Love is the emotion that we naturally compare other emotions to, and for many, it is what we aim to achieve for ourselves, and for others. It is in our books and in our music. It is in our holidays and our religious texts. Scientists have been striving for centuries to understand the mechanisations of love, whilst philosophers have wondered its place in our world.
In addition, writers and artists have been trying to correctly convey this unusual but all-encompassing part of humankind.
Love is a concept, not just an emotion, which encapsulates the most intimate of feelings to the simplest pleasure. This spectrum is how we can differ between the love a mother has for her child and the love a person has for food. It is commonly associated with strong feelings of attraction and personal attachment, but it is also considered a virtue. It is believed to be the powerhouse behind human kindness, compassion, empathy and affection.
There are many aspects of love, from the initial burst of lust, to a fleeting fancy, to unrequited love, all the way to the unconditional. It is something that has impacted the lives of everyone, whether they have felt the benefits of love in their lives, or the impact of the absence of it.
On a primal, scientific level, it is believed that love is what keeps us together as a species. Helen Fisher, a leading expert on love, divides love into three stages. The first is Lust, a sexual desire with no romantic input—though often confused as such—which bleeds into the second, attraction. Attraction is what we, as individuals, find attractive in a mate. This saves time in choosing, pursuing and courting, and if successful, will lead to the third: Attachment. This is sharing a home, planning futures, dividing parental duties and constructing a sense of safety and security together.
These three stages have been studied and scientists have found three distinct neural circuitries that can be attributed to them. For example, lust promotes mating and as such involves increases in testosterone and oestrogen—though this rarely lasts longer than a few months.
Attraction is more individualised, and is what we would normally associate with ‘crushes.’ This is when lust develops into a commitment. The second stage is when neurotransmitters such as dopamine, norepinephrine and serotonin are released, stimulating the pleasure centres of the brain. This often results in increased heart rate, loss of appetite (butterflies) and sleep, and intense excitement. So far, studies have shown this to last for up to three years.
Attachment is designed to last far longer and can also be attributed to friendships and familial love. Its foundation is bonding with another individual, and as such, during the first few years of this stage, the hormones vasopressin and oxytocin have higher levels than before.
Psychologists have argued that love has three distinct components: intimacy, commitment and passion. Intimacy is when two people share confidences and various details of their personal lives, and is usually shown in friendships and romantic love affairs. Commitment, on the other hand, is the expectancy that the relationship is not a temporary thing. Passion is sexual attraction. Passionate love is shown in infatuation as well as romantic love. It is believed that all forms of love are viewed as varying combinations of these three components. Liking, as a friendship, only includes intimacy. Infatuated love, a crush, only includes passion. Empty love, found in arranged marriages, for example, only includes commitment. Romantic love includes both intimacy and passion. Companionate love includes intimacy and commitment. Fatuous love includes passion and commitment. Consummate love includes all three whilst ‘non-love’ has none.
Scott Peck, whose work in applied psychology explores love and evil, views love as a commitment to another’s spiritual growth and simple narcissism. The end result would make love not only a feeling, but also an activity; something to dedicate one’s life towards.
Of course, all of this would be difficult to write out in a narrative sense. The biological functions of love are not what drive people to read a book, and even third-person omniscient novels would be hard-pressed to mention firing dopamine over physical, noticeable behaviours, such as blushing or fidgeting.
Falling in love can have different effect on different people, depending on circumstance. Some people crave it and seek it everywhere, with each sign being amplified with other-thought. Meanwhile, others, possibly those who have felt heartbreak before, may feel anxious or more resistant to the idea of it.
As he read, I fell in love the way you fall asleep: slowly, and then all at once.
The Fault in Our Stars by John Green
Not everyone is aware of his or her own behaviour; let alone what it is like when they’re around someone they are attracted to. In these instances, writers often stick to writing subtle signs that can grow as the affection and intimacy does. These signs include restlessness, sleeplessness, euphoria and thinking about that certain someone more frequently than others. A less mature individual, or one who does not have much experience with love, may show many negative signs, such as emotional dependence and jealousy.
As these feelings intensify, the behaviours can accelerate to a level not unlike that of a drug addict, as those hormones mentioned earlier, when released, are similar to amphetamines. Brain scans have shown that people in love, shown images of the person of their desires, show the same kind of activity in the brain as a drug addict does when taking a hit.
Similarly, in an article published in the Journal of Neurophysiology in 2010, people who were shown the person they love but cannot be with them, showed activity in the brain similar to someone craving cocaine.
And yet ‘in love’ isn’t the only type of love.
On a historical level, Ancient Greece sought to break down the different variations of love, resulting in several different categories. This breakdown can be useful for writers who are looking to explore the many faces of love, or looking to find a different way of portraying love.
The first kind of love is eros, named after the Greek god of love and fertility. Eros is a passionate and intense form of love that arouses romantic and sexual feelings. When people seek out books on love and romance, this is the type portrayed.
