Valentine’s Day is the time of the year when we take the time to celebrate love and the people who are meaningful to us. Love — which could be defined as a field of resonating, often oscillating, and sometimes synchronous energy — is more than just a biological imperative to procreate.
Maternal love and bonding
Early in life, our first experience of love is through the warmth, nurturance, and affection we receive through the contact and touch from our mothers, fathers or another primary caregiver. During our infancy and childhood, warm, nurturing, and affectionate behaviors from our parents provide us with the capacity to form intimate, emotional bonds or relationships, called attachments, which shape how we form bonds with others throughout our lives.
Affectionate behaviors like touching, holding, kissing or hugging help to provide us with a sense of loving safety, and trigger the limbic system to release vasopressin, which helps us to form bonds, and oxytocin (“the love hormone”), which combats stress, promotes feelings of closeness with others and helps to soothe us.
Bonding during infancy is not only important for our survival; it provides us with the safety, comfort and security we need when we are stressed or in danger, and protects our physical and psychological well-being. Humans are not the only ones who are affectionate toward one another for the purposes of love and forming bonds. Tenderness can be seen among other mammals that form bonds with one another and display affectionate behaviors, like nuzzling in horses or kissing and hugging in chimpanzees.
The different types of love
Maternal love is only one type of love that we experience in our lives. Psychologist Robert Sternberg proposed that different types of love involve different amounts of intimacy (trust, warmth, and closeness), passion and commitment. In his triangular theory of love, he outlined seven main types of love:
- Friendship – warmth and closeness to another person (intimacy), but no intense passion or long-term commitment
- Infatuation – “love at first sight” (passion), but lack of intimacy and commitment (infatuated love can disappear suddenly)
- Empty love – commitment exists, but the relationship lacks intimacy and passion
- Romantic love – intimacy and passion exist, but not commitment
- Companionate love – intimacy and commitment exist, but relationship lacks passion
- Fatuous love – commitment motivated primarily by passion and lacks intimacy
- Consummate love – the “ideal” relationship that involves all three elements (intimacy, passion, and commitment)
As relationships evolve, different types of love may be present at different stages. Many of the love types tend to overlap, with some couples having companionship and lust, but not all of the time. In other words, there are many more than seven types of love, especially when taking into account that humans are driven by a biological need to procreate (lust). In romantic love, passion is more enduring, meaningful and cerebral than lust.
How early attachments impact us in adult romantic relationships
Early bonding and attachments we form with our parents when we are young play a key role in how we form romantic relationships later in life. In adult romantic relationships, when we feel safe and secure in our relationships, have responsive partners, and have close, intimate contact with our partners, we typically have a secure adult romantic relationship.
On the other hand, people who form a type of insecure attachment known as dismissing-avoidant may be uncomfortable with how close they get to their partners, and in an effort to detach from intimacy with their partners, they may engage in alcohol, sex or other addictions. They might also indulge in other addictive behaviors like paraphilias, which are emotional disorders that are characterized by sexually arousing fantasies, urges or behaviors, that affect the person’s sexual arousal like voyeurism (spying on others in private activities) or exhibitionism (exposing the genitals).
Love vs. lust
Love and lust may be easily confused, as mutual sexual attraction is one of the major components of popular dating apps like Tinder, where two people “match” with other people they are sexually attracted to, but one or both people may not necessarily be looking for an actual relationship.
Lust – our innate biological drive to reproduce is also present and drives our sexual attraction and need for sexual gratification. Our sex hormones (androgens) — testosterone and oestrogen — kick in when we are teenagers, and it’s not soon after that many of us have our first kiss. Many of our primitive biological drives to reproduce are driven by the need for sexual gratification (lust).
In a relationship, it is true that someone may be “lusting,” while the other confuses the others’ attraction for the desire to form and commit to a relationship. Although we may be initially driven by our sex drive (the libido or lust), simply being sexually attracted to someone doesn’t mean that a romance or relationship will advance or last very long.
Intimacy: Hugs and kisses
The kisspeptin hormone has also been suggested to be a vital neuromodulator that drives different aspects of human reproduction by enhancing our emotional and sexual brain processing in key limbic and paralimbic brain structures in areas responsible for mood, drive and reward. In other words, kisspeptin encourages us to procreate by fueling our sexual stimulation and desire to bond with a partner, driving forces in pair-bonding and romantic love.
Aside from the luxurious kiss hormones, kissing is considered to be one of the highest forms of intimacy. Rather than being purely driven by our innate drive to reproduce, passion in romantic love is much more than lust. Hugs, cuddles, and kisses are important in life, because they create more body-to-body contact outside of intercourse; they fuel intimacy. In romantic relationships, affectionate behaviors such as kissing can help to build intimacy (trust and closeness) between two people and satisfy our emotional needs for affection with our partners.
Falling in love
As “falling in love” can activate the reward system, some people compare the initial stage of falling in love as being similar to the high produced by cocaine — that’s because infatuation is characterized by intense cravings to see or talk to someone you are smitten by and the desire to be closer to him or her. When we are first falling in love, our attraction is driven by changes in our brain chemicals, including:
- Increases in dopamine that motivate us to seek and maintain a relationship with a preferred romantic partner
- Norepinephrine increases that give us a rush of excitement, nervousness, energy and motivation to pursue our romantic partner. This also produces physical symptoms like a racing heart, flushed skin and sweaty palms.
- Serotonin decreases, which can improve mood. Serotonin is an important neurotransmitter in regulating mood, sexual desire, and function, appetite, sleep, memory, social behavior and learning.
If you are newly smitten with your partner, you may see the person as doing no wrong or you might idealize your partner and neglect to see his or her flaws or negative traits. In that sense, it is true what they say, that “love is blind.” Despite the pleasurable and enjoyable state, infatuation is only temporary, and the elated and euphoric feeling wears off anywhere after a few months to several years – and it’s definitely not what makes people stay together for the long term.
What makes love last?
Couples reach the attachment stage, a longer-lasting commitment that is also known as “companionate love,” when two romantic partners believe that their relationship is going to last for the long term. Attachments are strengthened because of the release of oxytocin and vasopressin during intimacy and other affectionate behaviors, the same neuropeptides that are released when we are children and help us form a bond with our mother or primary caregiver.
With Amanda Habermann, M.S., Sovereign Health