Who Do You Love?

Just who do you love? The results may surprise you.

Posted Aug 08, 2010

Forget the grammar. We have bigger fish to fry here. We're going to try to define the nature of love in 1000 words or less. I admit that even including some checkered personal experience, I'm far from an expert. In fact, I'm not even sure what expertise would consist of. Administering and scoring questionnaires? Giving lovers an MRI and examining which parts of their brains lit up when they swooned or rhapsodized about each other? Despite our nearly universal desire to understand the topic, I'm pretty sure this is not an area that lends itself to conventional methods used by psychological researchers. Setting aside my avowed ignorance and the probable ignorance of my peers, I do have a few thoughts about what love is and this seems like an apt place to share them.

Some time ago, an acquaintance and I were discussing the topic of love and she offered a rather conventional definition that probably owed more to poetry than psychology. I won't even trouble you with that definition since you probably shared similar beliefs when you were 14. Afterwards, she made one of those "You're a psychologist. You must know the answer" overtures and turned it over to me.

I denied having that kind of formal expertise, but I did tell her that I held a different view than hers. The truth is, I was not aware of holding any view until she asked me about it. Here's what I told her: We don't fall in love with a person because of their qualities, per se. Rather, we fall in love with ourselves in their presence. In other words, we fall in love with the version of ourselves that we become when we are around them. That, I suggested to her, is what romantic love is all about (I'm setting aside any discussion of love of family, love of animals, etc). If, for example, I normally perceived myself as relatively unattractive or unintelligent, but I felt good-looking or smart in my lover's presence, I am likely to get hooked on her. I might go on about how beautiful, smart or enticing she is, and I might actually believe those things, but the truth is it's the new improved "me" I have fallen in love with. This may be a version of myself I hoped to be all my life and if she is the key to finding it, I want to be around her more and more.

I concede that all of this is not very romantic. Nor is it very self-aggrandizing. In fact, it's a pretty pathetic scenario, despite how universal I believe it is. No wonder it is rarely acknowledged. But it is a powerful motivator, whether we admit it or not. And when love ceases to work, i.e. when your partner no longer triggers those feelings in you, love can and usually does die. In the course of a relationship, we do all we can to keep us feeling wonderful about ourselves. Obviously, we give a lot in the course of maintaining such a relationship because giving is the best way to keep the process humming along. But no matter how generous we appear to be, it is ultimately all about ourselves.

Before you criticize me for being too cynical, let me hasten to add that none of this process is conscious. I agree, that would be an awful view of human nature. Everything I‘ve said operates well below the radar. Is this a selfish view of love? Sure it is. But ultimately, we are all hedonists. Like all mammals, we were born that way. There's nothing wrong with hedonism or looking after our own needs. The problem only occurs when our search for pleasure causes another person pain. That's a very important line to draw.

Is my view of love without precedent? Hardly. If I've made it sound unappealing here - and I'm sure I have to some of you - I should point out that others have done a better job conveying these same sentiments. Consider a pop song by Johnny Mathis appropriately titled When I Am With You. Released in late 1957 (Columbia 41082), the song contained the following lyrics:

"When I am with you I am nothing I was before /
I am everything I ever wished I could be and more.
So it's not just for what you are yourself that I love you as I do/
But for what I am when I am with you."

That's a pretty clear statement of what I'm talking about, and my guess is nobody picketed Mathis's concerts or charged him with being a heartless, selfish brute when he sang about that view.

If going back half a century isn't far enough for you, we can look a full century before Mathis and find the same belief expressed by Victorian poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning. In her words:

"I love you not only for what you are, but for what I am when I am with you.
I love you not only for what you have made of yourself, but for what you are making of me.
I love you for the part of me that you bring out."

Whether this viewpoint comes from me, a honey-toned balladeer of the ‘50s, or a romantic poet of the mid-19th century, the message is pretty much the same. Love is deeply, even primarily rooted in our feelings about ourselves, and secondarily about our loved one. You can even state this same principle in the language of Learning Theory - both operant and Pavlovian. Our loved ones function as both CSs and SDs (discriminative stimuli). They drag the good stuff out of us as conditioned responses, and they set the occasion for us to emit the good stuff as operant responses. It's no wonder we love that person.

Although I have no fMRI data or questionnaire results to support my theorizing, I am pleased to be able to list a pop balladeer and romantic poet among my supporters. It's not every day you get to do that while writing for Psychology Today.

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