Unusual by modern day standards, the ancient Greeks considered eros to be dangerous and frightening as it involves a ‘loss of control’ through the primal impulse to procreate. It is also an idealistic love that can sweep individuals up with optimism, with Socrates stating that it can be used to ‘recall knowledge of beauty.’ But it is also easy to indulge in, to crave, and become ‘addicted to,’ resulting in impulsivity and heartbreak.
This kind of love was discouraged until fairly recently—thanks to the Industrial Revolution. Prior to this, families had to arrange marriages. They had to keep bloodlines ‘pure’ or maintain wealth or move up in social standing. Marriage was like currency, and eros was bankrupt. When compared to Helen Fisher’s stages of love, this can fit in either lust or attraction.
The second type of love is philia, or friendship. The ancient Greeks valued philia far above eros because it was considered a love between equals. Plato was a big supporter of this kind of love, as he felt that physical attraction was not a necessary part of love. This is why the term ‘platonic relationship’ is used to describe a relationship without sexual desire. It is not described as ‘lacking sexual attraction’ but as free of it. This is often shown as a sense of loyalty, of camaraderie and friendship.
Closely resembling philia is storge, which focuses on kinship and familiarity. Storge is the affection that often flows between parents and their children, and children for their parents, between siblings and so on. Storge love can even be found among childhood friends and later shared as adults, making it also a kind of kinship love.
Next is ludus. Though similar to eros, the Greeks thought of ludus as a playful form of love, for example, the affection between young lovers. In terms of stages, this is found during the attraction stage, between two bonding lovers who are sharing intimacy. It is important in achieving and maintaining a more concrete bond later, and it is that playfulness that helps promote the positive aspects of falling in love, such as flirting, teasing and feelings of euphoria.
Many couples’ counsellors actively encourage this kind of love in struggling couples, as it is considered a key ingredient in healthy relationships. It keeps love alive, innocent and interesting.
Following this, pragma is a love that has aged, matured and developed over time. It is considered beyond the physical and resulted in a natural harmony between two long-lasting individuals, be it through marriage or friendship. It is considered rare, as an idolisation of romantic love, and the concentration around falling in love has resulted in too few people understanding how to maintain it once they have it.
It is a love that is the result of years of compromise, negotiation and, more importantly, effort. It is, as Scott Peck would describe, an activity that has been going on for decades.
The Greeks understood that in order to care for others, we must first learn to care for ourselves. This form of love was not as divisive as it is today, nor was it considered parallel to that of Narcissus’ love for himself. It was not vanity, but more of a ‘self-compassion.’ Sharing the Buddhist belief that one cannot care for others unless one cares for themselves, philautia is the belief that how we treat and love others is an extension of how we treat and love ourselves.
Finally, agape was considered the highest form of love. It is considered unconditional or spiritual—something that transcends ourselves, our selfishness, and results in an infinite pool of empathy and compassion. It is free from desires and wants, and removes expectations from the equations. It is the love described in the Bible, in Corinthians 13:4-8, and is what many people strive for.
Agape is what some call spiritual love. It is an unconditional love, bigger than us; a boundless compassion, and an infinite empathy. It is what the Buddhists describe as mettā or ‘universal loving kindness.’ It is the purest form of love that is free from desires and expectations, and loves regardless of the flaws and shortcomings of others.
In the New Testament, agape is charitable and altruistic, an ascending love. It is the love that parents have for their children, that God has for mankind.
There are many other forms of love felt across the spectrum, some as highly sought after as agape or eros, some experienced almost universally, like a first crush (limerence), and some that many could describe as inherently bad, or that can be difficult to escape, like mania. This may be because while love is often described as ‘blind,’ it can also be considered blinding.
On a less innocent note, mania is a type of love that leads a partner into a type of obsessiveness. Mania is when one individual places far too much importance on love, on the person who they deem should give them that love. The desire to have it reciprocated becomes all-consuming, resulting in poor self-esteem, jealousy and possessiveness. It is the belief that one needs their partner. This type of love is associated with co-dependency, but could also be a sign of mental health issues.
As an aside, limerence (infatuated love), coined by Dorothy Tennov in her 1979 book, Love and Limerence, is “an involuntary potentially inspiring state of adoration and attachment to a limerent object (LO) involving intrusive and obsessive thoughts, feelings and behaviors from euphoria to despair, contingent on perceived emotional reciprocation.”
For many, limerence is their first crush. It is a type of love most often experienced in adolescence, when the aforementioned hormones are at their most volatile. Rejection, even non-romantic rejection, has been found to wound like physical pain. This results in an obsessive desire to have feelings reciprocated. If not handled properly, this kind of love could lead to mania.
The evolution of love, and cultures and their opinions of love vary. Some cultures still carry the more conservative views, such as arranged marriages, whilst others have legalised same-sex marriage, with parades that promote and celebrate all the forms of love under a rainbow banner—fitting for something that sits on a bright and expansive spectrum. One thing all cultures can agree on, however, is that love probably won’t be leaving our literary muses anytime soon.
© 2017 Lannah Marshall
Available under the Thanet Writers Education Policy
Sometimes she writes. Sometimes she doesn’t. Either way, she’s not doing what she’s supposed to be doing.