The Science Of Romance

Just read another article about “How Love Works” in which a group of scientists attempts to establish and explain its proposed stages of romantic love. It quotes heavily from Dr. Helen Fisher 's work of chemical romance. Each stage is accompanied by a corresponding chemical reaction in the brain, with help from hormones.

In the attraction stage (“chemistry”), the brain shows high concentrations of receptors for dopamine, which is associated with addiction and craving. Serotonin levels are as low as those in people with obsessive compulsive disorders.

In the "chemical bonding" stage, oxytocin (released during sex) and vasopressin (an antidiuretic hormone) are the chemicals credited in the forming of long-term monogamous relationships. It is believed that they interfere with neural pathways that carry the chemicals responsible for the attraction stage, so the scientists reason that passionate love fades as attachment grows*. Endorphins supposedly also play a key role in long-term relationships, inducing a “drug-like dependency.”

I’ve been reading about this sort of model since The I Love You Project began in 2001. 11 000 words into an exploration of the cultural insanity and my own history of craziness surrounding romantic love (working title: I Kinda Lose My Mind), I don't claim to have complete understanding of love. I don’t trust anyone who acts like an expert on the topic (and hope you don't either), but I’d like to offer the following points based on a few educated guesses.

1. Science often likens love to a drug in its literature. I think it is indeed studying a drug-like version of love. It follows a pharmaceutical model that is backed by a lot of marketing, vouched for by experts, culturally accepted, highly regulated, and has a long list of unpleasant and unexpected side effects (who bothers to read the warnings?). If love can be an illness, it can be treated with drugs.

I think Fisher is studying a drug-like love that is a result of generations of misguided thinking. It’s fear-based, not love-based. We’re not taught much about love and when we “fall” into it, of course it seems like we’re addicted.

Do you think that medical science could ever use a metaphor from the natural world to describe love? I’m sure a believable argument could be made for love defined as a flower, a planet or the sea. Because “Love is such a tissue of paradoxes, and exists in such an endless variety of forms and shades, that you might say almost anything about it that you please and it is likely to be correct.” -Finck, Romantic Love and Personal Beauty, 1891. A chocolatier might think love can be compared to cocoa; an auto mechanic could say love flows like motor oil.

1. a) My friend Rox wrote, “They try to do the same with meditation and near-death experience.” To this list, I’ll add the act of birth. In allopathic medicine, it’s considered an illness requiring treatment. Menstruation and menopause are medical conditions too. Milestone experiences that are catalysts for growth in matriarchal societies must be controlled and diminished in patriarchies.

2. If life is love and we’re all connected; if there is such a thing as unconditional love; if love is vast; if love heals; if “Love is ultimately the only answer to mankind’s problems” (Martin Luther King Jr.); if love is infinite; how could love set off the same reactions as a drug or illness?

3. If love is as tiny as a few chemicals that can only be seen with hi-tech scientific equipment, would you think it was important? Seems trivial, doesn’t it? Maybe you’d decide that love is a bother. You might become angry, cynical, and turn against it the first time you felt hurt.

3. a) The origin of love is the body? Not likely. I’m not saying chemical reactions don’t happen. I am saying they’re not the origin of love.

3. b) "One problem with these chemical theories is that it's impossible to tell whether the chicken or egg came first. It's perfectly possible that the chemical state in question might be the result of [a] behaviour rather than it's cause." - Steve Taylor, The Fall: The Insanity of The Ego in Human History and The Dawning of A New Era

4. Why would anyone want to distract us from love?

"Love freely given between equals is ... a very recent historical possibility ... it is also the enemy of some of the most powerful interests of this society." -Naomi Wolf, The Beauty Myth

Greater equality between the sexes has changed everything, as has the acceptance of homosexual unions and relationships between people of different cultural backgrounds. Historically, no other type of love has been as controlled by laws written and unwritten. As barriers continue to break down, romantic love is the most controversial type of love for our time. Once we get a taste of loving, we naturally soften our hearts to the rest of the world. Social change and evolution is happy people spreading happiness.

“You cannot control an ecstatic person; it is impossible. You can control only a miserable person. An ecstatic person is bound to be free. Ecstasy is freedom. When you are ecstatic, you cannot be reduced to being a slave. You cannot be destroyed so easily; you cannot be persuaded to live in a prison. You would like to dance under the stars and you would like to walk with the wind and you would like to talk with the sun and moon. You will need the vast, the infinite night, the enormous. You cannot be seduced into living in a dark cell. You cannot be turned into a slave. You will live your own life and you will do your own thing. This is very difficult for society. If there are many ecstatic people, the society will feel it is falling apart, its structure will not hold anymore.” -Osho

5. The typical “trappings” associated with attraction might indicate an opening to love, if love was not a priority in one’s life prior to the experience. Maybe their severity indicates the level of lack in a person’s life before “falling in love.”

What is true love? How to know you are in love? I think it’s the opposite: a feeling of deep peace, like you’ve come home. Some people say it’s beyond definition, but I’ll keep trying. I don’t think there is a subset of feelings called “romantic love” within love, but we have to un-learn a lot of cultural conditioning to get to this place:

“He was thinking, ‘Hmmm maybe what I feel for her is love. But this is so different from what I have ever felt before. It’s not what the poets say it is, it’s not what religion says, because I am not responsible for her. I don’t take anything from her; I don’t have the need for her to take care of me; I don’t need to blame her for my difficulties or to take my dramas to her. We have the best time together; we enjoy each other. I respect the way she thinks, the way she feels. I don’t feel jealous when she’s with other people; I don’t feel envy when she is successful. Perhaps love does exist, but it’s not what everyone thinks it is.’

They decided to become lovers and to live together, and it was amazing that things didn’t change. They still respected each other, they were still supportive of each other, and the love grew more and more. Even the simplest things made their hearts sing with love because they were so happy.”

-Don Miguel Ruiz, “The Man Who Didn’t Believe In Love”

* Or not. Using brain scans, researchers at New York’s Stony Brook University discovered that a number of couples responded with as much passion after 20 years together as most people only do during the early throes of romance. "The findings go against the traditional view of romance—that it drops off sharply in the first decade—but we are sure it's real," said Arthur Aron, a psychologist at Stony Brook. Also, please see Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor's work.

Thank You:

Thanks to Stephen Roxborough for sending “How Love Works,” and insightful comments, to Michael Tweed for sharing links and ideas I hadn’t considered, and to Jennifer LoveGrove for listening to my rants with kindness and for wise advice.

Further Reading:

The Mastery Of Love by Don Miguel Ruiz. Don’t by deterred by the New Age-y cover.