What’s love but a second hand emotion? -Tina Turner

Is that really all that love is, a second hand emotion? Love is an emotional, mental and physiological response to the idea or reality of another person. It is usually expressed as feelings of intense sexual attraction, desire, affection, romantic passion, companionship or attachment. Fundamentally love is an instinctive primordial drive, more compelling than a mere second-hand emotion. As in the case of hunger and thirst, the gratification of love is crucial to the survival of our species.

Fundamentally love is an instinctive primordial drive, more compelling than a mere second-hand emotion. As in the case of hunger and thirst, the gratification of love is crucial to the survival of our species.

According to C.S. Lewis, theologian and author of “The Four Loves”, there are four kinds of love: lust or eros (including romantic passion); affection; friendship or philia (including companionship); and, charity. The latter is love in its most idealistic form and is associated with certain character traits such as commitment, discipline and unselfishness. The New Testament, 1st book of Corinthians describes love as being patient, kind and not easily irritated.

Psychologist Dr. Robert Sternberg brings a qualitative perspective to this exploration in his triangular theory of love, which consists of three core ingredients; namely, intimacy, passion and commitment.

Dr. Helen Fisher’s, biochemist, psychologist and author of “WhyWe Love, the Nature and Chemistry of Romantic Love“, describes love as a series of overlapping phases: lust; romantic passion; and, attachment.

Let’s attempt to arrive at a “Hegelian synthesis” of these different ideas. First, let’s accept Dr. Fishers hypothesis that love consists of three overlapping phases:

LUST: An intense sexual passion, attraction or desire for another person. Subconsciously the strong attraction felt is basically a positive assessment of the compatibility of the beloved for the purpose of mating and reproduction. Lust normally lasts for a period of a few weeks to a few months.

ROMANTIC PASSION: This may or may not follow after the initial lust phase. Romantic passion introduces elements of intimacy and affection and focuses the attention of the lover exclusively on the beloved. Both lust and romantic passion fuse to become what C.S. Lewis refers to as eros. Romantic passion normally lasts for one and a half to a few years.

ATTACHMENT: This is the most persistent of the loves and is a bonding between the partners at the level of friendship and companionship that promotes long term relationships necessary for the raising of offspring. Attachment is the phase that promotes relationships lasting for many years and even decades, although Dr. Fisher suggests that it may seriously weaken after the last child turns four. Presumably there is no evolutionary imperative for the parents to stay together after this phase since the child is now independent enough to survive with one parent. Commitment to the partner and offspring is a crucial ingredient for the relationship to be sustained during this phase.

It is important to distinguish between the experience of love and the institution of interpersonal relationships. There are different kinds of relationships ranging from dating, cohabitation and domestic partnerships with marriage being the most formal.

The biochemical basis of love

It’s the falling in love that’s making me high, it’s the being in love that’s making me cry – Michael Jackson

Love or rather the beloved is a drug. The cocktail of chemicals (hormones and neurotransmitters) released into our physiology during the experience of love creating pleasurable sensations and feelings of euphoria are essentially the same activated by the use of addictive drugs such as cocaine, marijuana or alcohol.

Love or rather the beloved is a drug. The cocktail of chemicals are essentially the same as those activated by the use of addictive drugs such as cocaine, marijuana or alcohol.

Scientists consider love to be temporary compulsive phases controlled almost exclusively by the body’s biochemisty. I bet this makes you view the phrase “chemistry between partners” in a new light. Let us now take a look at the specific biochemistry involved in these various phases. According to Dr. Fisher, lust is accompanied by a physiological release of a series of hormones including testosterone and estrogen into the body.

According to Dr. Fisher, lust is accompanied by a physiological release of a series of hormones including testosterone and estrogen into the body.

The next phase occurs when or if lust morphs into romantic passion. Recent studies in neuroscience have indicated that the brain of romantic people consistently releases a certain set of chemicals and neurotransmitters which include pheromones, dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin. This mixture is sometimes referred to as the brains natural morphine. The brains pleasure and reward center is stimulated leading to side effects such as an increased heart rate, bursts of energy and feelings of euphoria. Scientists have uncovered that during the experience of romantic love, trial participants were found to possess in their brains the same levels of oxytocin found in patients suffering from obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD). For all intents and purposes, those “in romantic love” can be deemed to be temporarily insane.

For all intents and purposes, those “in romantic love” can be deemed to be temporarily insane.

The attachment phase has been linked to higher levels of the chemicals oxytocin and vasopressin.

So, love is a series of phases essentially controlled by biochemical processes compelling us towards the forming of binding relationships ultimately for the purpose of mating and typically with a view to reproduction. We must however understand that love represents an instinctive mandate from nature (separate from our rational and cognitive faculties) to mate and reproduce and has absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with the success of a relationship. Nature is intent on using the body’s biochemistry as the platform for the subconscious information processing exchange which occurs between lovers as they assess each other’s immune deficiency systems for reproductive compatibility. Chemistry, while exciting, does not account for friendship, companionship and the commitment needed for fulfilling relationships or a healthy marriage. In fact, chemistry actually undermines the due diligence required to assess the compatibility of a potential partner, especially during the highs of the lust and romantic love phases. Nature is intent on using biochemistry as the medium for the subconscious information processing that occurs as we assess potential partners for compatible immune deficiency systems that will ensure optimal chances for reproducing healthy offspring.

Chemistry actually undermines the due diligence required to assess the compatibility of a potential partner.

Consider India where the divorce rate is 1% compared to 50% in the United States. In communities that practice arranged marriages these unions tend to be founded upon commitment rather than the emotional roller coaster of romantic passion. Indeed the saying goes in India “first we marry then we love”.

In a future article in SiA, I will explore how chemistry can lead to the psychological conditions of codependency, sex addiction and love addiction. I will also discuss how certain chemicals in the brain such as norepinephrine and vasopressin are essential for the persistence of social monogamy and commitment in love relationships.

In generations to come it may be possible for humans to take love potions or pills that enable them to become committed to one and only one partner.