Love Is Everything
By Melissa Berman
February 14, 2021
Love, it’s the one word that confounds like no other. Poets, painters, writers, sailors, psychologists, pretty much every person ever born, ponders the mysterious and magical force that is love. Through the course of a lifetime, our hearts are either full or broken, seeking or soothed, elevated, connected, inspired, and moved, through love’s power. Yet, while we associate love with some magic force from our hearts, there is actually a science, and a love potion (made of hormones), that demystifies some of what happens in our brains, that causes us to feel the emotions we define as love.
The Science of Love.
According to research by Dr Helen Fisher, a renowned anthropologist, there are three distinct phases of falling in love. These phases are not linear, and don’t necessarily happen in order, nor do all three happen each time we connect with that special bond of love.
1. Lust. Fueled by the sex hormones testosterone (men), and estrogen (women), these primal hormones make you feel physically attracted and drawn to the object of your affection. Lust, by itself, isn’t love per se, but it surely is part of the universal draw across all species of mammals, that drives an initial mating pull.
2. Attraction. If lust makes you yearn for ‘sexual healing’, attraction may have you feeling ‘addicted to love’. That’s because the feel-good cocktail of chemicals, released during this phase (norepinephrine, dopamine and serotonin), can feel similar to the effect of certain drugs, or alcohol. Dopamine, the reward/pleasure hormone, can create a sense of novelty. Your loved one seems exciting, special and unique to you. Norepinephrine, a part of your fight/flight instinct, gives you that surge of energy, the racing heart and sleepless nights, as well as a more alert, ready for action state. Scientists note serotonin decreasing at this stage. Decreased serotonin is known to create obsessive thinking, which would explain why newly formed romantic bonds, can cause that ‘can’t get him/her off my mind’ feeling.
3. Attachment. This bonding stage releases oxytocin (the ‘cuddle’ hormone), and vasopressin, a hormone that works with oxytocin, but is more focused on the protective aspects of connection. Together, these hormones create the desire to bond, and nurture your partner. This is when you may begin to feel safe and start making long-term plans together. You want to cuddle and be close and share your deepest secrets with him or her. You plan and dream together. Oxytocin is released during orgasm (as well as during childbirth and breast-feeding). This may be the reason why sex is thought to bring couples closer together and be a “glue” that binds the relationship.
Of course, these hormones, especially the attachment ones, are also in play in our other, important loving relationships, like parent and child, family, friendship and community. These significant experiences of love have profound effects on our health and happiness. Love is a universal feeling of safety and connectedness with another. Indeed, love is crucial to survival and what makes us thrive. Research has shown that at the end of people’s lives, their primary regret is not spending more time with the people they love.
The Language of Love
“You'd think that people would have
Had enough of silly love songs
But I look around me and I see it isn't so
Some people wanna fill the world
With silly love songs
And what's wrong with that?
I'd like to know
'Cause here I go again
I love you. I love you” Paul McCartney
Ask a group of friends to name a favorite love song or poem, and watch as the titles pour in. Expressing the experience of love, is ageless fodder for the written word, in all its forms. From religious texts, like Corinthians 13:4-5: “Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud… it always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.”, to ancient poets like Rumi “Lovers don’t finally meet somewhere. They’re in each other all along.”, to classic love songs, like Elton John’s Your Song, “I hope you don't mind that I put down in the words. How wonderful life is while you're in the world.”; there are infinite expressions of the experience of love. In fact, there are real emotional benefits to reading and listening to these odes.
A study at the University of Liverpool proved that reading love poems, for example, enhances the readers’ emotional life. Their brains naturally relate poetry to their own life, in a way that can be therapeutic. Ingrid Tegner, a California-based Certified Applied Poetry Facilitator, notes, “A poem not only is succinct, the words are carefully chosen and are also images. People can insert themselves into poetry. It can shine a light on all those dark and hidden crevices of the heart and mind once thought permanently closed off to the world.” She also reminds us that not all love stories are happy ones, “love can hurt, poetry can help heal. People can find solace in poetry, reading or writing it.” One of her favorite love poems, Love After Love by Derek Walcott, is about self-love.
Love After Love
The time will come
when, with elation
you will greet yourself arriving
at your own door, in your own mirror
and each will smile at the other's welcome,
and say, sit here. Eat.
You will love again the stranger who was your self.
Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart
to itself, to the stranger who has loved you
all your life, whom you ignored
for another, who knows you by heart.
Take down the love letters from the bookshelf,
the photographs, the desperate notes,
peel your own image from the mirror.
Sit. Feast on your life.
When it comes to words of love set to music, otherwise known as love songs, these too, can influence not only how we feel, but how we act. Dating site eHarmony reports: “In a recent study, a ‘marketing’ survey was given to women who were told they would be discussing organic products with another participant. However, instead of a marketing survey, they were actually exposed to either a romantic, or non-romantic song, in the waiting room, and later asked for their phone number by another participant, who was really part of the study. The researchers found that the women who listened to the romantic song before the experiment, were much more likely to give out their phone number. 52% of women who listened to the romantic song gave out their phone numbers, whereas only 28% from the non-romantic song group gave out their numbers.” The researchers concluded that this type of music lifts your overall mood, making you more open and receptive to a new possibility, and primes you into a more romantic mindset. Maybe those silly love songs aren’t so silly after all.
Symbols of Love
A Valentine’s Day look at love wouldn’t be complete, without a look at some of the symbols we connect to love. Not only are these classic gift inspirations, with a history that dates to mythological times, they too have the power to evoke emotion.
The Heart. In earlier times, alchemists and magicians used this symbol for drawing up spells that were related to romance and love, as well as to strengthen relationships. The heart is considered to be the symbol of charity, truth, compassion, and joy, and is believed to be a symbol of God’s love― the ‘Sacred Heart’.
The Rose. In Greek mythology, the Greek goddess of love, Aphrodite, wears roses on her head, neck, and feet. The rose bush, it is said, first emerged from the blood of Aphrodite’s lover (Adonis), and it therefore represents true and immortal love. While the red rose is the classic romantic Valentine’s Day color, various color roses represent different phases of love. The pink rose is known for first love, the white rose is often seen at weddings, marking the sanctity of committed love, and the yellow rose stands for mature love and protection.
Birds. Many birds mate for life, so it’s no surprise that certain birds symbolize love. Doves, also known for peace, are seen as symbols of love. The dove was considered to be a sacred creature for Aphrodite and Venus, in Greek and Roman mythology. It is said that doves find their soulmates on Valentine’s Day. Lovebirds are also considered a representation of true love because, it is said, that a lovebird cannot survive without its mate. And finally, the image of two swans joined at the neck to form the symbol of a heart, is a well-known love symbol.
No matter the cocktail of hormones, poem, song, or color rose you carry, on this Valentine’s Day we celebrate LOVE in all its scientific, metaphorical and symbolic glory.
And while romantic love is the go-to ideal today; we honor all love equally, from romantic, to familial, friendship, pets, and of course, self.
Happy Valentine’s Day!