The Psychology of Love
“I’m in love, I’m in love, and I don’t care who knows it!” – Buddy the Elf, but also, ME!
I’m engaged! To the man of my dreams! He is kind, loving, thoughtful, funny, smart, and talented, and I could not be more excited to spend the rest of my life with him by my side.
It’s been a crazy journey to get here. I wouldn’t say it’s typical, but I also know I’m not the only one with my experiences.
Here’s a quick story:
I’ve always been a dater. I always wanted a storybook ending, but I knew I was never going to settle. I tried being set up by friends, meeting people at bars, and yes, even Tinder (don’t cringe; some people meet their forever there too). About 11 months ago I joined eHarmony. Two weeks later I went on a date with a really cute guy. Nine months later, we were engaged.
Ok, so this post isn’t about our love story, though it is a good one. It’s about love, just love.
I knew I loved my fiancée around our third week of dating. His band was playing a gig and I met a ton of his family and friends. Now, I’m fine with meeting new people, but I could tell he was a little hesitant. Still, he made me feel like the only girl in the room. He made sure I was comfortable, and having fun. After his band played, we hung out at the bar with his friends all night. Seeing him in his element that day made me fall head over heels.
So what does that mean? How does love give us that butterflies-in-the-stomach feeling? Does it happen to everyone? How do we keep the excitement and fun alive through our lifelong commitment of marriage? What exactly IS love?
The Psychology & Research
Psychology nerds like myself will have no doubt seen this before:
Yes, it’s true. When you are in love, you get a rush of serotonin and dopamine, which are fun little chemicals in your brain that make you feel good and happy! But it can do so much more than that. Love and the chemicals it releases (which can also include adrenaline and norepinephrine) help ease pain, can help you truly attend to your partner, can make you physically warm (think blushing), and can help you relax.
Here is a neat example: one study measured norepinephrine in people who were exposed to stress and in those who were exposed to love. The chemical releases in both cases, but when exposed to love the norepinephrine also alerts those other good chemicals to come out, where it does not in the stress test.
Committed relationships can have amazing long term benefits too: those who are married are less likely to suffer a heart attack than those who are single. Those in long term relationships are motivated to help ease the others’ suffering, emotional or physical. Those who are in loving relationships tend be more grateful and appreciative, and actually spread these feelings to others!
Look at all that good stuff! How do we keep it going? Heading into our marriage, our parents and friends have given us this classic advice: Marriage is hard work, always work together. This advice usually comes from their own experience. No huge surprise to me, the same advice can be found in quantitative research. Reoccurring themes include communication, commitment, quality time (both with and without each other), supporting each other’s goals, openness, empathy, and sharing new experiences together.
Some psychologists will say we choose a partner who meets our psycho-social needs (see Maslow’s hierarchy), but I have to agree with Dr. McClelland from Harvard when he said this seems so extrinsic and dry. Though, yes, it is true. But when you find your soul-mate, it can be so much more than that. Giving your love and support to another person actually meets our intrinsic-self as well. This sharing of giving is the other side of love some people miss. And it’s easy to do! We get so caught up in daily life sometimes (i.e. both my fiancé and I have two jobs and go to school), we can get stuck in selfish ways. True love uses both sides, Dr. McClelland argues: both the left and the right side of the brain work together to give and take with a partner.
Another interesting theory on love comes from Dr. Green or the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She argues that the scientific method can sometimes reduce the richness of research into relationships. What can short-term data inquiries really tell us about long-term, loving relationships? She implies that our love stories are best told as just that: stories. We are all forming our own stories, and a loving relationship is simply when you want to share your story with someone else. Sharing with each other your past story, and writing together your future story. You become part of each other’s story. Much more poetic than chemicals and numbers, I think.
There are so many more theories about love out there, whole books even, so please take this blog post as a starting point and explore your love too.
Real Life Takeaway
Love is love. Whatever your love looks like, hold it close. It’s an amazing thing.
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.
Green, M. C. (2007). Linking self and others through narrative. Psychological Inquiry, 18(2), 100-102. doi:10.1080/10478400701416152
Lammintausta, A., Airaksinen, J. K., Immonen-Räihä, P., Torppa, J., Kesäniemi, A. Y., Ketonen, M., . . . Salomaa, V. (2013). Prognosis of acute coronary events is worse in patients living alone: The FINAMI myocardial infarction register. European Journal of Preventive Cardiology, 21(8), 989-996. doi:10.1177/2047487313475893
McClelland, D. C. (1986). Some reflections on the two psychologies of love. Journal Of Personality, 54(2), 334-353. doi:10.1111/j.1467-6494.1986.tb00398.x
Photo Credit: Kateland Steensgard