Tuesday, February 9, 2016

When Love Begins

"Love is like an hourglass, with the heart filling up as the brain empties." - Jule Renard

*note:  This is the second part in my love series of: What Love Is; When Love Begins; What Love Does; When Love Ends. Click on this link if you first want to read What Love Is. I’ve been reading these three books about love since last summer, and I’ll be sharing their insights for four weeks. In a brief overview, The 5 Love Languages by Gary Chapman, a marriage counselor for over 40 years, is about the different ways we receive and show our love. Why We Love? by prominent anthropologist Helen Fisher, Ph.D examines love from a biological and chemical level, and focuses a lot on what’s happening in our brain. Lastly, The Art of Loving by Erich Fromm, renowned psychoanalyst and social philosopher, is a classic that explores the deep complexities of love.

            I was talking with a co-worker about her recent break-up, and she was saying how depressed she was the week after it ended, but that over time she got better. Now, she’s just mad at him for everything that happened. She went on to complain about a lot of things, but eventually admitted that it wasn’t always bad. It was really good at the beginning. I could relate, because I shared with her about my recent break-up. The end for me was filled with a lot of hurt, but the beginning was so nice.We lost sleep just to spend time with each other, we wanted to see each other every day, we went on a lot of dates, we tried to do stuff the other person liked, and we had a lot of fun. Beginnings are great, even if they don’t last.

            But before I go on further about what beginning love is like, it’s first important to discuss what needs to happen before we can even reach love. Before we can even fall in love or meet someone who we potentially can love, we need to believe that we are lovable – capable of being loved and capable of loving. Fromm says, “Most people see the problem of love primarily as that of being loved, rather than that of loving, of one's capacity to love” (pg. 1). He adds, “People think that to love is simple, but that to find the right object to love - or to be loved by - is difficult” (pg. 2). It’s in so many chick flicks, and sadly also in everyday life. We search and search for the right person to fall in love with. When we can’t find love, we think we haven’t found the “one,” but Fromm argues that we don’t find love because we aren’t working on loving others. I think it’s combination of being lovable and finding the right person.

            So what does it mean to be lovable? According to Fromm, our culture believes it’s “a mixture between being popular and having sex appeal” (pg. 2). In actuality, he argues that love is an art we need to practice to be better at, just like painting or dancing. A painter doesn’t wait around for the perfect thing to paint and then suddenly paint a masterpiece. He practices his skill, so that he can paint a masterpiece when he finds the right thing, or he makes a masterpiece out of something ordinary because he is so skilled and practiced. Love is similar.

            I had a professor who explained our capacity to love by collecting water bottles, cups, and containers of different shapes and sizes and bringing them to a table in the front of the room. She said each cup represented our capacity to love. She explained that every kind and good thing we do for others made our cups bigger, therefore making us capable of holding more love. But with every ill intent we bestowed on others, our cups would get smaller, able to hold less love. I think our actions affect the size and amount of love we can receive and give, but our cups are filled with love from other people.

            In order to fall in love, we need to practice love to become lovable enough for others to fall in love with us. Of course, sometimes practicing love isn’t enough. You can be very lovable and loving toward others, but still be afraid to open up to love with a special other. If you've loved and been hurt before, then it can be very hard to open up to love again. It's also hard to love when you have low self-esteem. You can be perfectly lovable, but if you don’t believe it, it will be incredibly hard to fall in love. You’ll believe you are unworthy of love, and have thoughts like, “Why would anyone want to be with me, let alone love me?” I’ve known more than one person like this, and it’s sad to see wonderful people have this experience.

            I do have a success story about someone who was like this, though – my best friend. As far as I know, she’s been in love twice. For most of her life, she has struggled with low self-esteem and self-loathing. Even though she was loved by others (particularly me), and was a good loving person, I know she’s had doubts about her lovableness. For her, it took finding a wonderful guy to bring out her confidence. I’ve seen her in love when she had low self-esteem and the love was unhealthy and filled with sadness. With her current love, she’s happier, believes in herself more, and is overall more emotionally healthy. She also admits she probably wouldn’t have the relationship she has now if she had tried to be with him when she was at a worse mental and emotional state. She worked on herself first, and then started something. From there, he was able help grow her cup and fill it with love.

