If only I had a dollar every time I heard this phrase in my work with couples. So what do people mean when they say this? Usually they are making a distinction between a caring, tender kind of love versus a passionate, exciting kind of love. Unfortunately, the word “love” in the English language encompasses many different meanings. We can love a spouse, we can love our children, and we can love a double dip hot fudge sundae. The only commonality between these types of love is they all have to do with attachment to something that can affect us emotionally. Too bad we haven’t developed different words for the different kinds of love, like the myth of the Eskimo language having multiple words for “snow.”
I recently heard the famous love anthropologist, Helen Fisher, speak at a conference about her decades of research on the concept of love. She said love is not an emotion, but a drive, like hunger and sex. A drive motivates behavior and elicits a whole spectrum of emotions. This idea makes a lot of sense to me. Why else do we continue to go after love even when we’ve been hurt by it? Her research also looked at this idea of love versus “being in love.” She actually scanned the brains of people who said they were “in love” and found high levels of dopamine, which rewards us with a feeling of pleasure and creates in us a desire for more. Not coincidentally, this is the same neurotransmitter that is affected by cocaine use. This continual dopamine high cannot last forever, though. Helen Fisher suggests it may last only up to a year. Then love turns into a more secure, attachment kind of love ruled by different chemicals, such as oxytocin which is the bonding hormone. This isn’t to say there aren’t moments of dopamine release in a long term relationship, there is and there should be. It’s just not automatic and every day anymore. If those pleasurable moments are not happening at all, then you are at risk for no longer feeling “in love” with your partner and vice versa. Nurturing that “in love” feeling between you and yours helps protect your long term relationship, and is much cheaper and less dangerous than cocaine.