Human beings seem to create their perception of the world based on three things; the socio economic make up of their surroundings and experiences, their relationship with themselves and others, and the biological chemistry of their mind. They then use language in an attempt to share their perception with others. Unfortunately, verbal communication is very limiting in that words confine experience and expression to a predetermined definition. Words like “dog”, “cat”, and “spoon” are easy for humans to understand as they pretty much define something tangible. It’s the intangible words like “god”, “sex”, and “happiness” that create controversy due to the fact that everyone seems to have a different perception of what each word should represent. Over time, these intangible words become so powerful and abstract that many human beings spend their entire lives searching for them, researching them, dissecting them, and categorizing them in an effort to construct, understand, and protect what they believe that particular word should represent.
Love is a word that evolved over the centuries to encompass a wide range of subcategories based on an intangible concept. Its origins are unknown, but versions of it seem to be present in every form of language, which means we, as human beings, must at some point create our own definition for it. This is not an easy task. Poets, philosophers, prophets, neurological scientists, and marketing executives have all tried to define what love is using everything from abstract poetical ideals to complex chemical interactions.
So, how did we define love? Many developmental psychologists seem to think that one of the key factors we use to create our definition of love is based on how we attach ourselves to others. In our early developmental stages, we lack the emotion of love and are more concerned with survival. It is possible that our concept of love emerged early in our infancy when we began to feel positive emotions toward the objects that brought us happiness[i] (Laquercia, 2001). We created a feeling of warmth toward the things that helped us counteract our anxiety, fear, and other negative emotions we experienced. Mary Ainsworth, in her study on infancy attachment styles, goes on to suggest that the way our caregivers interacted with us as children greatly affected the way we attach to others in adulthood (Crooks et al, 2005). [ii] From these early interactions we developed a subconscious desire for the feeling of security and became attracted to those who provided it for us. As we began to construct our understanding of the world, we identified and attached this subconscious interaction to the word “love”.
Other attachment theories place more focus on the reproductive limitations we created by our enthusiastic determination to evolve into upright walking, pair bonding, primates. Because of this evolution, it eventually became necessary for us to redefine our relationships based on the needs we created by evolving out of nature. As our society grew into what it is today, our interaction with each other became more focused on our conscious and subconscious needs like survival, sex, social support, and material needs like a new stereo system or macramé wall hangings. Of course, if we defined love using only these attachment theories, we would reduce it to an emotion aimed only at “ the fulfillment of attachment, pair-bonding, and emotional reinforcement needs” [iii](Djikic, 2004).
Fortunately for the greeting card industry, we do not define love by attachment alone. Attachment is just one of three primary emotion systems that humans and other mammals created for mating, reproduction, and parenting. [iv] (Fisher, 2000) Attraction, the second emotional system, combines our subconscious desire for the feeling of security with variables we believe will draw us closer to someone who can provide us with a relationship that can recreate that feeling. We often define this as “falling in love”. The variables that attract us to others can be a combination of similarities we share, their geographic location in relation to us, our subconscious needs, unresolved issues we have with our parents, co-dependency, their ability to reciprocate feelings, the amount of exposure we have to them, and their physical attractiveness [v](Crooks et al, 2005). Physical attractiveness is also a variable that stimulates Fisher’s third emotion system, lust. Though lust can have a great impact on our subconscious desire to attach to others, it doesn’t offer the security we seek, which may be why so many of us make an effort to avoid using it to construct our definition of love.
The emotion systems motivate our subconscious using specific groupings of neural chemicals. For example the attraction system is primarily associated with low levels of serotonin and high levels of dopamine and norepinephrine[vi](Fisher, 2000), which are both similar to amphetamines[vii](Young-Bruehl, 2003). Where as attachment is more associated with neuropeptides, oxytocin, and vasopressin [viii](Fisher, 2000). Our brain’s neuro system greatly affects our subconscious attachment processes as seen in the research by Ravi Kumar Kurup. Kurup suggests that left hemispheric dominant individuals may have an increased tendency for falling in love than those who are right hemispheric dominant due to their differences in chemical composition [ix](Kurup, 2004). Just as our attachment formations help us define when we feel love, the effects these chemicals have on our neuro system help us define the feeling of love.
