For many of us, love is a mystery we don't dare attempt to solve. If you're like me you may find yourself in need of some aspirin or a strong drink when attempting to understand the complexities of this vital, yet often distressing human connection.
In the name of love, each of us has likely experienced everything from rejection, loss, and betrayal to acceptance, bliss, and our deepest, most satisfying sense of self-worth.
Although "love" has been a topic of philosophy even in Ancient Greek and Roman writings, our sociological understanding of this term never seems to get a solid grasp on it before it morphs into something new and slips away from us, toiling with our once solid set of beliefs about partnership status, marriage, commitment, monogomy, and fidelity.
Sue Johnson, clinical psychologist, couples therapist, and top relationship researcher, highlights that no other experience will have more impact on our lives—our happiness and health—than our success at loving and being loved. So what do we really know about how love impacts us today?
Since the mid-1980's, the number of people reporting that they have only their intimate partner to confide in has risen by 50%. Prior to the days of attached garages, cell phones, and social media, people lived lives that were much more connected to their neighbors and families, and they relied more heavily on their local communities for day to day needs. People had a sense of knowing others and being known on a larger scale. Now, however, we often look to our romantic partners to fill all the roles that our diminished social network no longer fulfills. This places a high demand on our partners to be not only our lover and spouse, but fill the gap of our extended family, friend, confidant, financial advisor, exercise partner, our village, and our community that we have in recent years become increasingly disconnected from. Despite pouring into social media, we remain more emotionally isolated than ever before in history which raises the bar in our intimate relationships to fulfil almost all our needs for a loving, deep emotional connection.
Love is agreed upon today, by men and women alike, as the primary reason to marry, but was once ranked only 5th on reasons to marry (1939), and was still not 1st even by 1950. In the 1970s, love began making its way to the top in surveys of what American women and men look for in a mate. By the 1990s, with vast numbers of women in the workforce, marriage in the Western world had completely shifted from an economic enterprise to, as sociologist Anthony Giddens calls it, an “emotional enterprise.” In a 2001 U.S. poll, 80 percent of women in their twenties said that having a man who could talk about his feelings was more important than having one who could earn a good living. Today men and women routinely agree that a loving connection matters most when it comes to couple relationships.
Love really IS the ultimate "happy drug" - Says science. Love was once frowned upon so heavily in the scientific fields of study that it was almost never researched, nor was any emotion, really. Love was considered the most insignificant of any basic human emotion and was essentially ignored until the 1990's when research began to uncover love actually has a great deal to do with our health, wealth, and life satisfaction. As you might suspect, those who consider themselves in a loving relationship are healthier, wealthier, and happier than their loveless counterparts. After gaining more respect and attention in the research arena, scientists uncovered that "love" can actually be seen via fMRI imaging of the brain, where the presence of a loved one sends messages to the brain that are comparable to those sent to the brain when a person experiences a high from opioid drugs. "Love," in this sense, really is a powerful drug.
Love is a basic human need and even trumps other survival instincts such as sex or aggression. When we think about love we may fall subject to believing that love and intimacy are only bi-products of the human survival instinct to reproduce and carry our genes forward. This, however, is not entirely true. We find that the need for human connection starts at birth and carries through the lifespan into adulthood, where it often displays in the form of romantic love. While it IS important to our survival that we reproduce, it is ALSO equally important to our survival that we maintain affection and person to person bonding in order to survive. This has been displayed in research where infants who lacked human any affection aside from feeding and changing did not survive, and furthermore, when given the choice of food or a comforting physical touch, test subjects chose the physical symbolism of a loving attachment above something so basic as a need for food.
So while love can be dismissed away as a fleeting feeling that comes and goes or a great mystery of the universe that can never be understood, there is a great deal of "love sense" for us all to make use of. Love is indeed an important part of who we are and it is an emotion that must be nurtured in our own lives as we attempt to become our best possible self.
Johnson, Sue (2013). Love sense. Little, Brown and Company Hachette Book Group 237 Park Avenue, New York, NY