“Love is many things: the protective love of a mother for her child, the passion of a couple newly in love, the deep love of long-term companions and the divine love of God, to name just a few. Some cultures have 10 or more words for different forms of love, and poets and songwriters always find myriad aspects of love to celebrate. Is there anything universal behind all this diversity? As Pope Benedict recently asked in his first encyclical letter: Are all forms of love basically, in its many and varied manifestations, ultimately a single reality?” (New Scientist — 29 April 2006)

There are many kinds of love which are induced by a varied collection of motives. Romantic love is probably the most intricate of them all, and there are many reasons for that. First, romantic love does not seem to follow many of our decision-making rules: you can fall in love with anyone, at anytime, and without any precedents.

Second, the concept of romantic love has been developed, propagated and nurtured, becoming to some extent intrinsically related to the very meaning of human life. Third, and maybe most important of all, love generates an astounding rush of adrenaline — a rapturous sensation of being out of control, like endeavouring in a great and unique experience.

Love seems to derive from a blend of environmental and genetic factors. Before the scientific study of love originated around the 70s, much of our perspective on the concept was based in the work of poets, artists and philosophers. Albeit love remains a complex matter, there are some cues as to why it is such an appealing one.

Romantic Love and the Western Civilisation

Human societies have idealised love for a long time. The historical development of the concept of love in western societies has followed some kind of periodical fashion throughout the centuries. Greeks and Romans perceived love as some kind of interesting force which had no connection with marriage.

Courtly love, in the pre-renaissance period, promoted the idea of romance and it included particular concepts which were unique to a man/woman relationship. Such love was considered as a challenge and virtue by knights, but still there was no relationship with marriage. With the development of the church, romantic love was restricted and lust viewed as a transgression for the society.

With the Renaissance period, the idealisation of a woman as the object of love was the starting point for a shift of perspective, and the first concepts of love in marriage developed. Classic literature played its role in finding a reciprocal meaning in the relationship (Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet was written in this period). In the age of reason, around mid-18th century, emotional love fell out of fashion among the upper classes and intellectuals — a new approach based on reason, objectivity and productivity was formed. Later on, seduction and flirting took place through mythical characters such as Don Juan de Marco and real characters such as Giovanni Jacopo Casanova.

Modern romantic love developed through the balance of couple relationships, the concepts of free marriage and equal rights, and the idea that romantic love could be possible in any relationship. Dating started around the 1920s as an innovative approach to partner selection and premarital relationships became more open, intimate and practical. Romantic love was vastly promoted through books, novels, movies and the television. From the 1980s, love hit the internet — whilst dating and flirting became part of social dynamics in almost every instance. Nowadays, romantic love is practically a part of anyone’s life goals.

Beautiful Chemistry

Scientists have devoted some time in investigating the neurochemical pathways that regulate social attachments, particularly the study of hormones and neurotransmissors which could be involved in the expression of love. The prairie vole — a small rodent that is perceived to be part of nature’s exclusive list of mammals which are fond of monogamous relationships — became an object of study for this matter, and it produced some impressive results. These animals not only spend their whole lives with the same partner, but they also seem to enjoy spending time with them: observation showed that prairie voles’ couples groom and protect each other, nest together, and become affectionate and attentive parents.

“The details of what is going on — the vole story, as it were — is a fascinating one. When prairie voles have sex, two hormones called oxytocin and vasopressin are released. If the release of these hormones is blocked, prairie-voles’ sex becomes a fleeting affair, like that normally enjoyed by their rakish montane cousins. Conversely, if prairie voles are given an injection of the hormones, but prevented from having sex, they will still form a preference for their chosen partner. In other words, researchers can make prairie voles fall in love — or whatever the vole equivalent of this is — with an injection.” (The Economist — Love is all about chemistry (Feb 12th 2004, print edition).

But the secret of the prairie voles is not in producing these hormones, but in having the appropriate receptors for them — and that explains why they are part of the same selected group of mammals that we are. Oxytocin levels rise during orgasms in both man and women, and they also seem to be directly related to the affection which mothers have for their offspring — late in pregnancy, raised levels of oestrogen increase the amount of oxytocin receptors in sections of the mother’s brain.

But there is more to it. Whilst higher levels of oxytocin and vasopressin (and their receptors) play a major role in bonding relationships, neural circuits associated with rewards are responsible for the addictive feeling that love produces. When in love, couples experience euphoric states which seem to originate from the same pathways which are activated during consumption of stimulating drugs such as cocaine (high levels of the neurotransmitter dopamine). We seem to be literally addicted to love.

Fisher and the Love Stages

Helen Fisher, a researcher at Rutgers University, suggests that love can be divided into three overlapping but separate stages: lust, romantic love and long-term attachment.

