Rethinking romantic love
Romantic love dominates Western thinking, at least in the popular culture space, but what is this ideal we all hold? In this romantic interlude we look at the biology and psychology of a cultural obsession.
In 2019 the journal Psychology of Music published a study that had examined songs that made the Billboard Top 40 from 1960 to 2010. The aim of the study was to see what the songs were about, as a window into what occupied the popular culture mind of the times. Sex and sexual desire appeared more frequently as the decades progressed, jumping from showing up in 18 per cent of songs in 1960 to 42 per cent in 2010. Drugs and wealth also became more prominent themes featuring in around 23 per cent of songs by the end of the noughties. There was one topic though that remained a consistent focus and far outweighed any other idea in popular music. That topic was romantic love, and it graced no less than 65 per cent of popular music across the decades.
This lyrical prominence is not just an indication of what songwriters are obsessed with; it arises from the music industry’s knowledge that romantic love is what the public want to hear about. It also reflects that, in the Western world at least, romantic love has replaced religion as a means of satisfying the needs of the soul.
The 21st century ideal of romantic love is not new; it arose out of the courtly love sung about by medieval troubadours, but it is very different. In the medieval world courtly love was transformative: it involved placing the object of your adoration on a pedestal, and through your love the truth of all existence is revealed. This much is shared with modern romance, but the difference was that courtly love specifically operated outside of sex and marriage, whereas in our modern mind romantic love, sex and marriage are intricately intertwined.
Romantic love does not just involve loving another person — it entails being “in love”, which suggests a whole level of immersion that courtly love did not embrace. We also talk about “falling in love”, which suggests that there is an element of the experience that is out of the control of the participants, as if there is some “higher” power involved. In turn that translates into finding the ultimate meaning of life revealed in another human being as if you have found the missing part of your self. It is just a hop, skip and a jump from this to the notion of “soulmates”.
It is all rosy and wonderful so far, but there’s a problem. Despite the ecstasy of being “in love”, we all know that it is a transitory state. In between being “in love”, people spend a lot of time feeling lonely, frustrated and alienated from others. There is a tendency to blame others when love fails, and so you go searching for another person to make love work. This is the psychic wound that dominates Western culture. The psychoanalyst Carl Jung believed that if you can find the wound in an individual, or a society, then you have found their path to consciousness. In the spirit of seeking consciousness, then, it is worth seeking out the true nature of this cultural obsession that is romantic love.
The biology of the fall
Love is spoken of as a “matter of the heart”, but in truth love is more a matter of the brain.
The first thing to note is that according to the research you can fall in love in one fifth of a second, or perhaps a more poetic interpretation may be “in the twinkling of an eye”. From that instant you are swept away in a brain-based biochemical torrent.
As you fall in love, 12 areas of the brain work together to release euphoria-inducing chemicals including dopamine, oxytocin, adrenaline and aldosterone. In people who are “in love” there is also a spike in the release of the chemical nerve growth factor (NGF) which causes growth and maintenance of neurons. Levels of NGF drop off again after one year of being in love. The research also showed that falling in love activates similar areas of the brain to cocaine and elicits the same euphoric feelings.
It is no surprise then that being in love causes widespread changes in your body; it can, for instance, reduce physical pain. In effect, falling into romantic love soothes you on a psychological and a physical level. It is no wonder then that you feel crushed when love is withdrawn by a partner while you are still immersed in your biochemical bath.
Being in love is a real and measurable phenomenon on the physical level, but your romantic choices are also impacted by what is happening around you.
The hand of fate
As much as you might think that your choice of the object of your romantic love is entirely your own, the evidence of evolutionary biology reveals that certain things that determine attraction to another are hardwired into you. Beauty might be seen as the unifying concept that we apply to certain signals processed instinctively by your unconscious brain. While different cultures have different ideas of what beauty is, the research tell us that the idea that physical beauty matters is consistent across cultures.
Detecting physical beauty is really detecting a healthy individual who would make a good mate. At some level your romantic partner must trigger those primal parts of you that make you believe they will be a good life and reproductive partner. Exactly how you perceive another person’s beauty, however, is a function of how your internal processes react with the nature of your surroundings.
One of the iconic lines from popular culture of the 20th century came from the classic film Casablanca when Humphrey Bogart uttered the line, “Of all the gin joints in all the world, she had to walk into mine.” Bogie was referring to the fickle hand of fate throwing him back together with his old love, and in fact fate does play a hand in the process of falling in love, because where you live and where you meet someone impacts your judgement of them without you even being aware of it.
For instance, research published in the journal Personal Relationships has revealed that physical attractiveness matters more in more socially mobile urban areas, where individuals have a high degree of social choice. In rural areas relationships are less about choice and more about living in community. A flow-on from this selection pressure in the cities is that young city women have their psychological wellbeing strongly linked to their appearance.
