Love, a word we use to describe an infinite number of experiences. I love my family, friends, boyfriend, Chicago, pork belly confit…but what does love really mean when it can be associated with so many people, places and non-kosher appetizers?
Despite love’s wide applicability, virtually every client I see tells the story of their lost love, the love of their life or their inability to find love. As human beings, we crave connectedness. Positive psychology research shows relationships are the one variable that make people happy. However, as indicated by the current divorce rate, relationships often fail. Why then, do we pine for the very thing that often makes us miserable? Love can be relentlessly consuming, distracting and ultimately heartbreaking. Why is it that we will sacrifice everything for one, but nothing for another? What is this crazy thing we call love?
Gustav Klimt, an Austrian Symbolist painter, created The Kiss in the Art Nouveau style. Although Klimt was middle aged and still living with his mother when he painted it, his voracious sexual desires were expressed through his art. Typically, Klimt showcased very sexualized females, the objects of desire. However, The Kiss depicts a more tender and romantic portrayal of love than the majority of his work. If Klimt was usually focused on the sexual elements of love, what motivated him to shift his emphasis to intimacy? Interestingly, this painting became the most popular and recognizable piece in his collection. Perhaps it reflects what we truly want most —but before we determine what that is, let’s try to figure out love first.
From the biological perspective, love increases our chances for survival. Although we don’t need be in love to have sex and procreate, love often leads to monogamy, improving chances of survival for our offspring. Evolutionary theory suggests men fall in love visually: facial symmetry, curved hips and full breasts indicate health and fertility. Alternatively, women are thought to fall in love with security, status and power. While I do agree these are pretty relevant stereotypes, they don’t account for the myriad of couples exemplifying opposite trends.
Neuroscience research suggests love is a chemical reaction. The neurotransmitter dopamine is a chemical largely responsible for reward-driven learning. Although we normally associate dopamine release with using cocaine or MDMA, love also gets those neurons firing. The pleasure we experience from the release of dopamine helps explain why love is an addiction. Additionally, Oxytocin is a hormone released during orgasm and pair bonding which is responsible for feelings of attachment. The intense withdrawal we feel when our heart is broken is partly due to the depletion of dopamine and oxytocin in our brain.
Can we really know love based on chemicals? The neuro theories may provide insight into why people continue to engage in unhealthy relationship patterns. We become addicted to the chemical release in our brain and may continue to date someone who treats us badly because we crave another hit, so to speak. Freud and Fairbairn called this a repetition compulsion. However, they disagreed on the underlying processes. Freud believed we repeat maladaptive patterns because we have a repressed unconscious wish or unresolved conflict. Alternatively, Fairbairn believed we repeat the relationships we had with our early primary caregivers. Therefore, if your parents were inconsistent or ambivalent, you may turn out to be someone who constantly dates commitment phobic individuals.
Ultimately, I don’t think real love can be described, it must be experienced. We have to believe we are worthy of love to recognize it and let it develop. Otherwise, the traumas of our past and fears of the future interfere with our perceptions of the present. When you get to a place where your head and your heart align, love can be very simple — it is just something that makes you want to be a better person, and provides you with the support to do just that.