What about love


What is love? Everyone will tell you something different. When trying to define love - and with decades of research in our back pockets and still searching - could the answer really be as simple as Forrest Gump in this movie suggests, that 'love is a box of chocolates? Or is it more complicated?

In their search for an answer, ancient Greek philosophers like Plato (ca. 428 – 348 BC) came up with several refined, in-depth, and often complicated theories on the matter. Through time, psychologists like Sigmund Freud (1856-1939) and Zick Rubin (1944-), writers like Shakespeare (1564 – 1616) and Goethe (1749 – 1832) and researchers like Helen Fisher (1947-) and Paul J. Zak (1962-) - to name a few - also put their mark on the concept of love. 

Out of the box
Maybe love is as complicated as we make it. Many have an opinion about it but who really knows love? Maybe love is a thingy in itself; you can’t really get your hands on it or pin it down. Love does what it wants, and one thing is for sure; it does keep us humans busy. So, let’s stop defining love and stop putting it in a box for a little while. Instead, let’s focus on what love shows us. 

Love matters
With 99, 9 % of all songs being about love, 9 out of 10 novels and films dealing with love in some way or other, love related matters like divorce and death of a loved one being part of the top 10 stress factors in people’s lives, finding love and fear of parents getting divorced in the top 3 list of teen’s mental and emotional problems, and things springing to mind on our death beds probably being love related rather than material or other, we might conclude that love matters to us people.  

Love over time
Throughout history love has not always flourished though. During the ‘Age of Enlightenment’, at the end of the 17th and beginning 18th century, for example, reason ruled and love had to take a backseat only to become fashionable again in the period of ‘Romanticism’ (peaking from 1800-1850) where soft values were highlighted.  And in the postwar period (from 1946), where materialism thrived, love only had a short revival during the ‘Flower Power’ period in the late sixties, begin seventies. Today, individualism rules and self-love seems to be moving towards an all-time high while at the same time technical developments, like the internet encourage ‘sharing’ on a larger scale. Why we share - for the greater good, for the sake of another or for personal benefits - remains to be seen.

Love as a luxury
Not only the age you live in, but life circumstances affect love as well. The better the circumstances (read high-income versus low-income) under which you live, the more you can afford - also in the love department. In a study on child development and poverty, environmental and developmental psychologist G.W. Evans (Cornell University) concludes that “Poverty is harmful to the physical, socio-emotional and cognitive well-being of children, youths and their families” or as former teacher and author Eric Jensen states in his book ‘Teaching with poverty in mind´; “children raised in poverty are much less likely to get their crucial needs like consistent and unconditional love met.” - I wonder what chances these children have of becoming loving adults. I also wonder how love fits into the schedule of the other 1, 2 billion people living in extreme poverty today (2013).

No love required
Until the 18th century, arranged marriages were common worldwide. People weren’t asked about who they wanted to be with or if or when to get married; they were appointed somebody suitable mostly based on material grounds or status by family members, and that was that. In 2012, a little over half of all marriages worldwide still are arranged marriages, 90% of all marriages in India are arranged and almost 50% of girls under age 18 in South Asia were forced to marry (Source: UNICEF, Human Rights Council, ABC News). Not a lot of love there. But then again, arranged marriages have nothing to do with love. Love marriages are mostly found in countries with high welfare. With a global divorce ratio of 6% arranged marriages do seem to last a lot longer though than love marriages which in many western countries hit over 50%.

Bonding via the brain
Now let’s try out a more technical or rather a neuroscientific approach to love. According to today’s leading researcher in the field Helen E. Fisher, dopamine, serotonin, testosterone and estrogen are the four hemicals in our brain determining how and who we love.  Former research on the hormone oxytocin in the beginning of the seventies already showed that sex and social binding release this hormone in the brain consequently, affecting our feelings. New experiments with mice in the nineties revealed the higher the level of oxytocin, the higher the loyalty of a mouse towards one ‘partner’ and its offspring.  Interesting conclusions which led researchers like Rebecca Turner and Paul J. Zak to investigate the effect of oxytocin on humans and the way they, we, bond. While research is continuing, oxytocin today has become known as the love hormone or social viagra. So, if you want a good match and play it smart, you can always check some oxytocin levels first.

A spiritual approach
In most of western society romantic love is not seen as a privilege but a right. We all deserve love. And if we don’t get it, we don’t get it – we start sulking, get sad, disappointed, weary, depressed etcetera. Therapists, authors, and lawyers live off people like that, trying to cure lonely or broken hearts - all based on the assumption that we deserve to be loved. So, what happens if we stop assuming that we deserve or need or want love? Spiritual teachers like Eckhart Tolle and Byron Katie applaud this idea. They would like us to keep an open mind and an open heart so that love, or anything else for that matter, can flow freely – or not. To stop the suffering and get peace, all you have to do, is accept what is.

Fascinatingly different
There is no doubt that love has many faces. Sometimes love or loving acts seem indisputable and they are recognized as such by a majority of people. When Nelson Mandela regained his freedom after 27 years of unjustified imprisonment by the South African government he forgave his opponents; that’s love. When Jesus was slapped in the face and turned the other cheek; that’s love. When your child comes up to you with a bunch of wildflowers, he or she has just picked for you; that’s love.  But what if a father refuses his 16-year-old daughter to visit some place with a ‘bad’ reputation? What if he lets her go? Is that love? What if a good friend criticizes your behavior or a lover turns you down because he or she doesn’t feel he or she is good enough for you? Is that love too?

Genders in love
Perceptions and expectations of romantic love differ from person to person and from gender to gender. Understanding love between the sexes can be a bit of a challenge, whether you are in or out of a love relationship. We already know that men and women have dissimilar agendas in social situations. So, how to bridge the gap? In her book ‘You just don’t understand’ (1990) sociolinguist Deborah Tannen suggests when we men and women get to know each other’s way of communicating and our motivations better, they will adapt. John Gray comes with his suggestions in another book on the subject called ‘Men Are from Mars, Women Are from Venus’ (1992) based on experience from his relationship practice. Again, hard work is the answer.  So, is it easier for people of the same sex to understand each other in a love relationship? In his twelve year study on ‘Gay and lesbian couples:  A case of similarities of same-sex and cross-sex couples, differences between gay and lesbian couples’ researcher John Gottman names one key result: “Overall, relationship satisfaction and quality are about the same across all couple types (straight, gay, lesbian).” According to my gay colleague, “To make their lives easier, all heterosexuals should just become gay”.

When love speaks
We have only touched upon a glimpse of love.  We have, for example, not talked about the love for queen and country or the love for one’s pet. Love seems a never-ending story really, and an unresolved mystery which we continue to explore in order to get closer to some kind of truth or maybe even trying to catch it. So far, no luck: Love floats freely and nobody owns it. Don’t you just love love?