I and Thou

Some Topics

The Meaning of Love

The word “Love” is a fuzzy word, often used to refer to any and all the emotive and cognitive forces that bind people together. “Love’ is complex and no simple explanation of love will do. Love is often referred to as an “emotion” although on closer investigation, the term “love” includes different ingredients such thoughts, feelings and several emotions. Love is not a single emotion nor even a coherent mix of emotions. Love is a biosocial complex inflected at different levels of intensity and meaning. Sometimes, love is just a word that fails to have much meaning.

The experience of falling in love is a package deal, separate from other meanings of the word "love". Falling in love involves a complex of feelings, perceptions and cognitions designed by DNA to bring two people together in a tight, exclusive bond that supports reproduction. Falling-in-love is a special, temporary suspension of “normal” rules of interaction that keep people at a distance, more or less fixed in a social matrix.

Romantic love is glue that sticks two people together and is most evident in younger people choosing a mate. Fisher suggested that lust, attraction, and attachment are features of three brain systems involved in courtship, mate selecting, reproduction, and parenting. Lust is the sex drive, the craving for sexual gratification. Romantic love is characterized by obsessive thinking, deep dependency on the relationship, and a craving for union with one individual. A couple is elated when things are going well, but suffer terribly when things are going poorly. Successful bonding creates feelings of contentment and a sense of long-term commitment to the partner

The essential feature of falling in love is a fascination with one other person coupled with a drive to be with them and to protect them. This exclusive focus is deviant from all other social involvements that require lower intensity attention to many people. Males idealize their loved one and suspend business as usual in favor of serving the needs of their potential spouses. Females are overwhelmed with maternal feelings and fantasies of home, the family, and enduring devotion and support of the male. Both lovers will tend to fell euphoric and powerful; their devotion can overcome all obstacles and accomplish wonders. The “emotional” components of falling in love are observable behaviors that distinguish lovers from ordinary folk on the street and at home. Lovers hold hands, walk arm-in-arm, hug, kiss, and make love often.

When humans touch, gaze with pleasure, and touch each other each with care and concern, we talk about “tenderness”. Tender, affectionate behavior is seen only in the best moments that lovers share and in the best care offered by a mother to her young children. The feelings associated with physical intimacy are mostly pleasurable. A kiss can induce a remarkable euphoria in seconds. The importance of positive feelings of affiliation cannot be overestimated. In primates for millions of years, proximity, touching and grooming are essential to individual well being and to social order.

Falling in love is not a smooth ride, however. While pleasurable feelings, tenderness and concern tend to occur in the early stages of falling-in-love, the pleasant feelings soon diminish and are interrupted by more routine, negative feelings that emerge in the mix and will often dominate the couple’s experience. Lovers will display a variety of emotions: affection, laughing, crying, anger, fear and grief will all be displayed in the course of a romance. Jealousy is another cognitive-emotional complex that accompanies love. This parade of conflicting emotions is essential to the “love story.” Who could write Harlequin romances without them? Selfish genes are at work in the background setting up the strongest possible bonding force and the biggest reward for compliance, but, alas, the benefits of the mating program are short-lived and other forces are soon at work to disengage the couple. Falling-in-love euphoria has an expected duration of a few days to months.

Romance can be prolonged by separating the couple so that they yearn for each other and develop elaborate fantasies that emphasize the pleasures of being together The quick way to end romantic bliss is to live together. Since the bliss of falling in love is short-lived, couples must move into a second stage of their “love” relationship to stay together. This requires a more conscious, deliberate adaptation.

Bonding can deepen as the couple spends more time together and map into each other's daily schemas. Sleeping and eating together are potent bonding activities. If the couple remains affectionate, grooms each other and plays together, the bond becomes stronger. The support of family and friends is crucial for the longevity of a developing relationship. The couple’s ultimate success depends on their social compatibility and ability to help each other achieve common goals. In the best case, intense feelings are replaced by more sustainable affection and concern for the welfare of the other.

One model of altruistic love is maternal devotion to children. The ideal mother is deeply bonded to her children, is self-sacrificing and unusually attentive to the needs of her children. While romantic love briefly contains the elements of maternal love and may lead to lead to marriage, pregnancy and life-together, the biological basis appears to be short-lived leaving the bonded couple in need of other motivations and constraints to sustain their relationship. The ideal mother attracts a supportive man and sustains his interest in the children by providing affection, sexual favors and sharing the labor of maintaining a home.

The ideal mother’s love for her children is unconditional and lasts a lifetime, but the love of the father or fathers of the children is conditional and may be short-term. The ideal father provides protection and support, devoting all his resources to one mother who has given birth only to his children.

The word “love” is used casually and often trivially in common talk and tends to lose its importance as a “big word’ with profound significance. The derivative meanings of love include liking, approval, preference, desire, dependency and attachment: “I love spaghetti. I would love to go to Hawaii for a week and lie on the beach. I love cats. I love a good cigar and glass of cognac. I love red Porches with turbochargers. I love to dine in elegant restaurants. I love a good bottle of wine. I love to travel.”

There are advantages to knowing that the brain is the organ of love and that “love” is mix of different ingredients that change over time. Up-to-date, intelligent humans should point to their head and not their chest when they refer to love.

Fisher suggested that antidepressants that increase serotonin activity in critical areas of the brain blunt emotions and interfere with forming and maintaining meaningful relationships. Up to 73% of patients taking antidepressant report sexual dysfunction, such as diminished sexual desire, delayed sexual arousal, and muted or absent orgasm. When men and women take serotonin-enhancing drugs and fail to achieve orgasm, an important feature of pair bonding fails.

You would not be surprised to learn that a woman taking Prozac decided to divorce her husband, stating that she no longer loved him. After she stopped the drug, she loved him again and they stayed married.


  • I and Thou focuses on intimate relationships. Innate tendencies are hard at work when people meet, become lovers and end with arguments and fighting. The same tendencies determine how family members interact and explain why so many families are “dysfunctional.” When lovers form an enduring pair bond, they often become parents and everything changes. Humans seek bonding with others are distressed when they become isolated. Humans bond to each other in several ways. The most enduring bonds are kin-related, based on closely shared genes. The deepest bonding occurs when mother and infant are together continuously from birth and mother breast-feeds the infant. Bonds among family members are the most enduring. Bonds to friends, lovers and spouses are the next most significant. Bonds to colleagues, neighbors and even strangers that are admired from a distance are next. Friendships are often temporary bonds, based on the need to affiliate with others for protection, social status, feeding, sex and fun.

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