A Brief Examination of Love
Karra M. Clark
What is love? How do we feel love? Love has forever been a long eluding mystery that the greatest minds of time have tried to unravel. This text discusses a very broad definition of love. It will examine the psychological aspect of love, including a brief discussion of Robert Sternberg’s Triangular Love Theory and the styles of love. It explores the science of love through the physiological aspects that love has on the body. The text slightly skims the surface of the cultural influences on love.
Love, we all need it and we all want it. Many great authors from Plato on have written about love despite the obvious historical professional silence on the subject. When sex therapy appeared on the scene in the 1970’s, love still did not make a noticeable splash in the world of psychology (Levine S. , 2005). The mystery of love has long eluded the greatest minds. Love appears to be a multi-layer hypothetical construct with limitless interpretations which has made it hard to research by way of scientific methods (Stefano, 2011). Today, we find ourselves in changing times. Scientists and psychologists alike have been boldly diving into the depths of love. Although the understanding of love from a scientific approach is still evolving, we now know more than we ever have from the help of neuroscientific research. But what is love? How do we feel love?
The Oxford dictionary defines love as, “an intense feeling of deep affection, or a great interest and pleasure in something”. Although this definition of love is clear and concise, it serves no justice, rather it only seems to simplify the true complexities of love. Love is a big word, and it’s not just a single feeling. It’s an emotion layered with attitudes. It’s not just an emotion though, it’s also a chemical reaction. It appears as one thing, and yet it takes on many forms. There are even several types of love. Stephen Levine (2005) defines love as “a grand, culturally reinforced ambition energized by an arrangement that is made between two people who make a moral commitment to one another and then privately struggle with the vagaries of their perceptions of the partner and the growing dimensions of their previous commitment” (p. 145).
In the beginning researchers first tried to identify certain characteristics that distinguish the difference between liking and all out love. They came to the determination that love is a totally different psychological state than liking. Other researches have theorized the idea that there are two types of love, compassionate and passionate (Feldman, 2017). Compassionate love is the strong affection we have for those whom our lives are deeply involved with, like the love we have for our parents or children (Feldman, 2017). Passionate love, or romantic love, is the representation of an intense absorption in someone (Feldman, 2017). In the 1980’s famous Psychologist Robert Sternberg made and even more precise differentiation between the types of love.
Sternberg believed that love consisted of three elements (sternberg, 1986). First, decision and commitment, or the first thoughts that one loves someone and the commitment to maintain love (sternberg, 1986). Then the intimacy element which is made of feelings of closeness and connectedness (sternberg, 1986). Lastly, the passion element which are the motivational drives related to sex, physical closeness, and romance (sternberg, 1986). Sternberg states that the three elements of love combine to create the diverse types of love (sternberg, 1986). He theorizes that the different combinations of the three elements will have variances over the longevity of a relationship. For example, in a strong relationship, commitment will peak and then remain stable. Passion will peak quickly, and then decline shortly into the relationship (Feldman, 2017). He also determined that relationships will be the happiest when the strength of the components are similar between the partners (Feldman, 2017).
According to Sternberg there are eight distinct kinds of love that are intertwined with the elements of love. They are as follows: nonlove, liking, infatuated love, empty love, romantic, companionate, fatuous, and consummate love. Let’s look at another theory. A few years earlier before Sternberg, in 1973, John Lee identified six love styles (Neto, Colors Associated With the Styles of Love, 2002). He classified altruistic and selfless love as the agape style. This type is considered rare in romantic love but is most likely experienced through parental love (Neto, Explorations of psychology through art: love styles, 2010). Playful love, without commitment, he deemed Ludus (Neto, Explorations of psychology through art: love styles, 2010). It’s more for short-term relationships. The storge style is a friendship-based love where the need for attachment develops slowly (Neto, Colors Associated With the Styles of Love, 2002). The romantic passionate love is called eros, also known as “being in love” (Neto, Explorations of psychology through art: love styles, 2010). The fifth style, or mania, is an obsessive love where partners are viewed as possessions (Neto, Explorations of psychology through art: love styles, 2010). Last, but not least, the sixth style is known as pragma (Neto, Explorations of psychology through art: love styles, 2010). It’s a practical love where partners share mutual benefits. There are diverse types and styles to love, which only enforce the idea that love can be so many things. But how do we feel love?
