Valentines Day: Love, a four-letter word
Are you looking for love? Hoping to find someone to hold, to share, laugh and love forever. Or did you have it once, a long time ago, but now it has magically turned into an unfamiliar beast that snarls, snaps, and then perhaps kisses you at night? Are you alone and happy, or together and sad? Are these philosophical questions, or just conversation we make on Valentines Day. Either way, there is no escaping love.
Millions of years ago, the journey to love began with sex (true sometimes today as well). That was one of the first things we figured out to do, and then as our brains slowly evolved, our hearts began to lead the way. As apes, we developed the ability to become emotionally attached to each other. The reason was not romantic at all - it just helped us survive. It is this emotional bonding within families and communities has enabled the human species to dominate the planet, spawning billions of us over the rest of the animal kingdom.
Scientists have tried very hard to pin down why and how we fall in love. We now know that chemistry is important, and not just for sparks to fly. Love triggers biochemical changes in our bodies. When we are attracted to each other, we begin to secrete a blend of feel-good chemicals adrenaline, dopamine and reduce serotonin, the hormone that regulates our mood and appetite. Lust is driven by estrogen and testosterone, and with time, as things begin to get steady (and boring), we continue our long term attachment with oxytocin and vasopressin. Interestingly, Oxytocin, the ‘cuddle hormone’ that encourages us to bond was secreted when our mothers held us too - not very romantic, but that’s how it is.
Science has broken love down to various secretions and smells. Psychologists have mapped our behaviour. Dating apps are using computer codes and AI. We have a lot of help at hand. And thus enabled with science and technology, and a long list of what we want, we heartlessly swipe right and left. Almost perfect men and women smile at us hoping to get lucky, and perhaps some do.
The institution of marriage is a fairly recent phenomenon, given our long history on the planet. It started off as an alliance to pool in resources, to stay within the tribe, to bring up the kids and so on. Now perhaps it is a psychological one. Marriage is a culturally recognised union between two parties, usually man and woman, promising each other a lifetime of togetherness. We hope for happiness, while slowly seeing it slide under the burden of expectations. We dream of love, but it constantly disappoints us.
Darwin had a theory. Yes, the famous one that says we descended from apes and that we still behave like them. He brings a certain pessimism to relationships, which are perhaps doomed to fail. As primates, we are inclined to ditch our mates for another, on the basis of nothing more than their breeding potential - the size of her hips and strength of his thigh. What hope for never-ending love then.
Plato warned us many years ago. The greek philosopher argued that the highest form of love was non-sexual, non-romantic, brotherly love. Platonic love is infinitely safer than giving in to ridiculous passions. Desire can be dangerous. Poets would argue otherwise, but skeptics say that Romeo and Juliet is not a story celebrating love, but one that warns us of the potential consequences of love. The fool is afraid of love, or is he afraid of being alone.
In the modern context, we tend to idealise romantic love based on individual choice, as some kind of culmination towards an ideal. There is an inherent struggle through intimacy and commitment. Love can be unpleasant and painful. It needs discipline and restraint. It’s not sexy when it means doing the laundry. We can’t just swipe right into happiness. And yet we try.
People all over the world keep falling in love. Hearts get broken, partners keep changing, poems get written and forgotten, and then we find love again.
What is love - an emotion, a feeling, basic human drive, neurons on fire or psychological dependency? The question has plagued us for thousands of years. It emerges from our subconscious mind, to take us through an experience we cannot control. Can it last? We’ve been struggling with answers to that too. Does it have a purpose? Perhaps only to survive. And so we continue.