What Is Love?

A few thoughts on Valentine’s Day

From an evolutionary perspective, love is a vehicle for survival of the species. Or, in this age of genetics, love is a tool selected for propagation of genes. I enjoy a good heart flutter as much as the next person, please don’t think I lack appreciation of all things that lead to pantie-dropping; but being a reductionist at heart I have a need to approach the questions of how and why from the bottom up, pun intended.

Neurobiology indicates that three types of “love” are part of the human experience. I put love in quotes because the first type is lust, which many would argue is not really love from a western romanticized perspective. The second type is romantic love, or infatuation, and the third is attachment. Recently I have seen references to these three types as being different stages of love, but I strongly disagree with that perspective. I agree that love is a complex emotion, and because it is complex I argue that many relationships do not follow that three-step scenario.

Enchanted id emerges,
A ball of immediate visceral desires
In conflict with the world

From an evolutionary perspective, if love is an emotion selected over generations to increase the likelihood of a man to impregnate a woman and thus increase survival of the species (or genes), then perhaps lust can be viewed as a very short-lived form of love. From the perspective of categorizing various ways men and women interact on an intimate level, lust is relevant, and the basis for many interactions. The underlying neurobiology for lust is hormonal, with testosterone and estrogen driving feelings of lust. From a cognitive standpoint, lust does not require commitment or even a desire to ever see the person again. It is simply about scratching an immediate itch, nothing more. Please note that no judgment is intended with this description.

Be the Eros to my Psyche

The second form of love is romantic love. This is the obsession with another human being that makes your mouth go dry when you think of them. You think about the person constantly, and the slightest evidence that their attention is directed your way makes your heart flutter. It is the love of fairy tales and of chivalry. Except nothing in this world is that good and pure. True romantic love is like an addiction, and activates the same reward circuits as drugs like cocaine. Adrenaline and dopamine are the neurotransmitters that drive this type of love. Note that lust does not necessarily have to be present when experiencing romantic love. Romantic love is all about a specific person, and the goal of the individual experiencing these feelings is not necessarily sexual consummation with the love object.

The third type of love with identifiable and distinct underlying neurobiology is attachment. Attachment is that enduring love that you feel for a longtime partner or spouse. From an evolutionary perspective, it is what makes survival of the human species possible, as it is the vehicle for committed relationships in which the primary goal is raising children until they become independent adults themselves. The neurotransmitters oxytocin and vasopressin subserve this type of love. These are released following orgasm, and is the reason men sometimes say silly things immediately following sex, like “I think I love you” that they then regret later once they are no longer under the spell of mind-altering neurochemicals.

Some may find my summation of love unnecessarily sarcastic, and you may be right. But I feel it is realistic, and does not preclude beautifully rewarding relationships. I do not believe that love moves from a lust stage to a romantic love stage and then, finally, to an attachment stage. That, to me, seems to be a simplistic view of human emotional experience and relationships.

A couple of observations. First, obviously there are many other operations taking place in the brain during lust/love/attachment. I know serotonin, cortisol, and a number of other hormones and neurotransmitters also participate. And most of us are reasoning creatures, able to modify our thoughts and emotions to a certain extent. So we are able to rationally direct our behavior and have an active role in our pursuit of happiness.

Second, with the understanding that these types of love are separate (though intertwined) neural circuits, it becomes apparent that when a man or woman cheats on their spouse (or partner), and then claims they really love their spouse, they are likely being truthful. This is not to excuse the behavior but to understand that lust and attachment are very different, and a person can feel lust for one and an enduring attachment for another simultaneously.

Finally, I believe that the best love relationships have elements of all three types of love; that all circuits need to be busy. Lust keeps it fun, and keeping the physiological arousal elevated for both helps to keep attention from wandering. Even more important, keeping romantic love alive, keeping that torch lit over time, adds so much to a relationship. If you can have those two types of love alive, within an attached long-term relationship you are among the luckiest people on this planet. And you are probably very aware of how fortunate you are.

Kiki E

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Shibari

Anyone who has indulged in shibari will tell you, it is visually stunning. For me, performing a shibari tie on myself is a soothing ritualistic practice with a tactile aspect that scratches an itch in my mind. Some years ago I picked it up and started playing with it when I was alone, and found that I love the feel of the rope itself against my skin, and the pull of the rope against my body. I believe the sensation may be similar to the soothing an infant experiences when wrapped tightly with a blanket.

