“Now these three remain: faith, hope, and love. But the greatest of these is love…” We all want to be loved. We long for it. We dream about it. We live for it. And we are wired for it. But more than ever before we seem to be in the dark about how to create and keep love. Given the myriad of messages and images we are bombarded with about love, it’s no surprise we are bewildered when it comes to love.
The exciting news, though, is that for the first time psychologists and neuroscientists are discovering the science behind love. So all of those questions you might have about love…
Here they are with answers (backed by research, nonetheless)!
1.) I’m fine by myself. What’s the big deal about love and marriage anyway?
We were created to connect. Our survival depends on deep, loving connections. [This truth we have known for quite some time, prior to the cool medical technology of fMRI’s. From the infamous case of “Genie” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Genie_(feral_child) to Romanian orphans, we know that without proper love and care, our growth will be stunted and our very existence precarious.
2.) I don’t feel like I love him/her anymore, so I must not be in love, right?
Wrong! Love is not a fleeting feeling. Love is an attachment bond. To emotionally bond with one another is our birthright. As toddlers seek out and try to maintain physical and emotional connection with their caregiver, so do adults depend on one another for genuine connection. At every age, humans seek and maintain emotional and physical closeness with at least one irreplaceable other; we especially seek out this person when we are stressed.
3.) There’s so much information out there on how to make love last. What’s one of the top secrets to a long-lasting love relationship?
Love lasts when we know how to repair and renew it. Disconnection happens, but the most important step is whether we are able to reconnect.
I once had a twenty-something year old couple on the brink of engagement come to my clinical office and proudly state: “We have never had a fight.” I internally cringed. Conflict is inevitable in any and every love relationship. The key is: how do we handle it. [See “10 Love Rules” post.]
4.) Do I really become more like the person I marry? I am who I am and I’m not going to change that much, am I?
Two questions I ask couples on the brink of engagement are: Do you want to become more like _____ (fill in your partner’s name)? If you were to have kids, do you want to have mini- ______ (fill in your partner’s name)?
The answers are telling and cut to the heart of the issue, which is: Love shapes us. Even when genetic heritage is totally stacked against us, it is often our primary relationships that determine if genes get expressed and how they play out. The defining factor: do we have a supportive,
nurturing and responsive relationship. In other words, from the moment we are born, until the time we leave this earth, our closest love relationships shape our life story.
5.) I don’t have that much time these days, especially for the dating game and whole romancething. Shouldn’t relationships just happen, without much effort?
Love relationships require time and attention. Like any good thing, love must be tended to.
For deep emotional engagement, we need to spend quality time and give directed attention to each other. Interpretation: we need to be face-to- face without any electronic devices to divide our attention!
6.) Sometimes I feel close to him/her, but other times I don’t feel like I love him/her. Is something wrong?
A love relationship ebbs and flows.
Love is a process that constantly moves from connection to disconnection, from harmony to disharmony. And in this process, we have to pay attention to and readjust our levels of emotional engagement. And we must be both bold and vulnerable enough to make attempts to repair when there is disconnection, as this is what leads to greater connection.
7.) Maybe I’m just imagining this whole love thing. Is love real, anyway?
Yes! Love is real.
One of the coolest studies out there is Jim Coan’s Hand-Holding experiment. He put happily married women in an fMRI machine and took pictures of their brains as they saw circles and x’s flash in front of their eyes. They were told that when they saw the x’s, there was a 20% chance they would receive an electric shock. After each shock, they rated how much it hurt. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UCukN_8S124)
The twist: sometimes the women faced the shock threat alone; sometimes a stranger came in the room and held their hand; and other times their husband was with them holding their hand.
[Note: the intensity of the shock was the same in all conditions.]
• When the women were alone, the alarm area of their brain lit up like a Christmas tree. And they rated the shock as very painful.
• When the stranger was holding their hand, their brain reacted with less alarm and they rated the shock as less painful.
• When they were holding the hand of their husband, their brain did not react and they
rated the shock as uncomfortable, but not painful.
This is your brain on love.
The gist: When you have a secure connection with another human being that has your back, the world is a safer place.
8.) All relationships and marriages are different. How can one give advice to couples given that every relationship is so unique?
While it’s true that people and relationships are unique and complex, science is revealing, via brain imaging studies, that there are four phases of a relationship. In other words, long-term love relationships go through distinct periods and have specific challengeswithin each phase.
If we are better aware of this, we are better prepared to handle the specific challenges present in each phase. Here are, in brief, the four phases:
• Love Struck: infatuation emerges in our hypothalamus as we become increasingly enamored with one another. Parts of the frontal lobe (our judgment center) are asleep during this time, which is why we sometimes make poor decisions in this spellbound stage.
• Bonding: This is where devotion and trust grow as our body gets flooded with oxytocin (the attachment hormone). Typically, this occurs between one and two years of dating and ends in marriage.
• Parenthood (not applicable to all couples): The first several years of parenthood can be one of the most trying times in a marriage, despite the joy of a newborn baby. [More on the why’s of this next month!]
• Mature Love: This is when we can not only see but appreciate our partner’s weakness and still give compassion to each other.
9.) Won’t I need to have sex to know if I am truly in love?
No! Love doesn’t follow sex. Just the opposite occurs. Sex follows love and connection. Our level of closeness and comfort affect how we experience sex. We are wired to put safety first. And when we feel protected, we have freedom to relax, explore, take risks, and be joyful.
10.) I’ll never understand him/her. After all, when it comes to romance, love, and sex, aren’t men and women just from different planets?
No; men and women are from the same planet – it’s called Earth!
Both men and women were created to enjoy sex. Research studies have been conducted in this area, and the findings indicate there are no gender differences in sexual satisfaction. There are
only two measures of sexuality where gender differences were significant, and those are incidences of masturbation and attitudes about sex in an uncommitted, casual relationship.
Bottom line: When it comes to love and sex, men and women are more alike than different.
There you have it, another way that we can rethink love. Backed by science. So go out in confidence knowing that we all need and want to be known and loved.