Love has many layers. So many things happen to your body when love happens. When your eyes look upon something or someone that you desire, or feel an attraction to, they will dilate (Chapman, 2011). Your palms will get sweaty. You will feel a shot of adrenaline. Your breathing becomes shallower. Your amygdala, which processes emotion at the center of the brain, fires up with activity (Chapman, 2011). Your entire body responds to desire, or love.
To the starry-eyed lover, love begins and grows in the heart, but it’s the brain that is at the core of love. One of the main structures involved with falling in love is the limbic system of the brain (Chapman, 2011). The limbic system is well known for being the part of the brain that is involved in emotional response. The limbic system is composed of several structures which include the basal nuclei, the thalamus, and hypothalamus (Chapman, 2011). The hypothalamus is specifically involved in behavior and sexual function (Chapman, 2011). By the combination of these functions, you can see just how important of a player the limbic system is when it comes to falling in love.
Even though love can seem spontaneous or a bit chaotic, there is an order to falling in love. Neuroscientist have discovered that in the first phase of romantic love, the neurotransmitters released are the same kind that the brain releases when you experience a drug high (Chapman, 2011). You will start to crave time with the person of interest the same way an addict craves their fix. Dopamine, which brings feelings of euphoria, will surge whenever you find yourself around your object of affection (Chapman, 2011). Sometimes all you need is a thought. This only makes us more desperate to obtain more of that high. On the other hand, serotonin levels in the brain will drop drastically. Serotonin helps to regulate our moods, and since the levels have decreased, our emotions toward the one we love will grow even stronger bringing about the “crazy love” (Chapman, 2011). Six months after the madly in love stage of romantic love, serotonin levels are on the same level as a person with OCD, creating a compulsive obsession with the person we love (Chapman, 2011). Break ups really hurt in this stage as the person in love is experiencing withdrawal.
After some time passes, our obsessive thoughts begin to quiet down. Our love feels different. Dopamine levels will drop and the anticipation of seeing or being with our partners will stop initiating a hormonal response (Chapman, 2011). When all the surges of dopamine fade, oxytocin keeps us in love. Both men and women release oxytocin through physical contact and sex. Oxytocin promotes the attachment to our partners (Chapman, 2011). The more oxytocin that is released, the more attached to our partners we get. The endorphin system will then take over creating feelings of stability, tranquility, and contentment (Chapman, 2011). Just because things settle down, doesn’t mean the spark goes away. Those who are still madly in love long after the relationship begins still have dopamine surges just like those still in the beginning phases of love (Chapman, 2011). The body just processes it differently, but you can still get a “high” from time together.
Love is a universal emotion understood by all. It crosses all cultural and language barriers. Even though love is perceived and understood universally, there are many cultural differences to love seen around the world. In America, love is a necessity to a successful marriage, and yet to other cultures, it is of less importance (Feldman, 2017). In most cultures around the world marriage is arranged where love is not an option. Robert Levine and associates conducted a study on the importance of romantic love in a marriage (Levine R. V., 1995). They surveyed 497 males and 673 females enrolled in undergraduate liberal arts classes from eleven different countries (Levine R. V., 1995). The survey asked a simple question. “If a man (or woman) had all the other qualities you desired, would you marry this person if you were not in love with him (or her)?” (Levine R. V., 1995). Participants from the western and westernized nations put significant importance on love in marriage (Levine R. V., 1995). Love in marriage was of least importance in the underdeveloped eastern nations (Levine R. V., 1995). Research also concluded that economic standards of living were strongly related to beliefs about love (Levine R. V., 1995).
Love is like an onion, it has layers. It goes beyond just a feeling. Love has physiological, psychological, cultural and individual personal roots. It’s a feeling that the entire body responds to. It’s simply complicated. It is by far the most complex emotion. Scientists, psychologists, philosophers and even writers continue to unravel the mysteries of love. So far, they have only skimmed the service. Will they ever unearth an understanding of the true power and force of love? I hope not. I think love’s power comes from the mystery of not knowing.