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I put the rope play aside for years. I was on a different path at the time. I packed up this little fettish of mine and put it away in a metaphorical box, along with my other predilections. Over the last weeks, I’ve been opening some of these boxes, and revisiting them in the context of exploring what makes me who I am today. I worked with a therapist for over two years, attempting to unlock some of my repressed memories. Last September I stopped seeing her; we had been running in circles for a while, and she seemed more interested in discussing my relationship with my parents than in addressing my trauma history and memory issues. Now I am following my own nontraditional path, and one branch of the path is exploring my fetishes, how I feel when I indulge in them, and identifying my associations following the experience.

I ordered a 33 foot length of bondage rope online, and it arrived earlier this week. Thursday afternoon when I was home alone I pulled out the rope and began to craft a shibari hishi karada, or rope dress. I had done this many times in the past, in a deliberate and ritualistic fashion, kneeling in front of a full length mirror.  I find myself in almost a trance state as I place the knots and pull the rope through to create the diamond patterns on my torso. This time, after not practicing it in over five years, I found myself shaking like a junkie jonesing for a fix. The result at the end of this was not as precise as I wanted it to be. That’s my perfectionism coming out; I need to work on that. Nevertheless, the entire procedure was very arousing, I must admit.

Next time, I will be taking more time now that I have this initial session out of my system. I am certain that this ritual of mine is tied to events in my past that are still beyond the reach of my memory. The soothing aspect of this technique fascinates me, and I hope to explore this sensation further.

Kiki E

Progress Update

I love that I’m using tarot to help track my progress on my path to healing. There is a part of my old self that is screaming “Blasphemy! What will the gods of science think of this?!” but that voice becomes smaller and weaker every day.

I pulled a celtic cross reading, and the results were fascinating. Strength from the major arcana reflects what is happening to me, and my state of mind at the present time. The lion pictured in the card symbolizes my base desires and spiritual demons, and the woman gently restraining the lion represents my struggle to reshape my desires into something constructive and focused. My conscious goal, represented by VII of Wands, is to defend my integrity even though it is difficult, because this will move me forward on the path that makes me shine. My past (V of Pentacles) as it relates to my situation is filled with despair, and the challenge to my goal (VI of Cups) is dwelling on the past. The Devil represents my subconscious mind and underlying feelings about the situation. I am ambiguous about wanting to tame my desires, and a part of me wants to let them out to play, and fuck the consequences.

The Heirophant symbolizes what I can expect in the near future, the next few weeks or months, in relation to my goal. It is a powerful indicator that a charismatic person or mentor will enter my life and have a profound impact on the way I see the world and myself.

The Magician tells me I have what I need to reach my goal. I have the intelligence, fire, self esteem, and compassion necessary; I need to believe in myself and use my will to create magic in my life.

Influences beyond my control that affect my outcome are represented by The Moon, a symbol of intuition, dreams, and the unconscious. I believe it mirrors The Devil and the V of Pentacles cards, and is warning me that I have terrible emotions buried deep in my mind that unconsciously control me. I may not be able to change my past experiences, I know this, but it is important to address the source of these emotions in order to continue down my path. My hopes and fears are represented by the IX of Wands, an extension of my current goal. My hope is that I face my trials with courage, resilience and endurance, and that I will be able to overcome them.

And the ultimate outcome if I follow the advice, is reflected in The Star; I will be stripped of all the things that were holding me back from my spiritual path. This card represents vulnerability, healing and recovery, opening my heart, and having faith in the future. I will feel the relief and freedom of being liberated from my past existence.

That’s pretty fucking cool.

Kiki E.

Daddy Issues

In my earliest memory, I am trapped at the top of a ferris wheel with my father. Now he is dead and this memory has become a metaphor for my life. It’s almost as if I’m still stuck up on that ferris wheel as the car rocks back and forth in the wind, looking down at the distant people looking up at us, my dead father sitting next to me, taking up space in my head. He still controls my behavior from beyond the grave, and I am still trying to rebel.

I have mixed feelings about my father. When I was very little he was my world. Another very early memory I have is of him reading Alice In Wonderland to me. I remember sitting curled up on the sofa next to him, and listening to him read Jabberwocky; I can still recite that nonsense poem by heart. I love that book, and have always identified most strongly with the character Alice Kingsley. But that is a subject for another post.