            When we finally are at a place when we can fall in love, and find the right person to fall in love with, then the madness, or I’m sorry, the euphoria begins. Though I’m sure Fisher would agree that it is a kind of madness. Her study of love involved two aspects – a questionnaire of 839 American and Japanese people, and brain scans of twenty men and women who were recently happily in love as well as twenty individuals who have recently been rejected by love. Her questionnaire found that across age, gender, socioeconomic status, ethnicity, etc, we all experience love in the same way.

            If you’ve ever questioned what it’s like to be in love, or how to determine whether you are in love, Fisher has formed a nifty lengthy list of the symptoms of love. To go through the entire list would be exhausting and time consuming, so I’ll discuss a few of the important highlights:

  • Special meaning: “Your beloved becomes novel, unique, and all-important.” Similar to the way Romeo expressed that “Juliet is the sun,” your world starts revolving around this special person.
  • Intrusive thinking: You can’t get your beloved out of your head.
  • Aggrandizing the beloved: Doting on all of lover’s good qualities, and even some of their bad ones, while disregarding reality.
  • Intense energy: The tremendous energy associated with loss of appetite and sleeplessness.
  • Mood swings: “Romantic passion can produce a variety of dizzying mood changes ranging from exhilaration when one’s love is returned to anxiety, despair, or even rage when one’s romantic ardor is ignored or rejected.”
  • Yearning for emotional union: “Without this connection to a sweetheart, they feel acutely incomplete or hollow, as if an essential part of them is missing.”
  • Empathy: As poet E.E. Cummings wrote, “she laughed his joy she cried his grief.”
  • Hope: Lovers are hopeful it will work out until all possibilities have expired. Even after a relationship has ended, they can still have hope years later.
  • Sexual exclusivity: “They do not wish to have their ‘sacred’ relationship sullied by outsiders.”
  • Emotional union trumps sexual union: “This yearning for emotional togetherness far surpasses the desire for mere sexual release.”

            Basically the cliché appears to be true. When you're in love, you can't eat, sleep, or focus. All you can do is think about the person you love, rearrange your life for them, and hope above all else that they love you back. When you've gone really crazy for them, they are all that matters to you, or at least is the most important thing that matters. You pretty much lose all sanity. Along with these symptoms of love, Fisher says, “Romantic love is deeply entwined with two other mating drives: lust - the craving for sexual gratification; and attachment - the feelings of calm, security, and union with a long-term partner" (pg. 78). Each of these follow different pathways, produce different behaviors, and are associated with different neurochemicals. Time to get into what’s happening in your brain when you’re going crazy with love.

            Fisher’s participants all claimed to have fallen in love within the past seven months. She had them look at a picture of their loved one as their brains were being scanned. Though many parts of the brain became active, two regions seemed to be central to the love experience. The caudate nucleus is the brain’s reward system, which “helps us detect and perceive a reward, discriminate between rewards, prefer a particular reward, anticipate a reward, and expect a reward” (pg. 69). Interestingly, no matter the age, people who were more passionate about their loved one had more activity in this region. Other activity happened in the ventral tegmental area (VTA), a central part of the reward circuitry of the brain. Fisher calls this region the “mother lode for dopamine-making cells,” and it distributes “dopamine to many brain regions, including the caudate nucleus.” As it sends out the dopamine, “it produces focused attention, as well as fierce energy, concentrated motivation to attain a reward, and feelings of elation, even mania - the core feelings of romantic love” (pg. 71). Another study also examined the brain in love with couples who had been in a relationship for an average of 2.3 years. The brain responded differently, but it’s unsure exactly what the brain parts are doing. All that is known is that, “as a relationship lengthens, brain regions associated with emotions, memory, and attention begin to respond in new ways” (pg. 73).

            Dopamine is a key chemical for romantic love, but Fisher theorizes that norepinephrine and serotonin are also involved. Fisher says, “Elevated levels of dopamine in the brain produce extremely focused attention, as well as unwavering motivation and goal-directed behaviors” (pg. 52). Increasing levels of norepinephrine “generally produce exhilaration, excessive energy, sleeplessness, and loss of appetite” (pg. 53). There is a possible connection with obsessive thinking and low levels of serotonin. Fisher says, “As levels of dopamine and norepinephrine climb, they can cause serotonin levels to plummet,” which could explain why “a lover’s increasing romantic ecstasy actually intensifies the compulsion to daydream, fantasize, muse, ponder, obsess about a romantic partner” (pg. 55).