Since most of what I’ve described so far seems to be subconscious, and defining a word is a conscious effort, to define love we combine our subconscious drive for creating relationships with others, and the chemical compositions they produce, with the more conscious socio-political concepts, beliefs, and laws provided to us by our friends, our families, our teachers, poets, authors, communities, religions, governments, magazine ads, internet blogs, reality shows, and what we’ve gathered through our own personal experiences. Throughout our life, we are constantly guided by these influences to construct our perception of the world. These influences help us create a concept of love far more complex than a self-induced chemical stupor based on our attachment needs. Because of its complexity, our definition of love becomes a fingerprint; completely different from any that has ever existed before. Then we attach this concept to other pre-defined words like passion, puppy, platonic, romantic, conditional, unconditional, maternal, spiritual, and sadistic creating an endless number of subcategorizes. With these definitions we attempt to create our relationships with each other.
This construct of predefined love can create havoc in our relationships as we subconsciously search for others who will perpetuate our illusions. Elizabeth Young-Bruehl suggests that we often enter a relationship with another person as narcissists where our actions are driven by our subconscious desire for our partner to confirm our love and conform to its terms.[x] (Young-Bruehl, 2003). Therefore, we are projecting our perception of what we’ve defined love to be into our partner, expecting our partner to act and respond in a predefined way. This becomes an even greater problem when we enter a relationship to distract ourselves from deeper psychological problems like chronic depression, co-dependency, and so on. We project our definition of love into our partner and, when they respond in the correct way, we begin tripping on amphetamines and endorphins, which diverts our attention from our underlying psychosis. In this kind of relationship we require a constant bombardment of predefined responses in order to stay high, or we run the risk of having to face the issues we’re distracting ourselves from. Eventually our nerve endings become desensitized, immune, or exhausted and the relationship can no longer provide us with the level of distraction we need to maintain our illusions. This is just one example of why many of us often jump from relationship to relationship searching for someone to validate our definitions.
As we blind ourselves with the definition of love we created based on need, chemical dependence, and societal influences, we enter our relationships with a tremendous amount of hope that our illusion will be validated and reciprocated. Theodore Laquercia states that, “it is a terrible burden on young couples to learn that the person they have committed to for life is real and different than the projected object of desire” [xi] (Laquercia, 2001). Yet, with this realization we can begin the process of deconstructing our narcissistic definitions of love so we can learn how to relate to each other as individuals instead of predefined objects and ideals. If we are unable to salvage the relationship, we should take the time to reflect on it so we can gain a better understanding of the illusions we brought into it. As we rise above our illusions, we allow ourselves the freedom to explore our relationships without confining them to something we’ve created in our mind.
Love is like a mirror standing between us and another, only when we take away the mirror can we see the other instead of ourselves.
[i] Laquercia, T.(2001). Love and personal relationships: navigating on the border between the ideal and the real. Modern Psychoanalysis, 26(1), 37-54. ….(paraphrase pg 38)
[ii] Crooks, R., & Baur, K. (2005). Our sexuality. 9th ed. Belmont, Ca:
Thomson Wadsworth. ….(quote page –195)
[iii] Djikic, M., & Oatley, K. (2004). Love and personal relationships: navigating on the border between the ideal and the real. Journal for the Theory of Social Behavior, 34(2), 199-209. ….(paraphrase p 200 – 201)
[iv] Fisher, H. (2000). Lust, attraction, attachment: biology and evolution of the three primary emotion systems for mating, reproduction, and parenting. Journal of Sex Education & Therapy, 25(1), 96 - 103.
[v] Crooks, R., & Baur, K. (2005). Our sexuality. 9th ed. Belmont, Ca:
Thomson Wadsworth. ….(quote page –188-192)
[vi] Fisher, H. (2000). Lust, attraction, attachment: biology and evolution of the three primary emotion systems for mating, reproduction, and parenting. Journal of Sex Education & Therapy, 25(1), 96 - 103. (Paraphrase)
[vii] Young-Bruehl, E. (2003). Where do we fall when we fall in love?. Journal for the Psychoanalysis of Culture & Society, 8(2), 279-288.
[viii] Fisher, H. (2000). Lust, attraction, attachment: biology and evolution of the three primary emotion systems for mating, reproduction, and parenting. Journal of Sex Education & Therapy, 25(1), 96 - 103. (Paraphrase)
[ix] Kurup, R. K. (2004). Familial hypothalamic digoxin deficiency syndrome. Journal of Neuropsychiatry & Clinical Neurosciences, 16(1), 93-101.
[x] Young-Bruehl, E. (2003). Where do we fall when we fall in love?. Journal for the Psychoanalysis of Culture & Society, 8(2), 279-288.
[xi] Laquercia, T.(2001). Love and personal relationships: navigating on the border between the ideal and the real. Modern Psychoanalysis, 26(1), 37-54. (quote pg 44)