As I grew older I began to rebel. He had very fixed ideas about who I should be and what pastimes I should pursue. If I followed his wishes, life proceeded in a relatively smooth fashion. As I began developing my own interests, the friction between us became more pronounced; I could never give my opinion or express disatisfaction without feeling his wrath. He could not tolerate being challenged, and would become angry when I tried to express an opinion different from his own. So communication of any sort ceased, and when I found myself in situations in which I could have used advice or guidance, it never occurred to me to seek input from him.

The issues I had with my father are still playing out in my life today. I’ve been unwilling to look at some of my reasons for pursuing an online relationship in 2013 with a married man (I am also married). He reminded me of my father. Like my father, he was a submariner in the navy. The photographs of submarines on his profile were the first impression I had of this man, and I was immediately intrigued. We had an intense affaire that lasted for two and a half years, and met illicitly on two occasions even though an ocean separated us. The romance ended when we were discovered and I chose to save my marriage, though we remained friendly and stayed in contact for several years afterwards. One characteristic of the relationship was his need to control my behavior, even from a distance. Of course I realize that I allowed him to control me and to control my interactions with others. He would become very jealous, and withhold attention in a way similar to the way my father would withhold attention. I allowed his influence to continue long after I should have. That situation is completely over and done now.

Now my life is devoted to breaking free of everything that controls me. If someone or something has control over me now, it will be because I consciously choose that control. And it is not because I am afraid of the consequences of taking back my control; the control I allow will be symbiotic in nature, not a one way power hierarchy. I am finally growing up.

The Orphan

I am an Orphan. Not literally, as in my parents are deceased (I am convinced my mother will live forever out of spite), but I am an Orphan in the Jungian sense. When I read the description of Carl Jung’s Orphan archetype I realized that this describes me quite accurately, with minimal exceptions. Carl Jung used the term Orphan loosely to describe a person who has suffered any form of perceived abandonment during childhood. When I experienced the event that I described in the post Humiliation, it never occurred to me to confide in my parents after the incident. At twelve years old, I did not consider them to be loving or nurturing; they had failed to provided me with evidence of these characteristics. The life task of the Orphan is to process and feel pain fully, and this is EXACTLY what I feel my life has been about. But read on, as I get all victimy here.

I find that as I get older and feel less compelled to view the world as my former scientific peers view it, the possible avenues for my healing expand to include a rich cornucopia of non traditional and mystical options. This excites me and nudges parts of my psyche that I had forgotten existed. One thought that comes to mind is that we can pursue our desires, but we can’t necessarily choose what we desire. And some of us desire things that most would find odd or shocking or repulsive. Self exploration can help identify why we feel the way we feel; the underlying wellspring of our desires.

Carl Jung described a number of archetypes (“original pattern from which copies are made”) that are universally present in the human psyche. The most well known of his archetypes are the Self, the Shadow, the Anima/Animus, and the Persona. He also described a number of other archetypes that each of us may possess to a greater or lesser degree that lead to distinct psychological and personality characteristics. They are developed based on our individual experiences and, according to Jung, inherited from our past lives through what he called the collective unconscious. Regardless of whether you believe in past lives and the collective unconscious, the concept of the archetype is a powerful one. I find myself drawn to these constructs of the mind. Archetypes are seen throughout mythology and literature, and are found in a wide range of cultures.

So I decided to take an online survey to determine the archetype that corresponds with my characteristics, and I was matched with the Orphan. It may not be as exciting as some of the other archetypes, like the Hero, the Rebel or the Magician, but it does describe me rather accurately. From the summary:

Life Goal: Regain safety
Fear: Exploitation
Response to Problem: Being victimized by it
Life Task: Process and feel pain fully
Personal Gifts: Independence, realism, resilience, empathy
Personal Pitfalls: Cynicism, tendency to be the victim or victimized

Orphans are independent, self-reliant and are mistrustful of authority. Orphans, fearing exploitation, seek to regain the comfort of the womb and neonatal safety in the arms of loving parents. To fulfill their quest they must go through the agonies of the developmental stages they have missed. Their strength is the interdependence and pragmatic realism that they had to learn at an early age.

Shadow Side: The victim. This will manifest itself in your feelings of being victimized by others, and consequently blaming your incompetence, irresponsibility, or even predatory behavior on other people. You might also expect special treatment and exemption from life because you feel so fragile. When your Shadow Orphan takes control it can attack those who are trying to help you, harming these people and yourself simultaneously.