Life without love is like a tree without blossoms or fruit. —Khalil Gibran
Love is one of the most important, yet most misunderstood emotions we experience. Human brains are naturally wired for connection with others, and we experience loneliness and rejection as painful threats to survival.
For both biological and cultural reasons, many of us believe we need a lasting love relationship to be truly fulfilled. Yet, in reality, love is not necessarily a lasting, unchanging state. Long-time love is not automatic, but takes hard work, unselfishness, and a willingness to be vulnerable.
Below are 10 science-based facts to help you understand what love really is—and isn’t:
1. Love is different than passion or lust.
Physical attraction is an important part of love for most of us, but emotional love is different than lust. This is why one-night stands and alcohol-fueled hookups don’t tend to lead to long-term relationships. Studies that scan brains in real time show that we manifest lust in the motivation/reward areas of the brains, while love lights up the regions connected to caring and empathy.
2. Love is both a momentary feeling and a long-term state of mind.
There's something to the cliché of two hearts beating together as one: New research shows that we do experience love in the moment as a state of communion. In this moment of deep connection, people in love mirror each other’s facial expressions, gestures, and even physiological rhythms. But love can also be a lasting mental and emotional state in which we care deeply for each other's wellbeing, feel moved by each other's pain, and are motivated to help relieve each other's suffering.
3. Building lasting relationships takes work.
A meta-analysis of the best long-term studies of loving relationships highlight some behavior patterns that couples with lasting love share: Partners think of each other positively when they are not together; they support each other’s personal growth and development; and they undertake shared experiences in which they can learn and expand themselves.
4. We can increase our capacity to love.
Research on mindfulness and self-compassion show that practicing these strategies regularly can develop our brains to be more positive and empathetic in a matter of months. Monks who regularly practice compassion meditation have a different rhythm of brain alpha waves than beginning meditation adherents, or the average non-meditating person. Mindfulness and compassion meditations increase activity in brain centers connected with empathy and positive emotions, decrease activation of our fear centers, and make our brains more interconnected—a trait associated with the secure attachment pattern.
5. It's not just in your head.
A large body of research shows that loving connection is beneficial to long-term physical health—and loneliness and a lack of social connection have been shown to shorten our lifespans as much as smoking. (Just being a member of a church, synagogue, or community group lessens this effect.) For men in particular, marriage improves long-term health—and the death of a spouse is a risk factor for earlier death. We don’t know if this is because wives encourage their spouses to take care of their health, or if it's directly related to their emotional and physical connection.
6. If we focus on love, we can enhance it.
When we deliberately focus our attention on our feelings and actions toward a loved one, we begin a positive reciprocal spiral of mutual appreciation and happiness. Let’s face it: We all want to be thought about, cared for, and appreciated. Research also shows that expressing gratitude in words or actions actually creates positive emotions in the giver as well as the receiver.
7. It is not a fixed quantity.
Loving one person, even a lot, does not mean you have less to give to others. In fact, the opposite is true: Love is a capacity you can build within yourself through mental concentration, emotional engagement, and caring actions. When we focus on and savor our loving feelings for one person, the internal feelings of satisfaction and connection we experience can motivate us to be more loving in general.
8. It is not unconditional.
One of the preconditions for loving feelings is a sense of safety and trust. In order to connect lovingly and empathically, your prefrontal cortex has to send a signal to the amygdala (the brain’s alarm center) to switch off your automatic “fight or flight” response. People who endured childhood trauma, neglect, abuse, or other experiences that threaten secure attachment may have a harder time switching off the “fight-flight-freeze” system—or feeling safe enough to love.
This reticence can be overcome with therapy or, sometimes, by a partner who repeatedly demonstrates trustworthiness and care. (However, if your repeated expressions of care are not reciprocated by any heart-softening in your partner, it could be time to consider moving on.)
9. It is contagious.
Expressions of caring, compassion, and empathy can inspire these feelings in others. This may be why leaders such as the Dalai Lama or Nelson Mandela inspire followers to be their best selves—and help them calm down “fight or flight.”
10. Love is not necessarily forever, but it can be.
In Sonnet 116, Shakespeare wrote that “Love is not love that alters when it alteration finds.” We now know that fixed, unchanging love is possible, but not the norm. In fact, some theorists even question the idea of a fixed, unchanging “self"—we are not the same person today as we were 10 years ago. Life experience can alter our biology, thought patterns, and behavior, and relationships may be challenged when one person’s needs change or both partners grow in different directions.
That being said, researcher Art Aron and colleagues at Stony Brook University have shown that, when thinking about their partners, the brain scans of a minority of people reporting long-term, intense love for their partners look the same as do the scans of individuals who report being newly in love.
Follow Dr. Greenberg on Twitter @drmelanieg
Acevedo, B.P., Aron A., Fisher, H. E, & Brown, L. (2012). Neural correlates of long-term intense romantic love. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, 7, 145-159.
Aron, A., Norman, C. C., Aron, E. N., McKenna, C., & Heyman, R. (2000). Couples shared participation in novel and arousing activities and experienced relationship quality. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 78, 273-283.
Barbara, L. Frederickson (2013) Love 2.0: How Our Supreme Emotion Affects Everything We Feel, Think, Do, and Become. Hudson Street Press.