What is Love?
Understanding love is the first step towards mastering love and relationships.
Posted Nov 18, 2017
Looking at human affairs, many of us are saddened by the fact that there is a lot of misery in the world: suffering, deception, and destruction. Some feel that things are getting worse, the world is more divided than ever. On the other hand, we are encouraged by the many acts of kindness, thoughtfulness, and love that also goes around.
Indeed, almost everybody wants to live happily and peacefully, and almost everybody wants loving relationships—even those folks we perceive as hostile. The natural question then is, why do we so often fail?
It’s not news to anybody that the answer to happy living is love. Love is the key to any life and the key to happiness. During the holiday season, we suffer with George Baily in “It’s a Wonderful Life” until he realizes that it is love that matters more than anything in the world. The movie is among the most popular because it rings true—love indeed is the universal answer to any misery or divisiveness. The very next moment, however, we turn our attention again to pursuits of short-term gratification and/or other self-directed matters.
The curious thing about love is that despite its indisputable importance to our lives, we spend comparatively little time trying to understand it. We all have a certain concept of love—but do we question or probe it? Instead, we spend most of our lives acquiring skills and knowledge which we believe facilitates us navigating to a “successful” life but have nothing to do with love.
If we come to understand why love is so essential to us—and conversely, why neglecting to focus our attention on love is detrimental—maybe we will be more motivated to re-center our priorities. We may ask ourselves: What is love anyway? Do we have any influence on love? Is it part of our biology? Is it part of spirituality? Is it both? What is it that makes us love somebody? What makes us not love somebody?
In his 1956 book “The Art of Loving”, psychologist Erich Fromm challenged the notion that love is this phenomenon which serendipitously occurs without our control. Fromm believed it is a common mistake to confuse the intense feelings we experience when we fall in love at the beginning of romantic relationships with actual love. The passionate, obsessive period which we so crave because of all its excitement may be part of a romantic relationship but not of love itself –it is just a phase and it won’t last.
Recent studies in neuroscience allow us to clearly differentiate between the early “falling-in-love” phase compared to the long-term “in love” period by detecting distinct activities in our blood and brain. Researchers studied people who just fell in love compared to those in long term relationships. They could show the pattern of blood levels changing over time. MRI studies of the brain corroborate these findings; revealing activities in distinct brain areas during each phase.
The “falling-in-love” phase invariably ends after 2-4 years, it is just nature’s way to jump start a relationship. If we think this is love we will inevitably be disappointed. Indeed, there is a peak in the incidence of relationship break ups after 2-4 years.
In contrast, love is a lasting, committed state, which requires our active involvement. In “The Forgotten Art of Love”, I define love as the urge and the continuous effort for the happiness and wellbeing of somebody which expresses that, while love involves powerful feelings, a critical component of it is commitment.
This active commitment aspect in the process of loving is actually the key to success. Unfortunately, however, it is the facet most often neglected, probably because it takes ongoing effort. It would be much easier if reality was such that love is this beautiful emotion that we just to have to be lucky to get to be passive recipients of. The inconvenient truth, however, is that love is no exception to any other great achievement in life, we have to work for it. At the same time, there is a silver—even golden—lining: We actually have a lot of control on how much love we have in our lives—an empowering concept.
If we recognize the nature of “falling in love” as being a distinct passing phase, we won’t be disappointed once the obsessive feelings fade a after a while. Instead, we will be prepared to move to the next phase in the relationship, which can be equally or even more powerful but, in contrast to the falling in love phase, requires our effort to sustain it. This is why I agree with characterizing love as an art—requiring skills and devotion.
Zadeh, A. (2017). The Forgotten Art of Love. Novato, CA: New World Library.