Lust would constitute the sexual craving highly induced by hormones and neurochemical reactions in the brain — a cocktail of oxytocin, vasopressin and endogenous opioids. Romantic love derives from the attraction and sharing of feelings between couples. Affection, idealisation, change in behavioural patterns and reciprocal responses in this stage derived from a mix of neurochemical influence and social needs.

Fisher argues that romantic love is unstable — but the final stage known as attachment is the basis for long-term relationships and the process of building a family. Such stage invokes feelings of social comfort, security and emotional union. Because all these stages are perceived to be independent, they can occur simultaneously and with different intensity in men and women.

Delis and the Passion Paradox

Dean Delis offers an interesting insight on love in his book “Passion Paradox“. According to Delis, one partner is more in love — or emotionally invested in the relationship — than the other. The more love the loving partner wants from the other, the less the other feels like giving.

“The more in love partner is in the one-down position, whilst the less in love partner occupies the one-up position. Men and women can occupy both positions at various times.”

The author affirms that virtually everyone experiences love’s two sides in the same way (pleasure and pain). It does not matter whether your past experiences moulded you to be a particular person — no one, even the emotionally healthy person, is exempted from the pain of love when it tips out of balance. In this context, love relationships would produce a paradox: ‘one-downs’ try harder as they feel insecure and want to get back in control.

They attempt to enhance their attraction power. The goal of such effort is to gain emotional control over the relationship as to avoid the nightmare of rejection (that means winning his or her love). But the catch is: if you prove too appealing to the one you want — to the point where the other person is clearly more in love with you — the relationship will fall out of balance.

When such an event occurs, you have become the ‘one-up’ or, if you are frightened by your partner’s distance, you have become the ‘one-down’. It would seem that the very urge to attract someone, to bring another person under emotional control, contains the potential for upsetting the balance of the relationship. This is due to the fact that the feeling of being in love is biochemically linked to the feeling of being out of control. Once you feel completely in control or sure of another person’s love, your feelings of passion begin to fade: vanishing the challenge or excitement of the relationship.

“The passion paradox is one of the most familiar experiences in working with couples. One person wants more sex, more time talking, more commitment than the other. A study of male-female relationships done at Yale University found that in 19% of relationships both partners were “equally involved” in the relationship in general.

In 36% of partnerships the woman was “less involved” and in 45% of partnerships the man was “less involved”. This imbalance is partially due to a personality difference between people who enjoy connecting and people who enjoy being separate. The research shows that there are slightly more men who enjoy being more separate, but the difference is not huge. Whichever way the paradox runs, the result is often quite painful for both partners.” (NLP Weekly)?

No Pain, No Gain

Pleasure and pain are part of love. Can you recall a single love history which did not have a touch of suffering? It is hard to find one. Love and pain are interrelated concepts in many aspects. When you love someone, you become emotionally vulnerable to that person (that is the reason people say that you have “fallen in love”). Such vulnerability varies between different people and relationship, but it is always there to some extent.

What are the main causes of pain in love? Delis’ passion paradox plays a role: when a partner recognises being in the ‘one-down’ position of the relationship, he or she is likely to face emotional struggles which will primarily affect self-confidence and the individual’s general emotional balance. When reaching this state of mind, a lover tends to believe that the world is against them, that naturally there is some kind of plot against the relationship.

In his book “A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments”, Roland Barthes mentions the term Tutti Sistemati, which in his words occurs when:

“the amorous subject sees everyone around him as “pigeonholed”, each appearing to be granted a little practical and affective system of contractual liaisons from which he feels himself to be excluded; this inspires him with an ambiguous sentiment of envy and mockery.” (Barthes R. (1978) A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments. Harper Collins, Canada, p.45)

Such sentiment is a result of social rejection. People commonly have great difficulty in emotionally dealing with social rejection. This issue was recently studied by a group of American mental health professionals (Einsenberger et al 2006), which suggested in their research that there is a direct relationship between the cognitive mechanisms which cause physical pain and the emotional pain originated from social rejection. In other words, being socially rejected literally hurts.

So, with so much pain involved, why do we still search for love? Because we can get a great deal out of it. From the lover’s perspective, love is a powerful self-learning experience. Love allows us to better understand our emotional and behavioural patterns, and at the same time, it provides a load of emotional rewards. Like previously stated, it makes us feel good. At the same time, love is also a constant goal in terms of human nature: we look for love because it fulfils many of our natural emotional needs. Carl Rogers illustrated this idea in his concept of Unconditional Positive Regard.

According to Rogers, mental illness is often caused by the absence of love or by a defective kind of love the individual received as a child. In other words: love is a pill for our emotional pain, but it comes with its own side effects. Are we willing to risk it?