Falling In Love
The expression “falling in love” is ubiquitous in our culture. People say it all the time – I find it somewhat annoying. As a society, we seem to relish the experience of falling in love and I have no doubt that if you were to ask a tween or teenage girl if she wants to fall in love, they would unanimously say “yes.” It seems like a happy, romantic thing, but if you think about it, the phrase actually maintains a negative connotation. People usually “fall in” a hole, a rut, a trap, or a pile of poop. No one ever says I “fell in” a job, a friendship, a goal, or a pile of money. You are hired for a job. You build a friendship. You attain a goal. You dance in a pile of money. This suggests, quite accurately, that we fall in love like we fall over, by accident rather than by design.
So, logically, shouldn’t we try to avoid falling in love like trying to avoid driving into a pothole? Why would anyone welcome the agony and misery that love usually accompanies? Are all humans either hopeless romantics or closet masochists?
Love vs. Limerence?
If love and limerence were twins, love would be the caring, loving and loyal twin, while limerence would be its unwanted doppelganger, anxious, obsessive, and irrational. It’s not unusual for love to start off as limerence but it would be wise to understand the subtle differences between them and act accordingly. Limerence is a similar state of mind like love, which comes from a romantic attraction to another person but he or she is preoccupied by an overwhelming obsessive need to have their feelings reciprocated. There is no established precondition for limerence, but research suggests that there is a high rate of coincidence between limerence, and dysfunctional attachment environments in childhood. What this means is that individuals who had parents that neglected or abused them would have a higher chance of experiencing limerence.
The symptoms of limerence are also very similar to drug addiction, probably because they both involve the same dopamine-using pleasure circuit of the brain. When you first start dating, you feel great pleasure being with your potential lover; similar to the first few times you use cocaine or heroin. However, you soon realize that you don’t feel the same high you once did when you first started the relationship. As the addiction to your partner progresses, tolerance, dependence, and cravings emerge, and the euphoria that was once felt gradually diminishes. It’s a double whammy. You need more and more attention from your partner to feel good but you derive less and less pleasure from it. Eventually, being together no longer produces much pleasure and the liking for your partner becomes a need for you to function normally. If you are a coffee addict like me, you know what I’m talking about. Days when I don’t drink coffee is almost always unproductive and I am much more irritable and tired.
Love As Humanity’s Greatest Illusion
The intense, euphoric pleasure that comes with falling in love is simultaneously accompanied by several distortions in the brain brain. When in love, there is heavy deactivation of the prefrontal cortex, the judgment center of the brain, as well as deactivation at the temporal poles and parietotemporal junction, regions that are involved in social cognition. These patterns of activation and deactivation in the brain resemble those who are diagnosed with, unsurprisingly, obsessive-compulsive disorder.
Why Do We Love?
Like everything else, attraction, arousal, and love, are the products of millions of years of finely tuned biological engineering. And there’s really only one goal behind the engineering—to get you to have sex.
Falling and staying in love—the pair bonding that keeps a couple together long enough to have, raise, and care for children—almost certainly involves chemical processes that are a product of millions of years of evolution.
Across most animal species, male reproductive success hinges on mass distribution, and female reproductive success depends on careful selection and conservation. Sperm are small and continually replenished. Eggs, on the other hand, are large and precious. To put it more bluntly, sperm are cheap and eggs are expensive. Therefore, from an evolutionary standpoint, the best way for a male to increase his odds of passing his genes on is to distribute his sperm as widely as possible among fertile females. Females, on the other hand, have an interest in seeking partners who will give her the healthiest offspring so that the huge investment her body makes in pregnancy and child-rearing is worth it.
That’s the way it is in most species; they’re polygamous. But it would be foolish to believe in such genetic determinism. Knowing our biological weaknesses can help us overcome them and have fulfilling and long-lasting monogamous relationships. You could say, “Oh, it is just my DNA, and I am going to ignore it.” We all heard that line before and it’s a pathetic excuse. Biology is not destiny.
Genetic tendencies can influence our behavior, but we have the capacity to exercise control over our impulses. Similarly, you can choose to be a vegetarian for moral and ethical reasons but that smell of crispy bacon wafting in the air will still make you salivate just the same.
You want to know what the magic ingredient to a good relationship? Understanding. Realize that it may not be possible to completely escape evolution’s grasp. So what can we do? Be open and adapt. Understand what you like, and why you like it. Learning about the influences that millions of years of trial and error have played in our evolution as a species can bring us closer to breaking free from instincts and make informed choices. The more we understand how love works, the greater the opportunity we have to enjoy one of evolution’s greatest gifts.