I have been trying to understand love since I stumbled upon its existence. I’ve watched An Affair to Remember almost a hundred times, and have cried to Barbara Streisand's rendition of “My Man.” I even fell in love and had my heart broken in high school by the boy I was in a rock cover band with. Just as the poets and artists thousands of years ago, we are still attempting to understand and profess this emotional phenomenon that is both beautiful and tragic.
Anthropologist Helen Fisher observed brain activity using fMRIs of people madly in love, concluding that “romantic love is one of the most addictive substances on earth.” When we are falling in love, the same regions of our brain become as active as someone high on cocaine or opioids.
This part of the brain triggers desire, obsession and drive; it has no correlation to the part of the brain that actually helps build relationships.
Fisher also claims that our drive for romantic love is separate and much more powerful than our sex drive. In the play Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare portrays an exceptionally humanistic feeling of love between the characters. Throughout the play, the couple allows nothing to separate them; ultimately committing suicide because of it. Do you think they would have done the same if their relationship was based solely on sex?
Despite the scientific explanation of what falling in love is, we seem to accept an “I love you,” from a romantic partner without questioning where it is coming from. Are they saying they love you because they are infatuated with you? Do they care about your well-being? If real love is not that obsessive feeling, then what is it?
Feminist theorist bell hooks (who spells her name in only lowercase letters) wrote, “We fail at romantic love when we have not learned the art of loving.” Falling madly in love is effortless. It takes care, attention, effort and hard work to truly love someone. Scott Peck defines love as “the will to extend one’s self for the purpose of nurturing one’s own or another’s spiritual growth.” This definition emphasizes that self-love and love for others are one. We are not born knowing how to love, we have to learn. As both Peck and hooks would agree, love is not a feeling, it is an act.
I recently told someone I am not in an exclusive relationship with that I love them. It has been about a year since I started seeing this person, and I could not hold it in any longer. I was nervous about saying those three words since we are dating other people, but it was the best way to express how much I care about them. The love I have for them involves romantic feelings, but beyond that, there is a respect and understanding of our independence, while also supporting each other whenever we can.
We may know why we fall in love and have a concrete definition of love, but that does not mean we have complete control over our feelings. I encourage everyone to be vulnerable enough to fall in love, but knowing where these feelings come from, and that love is an action, can help us develop healthier and happier romantic relationships.
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