of a key part of one’s inner world onto someone else. Basically when we meet someone new who “sparkles” for us, we use them as a canvas for us to place all kinds of wonderful things from our imagination onto them. This basically inflates the reality of that person into god or goddess-like status. The “perfect” person.
A learning perspective on this would be that when we meet someone new we have very little information about them, and that makes it easy for us to fill in the missing information with our own fantasies and beliefs about others and the world. Either way we aren’t actually connecting with them as a real human being.
Romantic Love Conclusions
Regardless of the perspective, science is generally pretty hard on romantic love, whether it is seen as a “goal oriented motivation state”, an “illusion”, a fantasy projection, or just really dramatic lust. Either way, it is normal for romantic love to end (slowly or abruptly) when the illusions and projections are forced to change as we learn more about the actual human being in the relationship with us (“oh he/she isn’t a god/goddess after all!”), or the intensity of the drive naturally subsides.
The risk of romantic love being our definition of real love (common for people who see real love as a “feeling” rather than a “choice”), is that it cannot be sustained for anyone. If we saw it this way, then we may always be chasing it, never staying with someone long enough to move into “committed love”, and never really being satisfied in a relationship. Plus all of that intensity gets exhausting after awhile! Those fantasies are also quite a burden for the other person to carry, and how disappointed we can be when they don’t live up to those earlier visions! “You’re not the person I fell in love with”. And why does this happen with a specific person? That’s also for another post.
This type of love is a much different story. It doesn’t sparkle but for a moment here and there. Our culture does a terrible job of ever showing this except for fleeting moments like “cute old people holding hands” or in the rare example of a healthy couple on television like the Taylor’s on Friday Night Lights (my personal favorite). Maybe we don’t see it because there isn’t much to see. Committed love is about sharing normal life together. It is about being supportive, affectionate, kind, caring, committed, responsive, and loyal. This is the stuff of the healthiest long-term couples, and can be thought of as “standing in love”.
Robert Johnson, a Jungian writer, calls this “stirring the oatmeal” love, and describes it as: “…a willingness to share ordinary human life, to find meaning in the simple, unromantic tasks: earning a living, living within a budget, putting out the garbage, feeding the baby in the middle of the night. To ‘stir the oatmeal’ means to find the relatedness, the value, even the beauty in simple ordinary things, not to eternally demand a cosmic drama, an entertainment or an extraordinary intensity in everything. Like the rice hulling of the Zen monks, the spinning wheel of Gandhi, the tent making of Saint Paul, it represents the discovery of the sacred in the midst of the humble and ordinary.”
When I describe this to a lot of my clients they say “that sounds so boring!” I think if it is seen at the wrong level (that our relationships should be a constant source of excitement rather than a place to demonstrate care and “loving” for someone), then yes, it is boring. The solution I try to pass along is that people can have a stable relationship and an exciting life together.” Rather than have a long interpersonal drama, go on vacation, take up new activities, explore new sexual practices, etc. Many people also get concerned when they move from romantic into committed love, and think something is “wrong” with the relationship, or that they have “fallen out of love”, and they often miss the opportunity for a sustainable loving relationship.
Committed love is what can be built when the flames of romantic love fade out and two people are left with the choice of facing a life together. When I work with couples, I try and help them develop this, as well as the ability to capitalize on those fleeting romantic moments.
Fisher et al (2010). Reward, Addiction, and Emotion Regulation Systems Associated With Rejection in Love. Journal of Neuropsyiology.
Johnson (1985). We: Understanding the Psychology of Romantic Love. Harper.
Xu et all (2010). Reward and motivation systems: A brain mapping study of early-stage intense romantic love in Chinese participants. Human Brain Mapping.