            For centuries, people have been trying to find different ways to arouse the sex drive. Fisher claims, “But nature has made only one true substance to stimulate sexual desire in men and women – testosterone, and to a lesser degree, its kin, the other male sex hormones” (pg. 81). Both men and women have testosterone, and those who have higher levels of it tend to engage in more sexual activity. “Male libido peaks in the early twenties, when levels of testosterone are highest. And many women feel more sexual desire around ovulation, when levels of testosterone increase,” Fisher explains. Interestingly, levels of testosterone are inherited, but many factors go into its variances, such as poor health, overwork, laziness, age, and also what part of the day, week, or year it is. Fisher adds, “In addition to its reproductive purpose, the sex drive serves to make and keep friends, provide pleasure and adventure, tone muscles, and relax the mind” (pg. 78).

            Attachment happens when “the mad passion, the ecstasy, the longing, the obsessive thinking, the heightened energy” all dissolve and transform into “new feelings of security, comfort, calm, and union with your partner” (pg. 87). The hormones associated with attachment are oxytocin and vasopressin, and they are made in the hypothalamus, as well as the ovaries and testes. These are also called the “cuddle chemicals,” because at orgasm men secrete vasopressin and women secrete oxytocin, which is why many people want to cuddle after sex. These two chemicals are also associated with paternal and maternal attachment, which contributes to fathers feeling protective of their families and mothers bonding with their offspring.

            It seems that so much is happening in our heads and our bodies while in love, so do we have any control of it, or is it just a tidal wave that crashes down on us? In Fisher’s questionnaire, 60% of men and 70% of women agreed that, “Falling in love was not really a choice; it just struck me,” which is what I also agree with. When I fell in love, I fought it, and tried very hard to believe I wasn’t in love, but it was something that overcame me. I didn’t feel like I had any control over how I felt.

            Fisher says, “at the core of this obsession is its power: romantic love is often unplanned, involuntary, and seemingly uncontrollable,” (pg. 22). Yet, even though it can seem so uncontrollable, there are things that can fuel and ebb it. For example, social or physical barriers can make romantic passion more intense. Fisher says, “Fueled by difficulties of one kind or another, they just love all the harder” (pg. 17). She adds that love is not only an emotion, but also a drive, and “like drives, romantic attraction is tenacious; it is very hard to extinguish.” Like the drives for hunger or sex, “romantic love is focused on a specific award, the beloved,” and this drive is very hard to control. Drives push us to fulfill a need or craving, and a lover feels like he needs food and water just like he needs the beloved. Of course, if it is a drive, then it means it’s not completely out of our control. We can abstain and last a time without food, water, or sex, but it may be very difficult.

            Fromm has some other ideas about our ability to control love. He says, “To love somebody is not just a strong feeling – it is a decision, it is a judgment, it is a promise” (pg. 52). He adds that love is paradoxical. We can choose to love everyone in brotherly love, but “erotic love requires certain specific, highly individual elements which exist between some people but not between all” (pg. 53). I have a friend who I've been in a debate with for probably over half a year. She's argued that love is choice, and I argued that you can't choose who you love. We just came to an agreement last week, which sums up Fromm’s point clearly. You can’t choose who you click with, but you can choose what you do to grow or destroy that love.

            I think we all know, either from personal experience or secondhand, that the flame of passion and craziness we experience at the beginning of falling in love eventually fades. Chapman discusses our falling in love delusion like this: “We have been led to believe that if we are really in love, it will last forever. We will always have the wonderful feelings that we have at this moment. Nothing could ever come between us. Nothing will ever overcome our love for each other…” (pg. 30). Dr. Dorothy Tennov found that the “in love” romantic obsession lasts two years on average, so our delusion will end.

            Beginnings are great, but they aren’t meant to last. They’re meant to turn into something better. Fromm says, “Falling in love always verges on the abnormal, is always accompanied by blindness to reality [and] compulsiveness…” (pg. 84). When the emotional high of being in love fades away, we can choose to let it go or pursue “real love.” Chapman says, “Our most basic emotional need is not to fall in love but to be genuinely loved by another, to know a love that grows out of reason and choice, not instinct” (pg. 33). To grow that love, we need to learn what love does.

The 5 Love Languages the secret to love that lasts by Gary Chapman
Why We Love? by Helen Fisher
The Art of Loving by Erich Fromm

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