Aside from where you live, the specific social context in which you meet people also has a big influence on how you will feel about them. This was shown through a study published in the journal Psychological Science where researchers analysed data from 84 different speed-dating events. The data showed that the attributes that people liked depended on how many people attended the event. At bigger events women and men decided based on quickly identifiable attributes like height and weight. At smaller events people made decisions based on qualities that take longer to identify, like education and type of job. Your brain can only do so much, and when faced with abundant choice it goes with what it can evaluate most quickly. It seems outrageous to suggest it but perhaps, based on this, a nightclub is not the best place to find a partner.
Two as one
In the first year or so of a new relationship when romance is in bloom there is a sense that the two people involved have melded into one. This is partly why it can hurt so profoundly when a relationship ends. Studies have shown that when a romantic relationship ends you suffer on many levels. Over time romantic partners develop shared friends, shared activities and even overlapping self-concepts. Research has confirmed that people have reduced self-concept clarity after a break-up. Just as partners can come to complete each other’s sentences, they can come to complete each other’s selves. So when a relationship ends there is not only the pain of loss but the disorientation of changes in your self.
This is not to say that being in a close relationship is a bad thing. In fact, couples who use the term “we” a lot may have the best relationships. Research published in the journal Psychology and Aging showed that couples who emphasise their separateness by using pronouns such as “I”, “me” and “you” were found to be less satisfied in their marriages. “We” language grows out of a sense of partnership and being able to face problems together.
All of this tells us that there is a definite biochemistry to romantic love, but to return to where we began this exploration, what is the psychological layer of the romantic love experience? In his best-selling book The Road Less Traveled psychotherapist M Scott Peck says that as you grow you develop your ego, or sense of self, and that by the time you are an adult you have well-established ego boundaries. Peck says that it is lonely behind these ego walls and that “The essence of the phenomenon of falling in love is a sudden collapse of a section of an individual’s ego boundaries, permitting one to merge his or her identity with that of another person.” For Peck the sudden release from your ego-prison is the source of the ecstasy of falling in love. In many ways this is a dark view. It sees falling in love as an act of psychological regression, taking us back to the childlike state of feeling at one with the mother. It also sees love as a doomed state once the reality of life intrudes.
There are, however, more affirmative views of what is going on when the sense of “two becoming one” arises. In The Path to Love Deepak Chopra says, “Love’s gift is to strip away a lifetime of imprints in the psyche that condition us to believe in separateness, returning us to the reality that we were born in, which contains only love.”
To view falling in love as simply a psychological trick is unnecessarily jaundiced, because it is a real phenomenon and can be immensely positive.
The sex bomb
In the modern world, certainly the modern Western world, sex and falling in love go hand in hand. According to Erich Fromm, author of The Art of Loving, the link between falling in love and the act of sexual intercourse is real but can also be deceptive and dangerous. Fromm says that the desire for sex can be driven by love, but it can also be motivated by anxiety, wanting to avoid aloneness, the desire to conquer or even the wish to destroy. He says, “Because sexual desire is in the minds of most people coupled with the idea of love, they are easily misled to conclude that they love each other when they want each other physically.”
If love inspires the drive for sex then it can be a transcendent thing, but as Fromm observes, there is any number of less noble motives for having sex and you owe it to yourself and your partner to be as honest as you can about your motives. Sexual attraction alone, without love, can create the illusion of union while leaving both partners as alone as before. By contrast, erotic sexual attraction that is combined with genuine love is a powerful and positive force. This deeper erotic love is defined by Fromm as one that “loves in the other person all of mankind, all that is alive.” Seen in this light, romantic love and its attached sexuality is no lightweight human experience but is a fundamental of being your best self. Romantic love combined with sexuality offers opportunity because it offers the chance to move towards intimacy requiring honesty, availability and conscious presence.
The power of love
American singer and songwriter Huey Lewis, along with his band The News, spoke glowingly of “the power of love”, and despite all of the criticism and belittling that the “in love” phase draws to itself, it is still a potentially immensely positive part of life.
It is possible through romantic love to have an almost mystical sense of your own divinity, or place in the cosmos. In the luminous aura of romantic love there is a sense of flourishing and emerging into the fullness of your enlightened being. To serve another without thought of return is an outflowing away from your self and into the world. The great and wonderful paradox is that the altruism of romantic love means that you go out of your way for another and in the process, you get out of your own way.
It is not without perils and it is not a straightforward path, but the wild ride that is romantic love, if experienced as an altruistic love of your partner, can free you from your small “self” and that is ultimate freedom.