I think it is fair to assume that we have all at one time or another told someone that we loved them. Whether that was a family member, a friend, a significant other, or pizza, love is a concept that we can all relate to.
However, what exactly is love? Love is complicated because it can be described as both an emotion and a concept, but why? What would compel us to "fall in love" and how has society changed our definition of love?
Love is a broad spectrum with many individual parts, and I think it is worth taking the time to analyze exactly what love is.
1. What exactly is love?
What is love? According to Merriam-Webster the definition of love is “a feeling of strong or constant affection for a person” (Merriam-Webster.com). I strongly disagree. It sounds incredibly romantic, though, and I’ll admit that “a feeling of strong or constant affection for a person” makes one hell of a romantic movie.
However, this idea of love is far too malleable and unrealistic. I would like to introduce love as an idea instead of an emotion or a feeling.
Yes, I believe that human beings can feel love, but that is not always the case. Have you ever had a fight with a parent or a best friend or a significant other?
In the moment, you probably did not feel like you loved them very much. This is partly because we base so many of our decisions on what we feel in the moment.
In fact, we rely so heavily on what we feel, that we often make stupid and rash decisions. When you are angry and upset it’s difficult to feel love. In the heat of that moment you may even say things that you do not mean. This is why we cannot rely simply on our feelings.
2. Why do we fall in love?
The question becomes, what would compel us to tell someone “I love you” and what makes us so certain that what we are experiencing can be described as “love”?
How does our brain change neurologically when we fall in love, and how is this different than a new relationship when our judgment is clouded by the initial feelings of lust and attraction?
Romantic love might seem like a mystery at first, but it's not really. Researchers have done their best to figure out what exactly it is that draws people together.
Psychologists have identified ten factors that can generally explain why we fall in love with someone: similarity, “reciprocal liking”, desirable characteristics, social acceptability, need fulfillment, “arousal” situation, X-factor, relationship readiness, alone time, and an air of mystery (Loria, Kevin).
Most of us have probably felt these feelings at one time or another and perhaps wondered why or asked ourselves if what we are experiencing can be described as “love”.
3. How do you know if you are in love?
Theresa E. DiDonato, Ph. D. wrote an article on 7 research-based indicators that you are in love: (1) You’re addicted to this person, (2) You really want your friends or family to like this person, (3) You celebrate this person’s triumphs (even when you yourself fail), (4) You definitely like this person, and this person likes you, (5) You really miss this person when you’re apart, (6) Your sense of self has grown through knowing this person, and lastly (7) You get jealous – but not suspicious (DiDonato, Theresa E., Ph.D.).
Models of relationship success (such as Rusbult’s investment model) show that the staying power of relationships takes mutual investment and commitment.
If love is passion, security, and emotional comfort, commitment is the necessary decision made within one’s cultural and social contexts to be with that person.
4. Love as told by Hollywood
It is hard to pinpoint exactly what love is because we are exposed to so many false representations. Love has been manipulated and irrationalized in movies, television, novels, and in the media.
Films such as The Notebook, The Vow, Silver Linings Playbook, and every single Disney movie you can think of gives a false concept of love. I am not saying that these movies make love look perfect (unless we are talking about Disney), but they come pretty close to it.
All of these movies set bad examples of what love really is, and tricks people into thinking that love has to be perfect. We have been made to believe that love is something that we feel, and so when these feelings fade – and inevitably they do – we assume that we are no longer in love.
When you have been with someone for 30 years, you are no longer going to feel that all-consuming giddiness that we so often associate with love. Falling in love is the easy part, what is difficult is staying in love.
This is confusing because Hollywood and the media has convinced us time and time again that you meet someone, you fall in love, you get married, and then you live happily ever after. But REAL love is difficult and takes work.
Love is more than just the ups and the downs, it is the in-between. “A real relationship is one where you take out the garbage, pay the bills and talk about your kids,” says Reid Daitzman Ph.D., practicing clinical psychologist and CEO of Foursight Game Systems.
In fact, as people consume the media’s view of love, it’s becoming more common for relationships and marriages to be primarily based on a desire for happiness and personal fulfillment (Kircher, Jake, and Melissa Kircher).
5. What happens to the brain when we are in love?
Researcher Helen Fisher has spent her academic life trying to figure out what's going on in the brains of those who are in passionate romantic love. Fisher has scanned the brains of young individuals and found that when they are focusing on the object of their affection, a whole host of brain parts start lighting up.
One of the two most important regions was initially a little surprising to Dr. Fisher. First, she found that the caudate nucleus—part of the primitive reptilian brain—is highly active in these amorous individuals.
As expected, she also saw the brain areas associated with dopamine and norepinephrine production light up. Both are brain chemicals associated with pleasurable activities and excitement.
There are, of course, those people who have been together for decades and still act like two kids in love. Researcher Arthur Aron did a similar study with couples who had been married for a long time.
He concluded that “If you scan the brain activity of those long-married lovebirds, they look an awful lot like the scans of Helen Fisher's newly smitten sweethearts. In particular, the brain activity looks the same in regions associated with things like motivation, craving, and reward” (“Your Brain in Love”).
6. What is the difference between being "in love" and "loving"?
I have at times asked myself what the difference is between being “in love” and “loving”. Loving, by nature, is conditional.
You love the way that person make you feel, how they laugh, how they always seem to get you, even at your worst. You love that they can tell when you’re angry and when you’re just snappy because you’re hungry.
They are simply amazing but what happens when that person changes? What happens when they can’t seem to tolerate your mood swings anymore, when they can’t accept you for you and keeps trying to change you?
What happens to the love then? I would argue that being “in love” is much more significant because, in a sense you choose to “fall in love”. We have all heard people use the phrase I “fell in love” as if it were an accident.
However, in order to truly fall in love, you must put yourself in a vulnerable situation. When you open up to someone on a deep emotional level, you have to be willing to “fall in love.” Being in love is much stronger because you don’t love something about that person but you are in love with the person as a whole.
You understand that they are not perfect, and you know all their faults and shortcomings, but you choose to love them, flaws included.
You learn to love that person for who they are, not for how they make you feel or what they have done for you. When love exists beyond feeling, it becomes what we call “unconditional love.”
Love is the most powerful emotion a human being can experience and expresses a human virtue that is based on compassion, affection, and kindness.
Love is a practice, not something that you find or don’t find. We choose to love because it is always beautiful, and if it isn’t beautiful, it is simply not love.
"I knew the second I met you that there was something about you that I needed. Turns out it wasn't something about you at all. It was just you." -Jamie McGuire
DiDonato, Theresa E., Ph.D. "How Do You Know If You're in Love?" Psychology Today. Sussex Publishers, LLC, 24 June 2014. Web. 19 Apr. 2016.
Bircher, Jake, and Melissa Kircher. "Does Media Distort Love?" RELEVANT Magazine. RELEVANT Media Group, 12 Apr. 2011. Web. 19 Apr. 2016.
Loria, Kevin. "The 10 Things People Need to Fall in Love." Business Insider. Business Insider, Inc, 20 May 2015. Web. 19 Apr. 2016.
"Love." Merriam-Webster.com. Merriam-Webster, n.d. Web. 20 Apr. 2016.
"Your Brain in Love." BrainHQ. Posit Science, n.d. Web. 19 Apr. 2016.