I originally wrote this article for Valentine’s Day, but love is important EVERY day!
Love’s a mystery. Love’s all you need. Love’s a chemical. Love’s a verb. Love’s magical. We sure hear a lot about love, especially around Valentine’s, but do we really know what it is?
Judging from the popularity of songs, books, and movies about love, love is an important topic. From a psychological/evolutionary perspective, it’s important too. Evolutionary psychologists believe that the development of a long-lasting feeling of love ensured that parents continued to make the investment of time and energy required to raise young mammals. This nurturance is not evident in most reptiles and insects. It is theorized that a chemical called ‘oxytocin,’ aka ‘the cuddle hormone,’ promotes this nurturance. Oxytocin is also implicated in sustaining romantic relationships beyond the initial sexual attraction. Oxytocin even helps build and maintain non-romantic relationships, such as those with friends and family.
Of course, there are many types of love. We often make statements like, ‘I love pizza,’ or ‘I love everyone’ without meaning that we want to cuddle with our food or with every person on the planet. There is also the type of feelings, sometimes called love, associated with sexual attraction and infatuation. These feelings can be extremely fleeting and are also based on hormones (for sexual attraction: testosterone and estrogen are involved; and for infatuation: dopamine, serotonin, and norepinephrine). These last three hormones have been implicated in addictions, so the phrase ‘love is an addiction,’ is quite accurate when we’re talking about infatuation. The kind of love that researchers in couples counselling think is imperative for our romantic relationships to last, however, is based on the oxytocin kind of love.
Each and every one of us requires this long-lasting, secure type of love to thrive, whether from our caregivers when young, or from adult relationships. When we are deprived of this love and deep connection to others for too long, it starts to negatively affect our nervous systems. Researchers have found profound changes in brain structures amongst those who are deprived of this safe and secure type of love. The good news is that the brain is malleable. We can heal these damaged structures with long-lasting healthy relationships, or psychotherapy.
Unfortunately, in Western cultures, we have been encouraged to be ‘independent’—and often this results the perception that needing a relationship is a sign of weakness. If you look at our species’ biological evolution, however, this is simply not true. We need strong, secure attachments with our early caregivers and in later relationships to be strong and healthy. It is natural to want to spend time with our loved ones, especially if we are distressed. If they are lovingly attached to us, they will want the same thing. This reciprocal attachment makes INTERdependence a healthier, happier goal than the ‘independence’ so often valued in Western cultures.
We may not have a definitive meaning for love, but biology and psychology are providing us with many clues about what love is, primarily that love is healthy, natural, and GOOD for us. If you find yourself not in a romantic relationship this Valentine’s, don’t despair, love for your bestie or love for your favourite family members is just as restorative as the romantic kind, so grab that special person on February 14th and celebrate the most wonderful of feelings.
Originally published in The Grapevine, (January/February 2016), Issue 12.26