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.