According to popular song lyrics, birds do it… bees do it… even educated fleas do it. The “it” that has the insect kingdom all abuzz? It would be love and one doesn’t necessarily have to be an educated human to do it – fall in love, that is. Quite the opposite, it appears. Although much has been written about this condition that leaves participants enthralled, euphoric and exceptionally exhilarated, the reality is that the emotional state known as love has more in common with acute mental illness than with the indiscretions of six-legged, winged creatures. This can be substantiated by the findings of recent scientific research.
Dr. Helen Fisher is an anthropologist at Rutgers University. “Romantic love,” she says, “is related to abnormalities in the neurotransmitters serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine, making [love] biologically similar to obsessive-compulsive disorder, a psychiatric illness where thoughts of a single subject dominate the patient’s life.” In simple terms, it is indeed possible to be crazy in love. This statement explains the love life of more than ninety-nine percent of the population. I may not be an exception. Dr. Fisher also states that there are three different types of love: lust, romantic love and long-term attachment or commitment. Maybe, just maybe, she’s onto something here. While her research does not present any findings for “like”, that emotional middle ground leading up to and stopping just short of insanity, it does explain the pattern of my lackluster love life. In years past I have applied logic to love, looking at relationships through a magnifying lens and seeing the related activities as a series of finely-detailed steps (or in my case, missteps) that result in the eventual conclusion of marriage.
At various points in my occasionally less-than-illustrious life, I have unwittingly conducted experiments in the arenas of lust, romantic love and long-term commitment. The results may not have always supported the scientific evidence.
The Definition: (n.) personal inclination; an intense or unbridled sexual desire or longing;
The Research: In general, the scientific community is in agreement with Merriam-Webster’s aforementioned explanation. They might, however, elaborate further by adding that the state of lust releases chemicals in the brain considered to be “nature’s heroin.” Jim Pfaus, a psychologist at Concordia University in Montreal, says “the aftermath of lustful sex is similar to the state induced by taking opiates.” Who knew? Well…
The Reality: Looking back on it, I had to be high. I met Glenn when he dropped by my house to clear my pipes. No tongue-in-cheek humor intended, he’s a plumber. My body told me via pupil dilation, increased heart rate and shallow breathing that Nick might be fun, a whole lot of addictive fun in fact. If lust releases “nature’s heroin” in the brain, then I was close to an overdose. Glenn and I spent every available moment together without need for air, conversation, or plans for the future. Our was a relationship based solely on sexual attraction. Even now, I can’t remember much about him, things like his favorite movie or food, whether or not he liked animals – typical relationship trivia. However, I can instantly and without the least bit of hesitation recall the way he looked in a pair of faded, snug fitting jeans, the aroma his favorite fragrance left on my pillow, how his fingers looked against my skin whenever he touched me. Especially, how he touched me. This must be the way a junkie reflects on a heroin filled past, with intense longing and desire that borders on surreal.
Eventually, my brain responded to another nature induced chemical reaction: logic induced attention deficit. Bored with lust, I wanted to explore the intrlove. Nick, however, was quite content with the status quo of the high provided by lust. We parted ways. Still, the feeling I get when I think of the time we spent together…
Score one for research. Though short-lived, lust is definitely addictive.
The Definition: (n.) attraction based on sexual desire; affection and tenderness felt by lovers; warm attachment, enthusiasm, or devotion
The Research: According to scientists, this stage of love is characterized by “feelings of exhilaration, and intrusive, obsessive thoughts about the object of one’s affection.” In addition to
Dr. Fisher’s previously noted comparison to obsessive-compulsive disorder, researchers have also found similarities to the manic phase of manic depression.
The Reality: Anyone who has been in a stable relationship recognizes the couple who have just invented love. They can not sit without touching, can not be apart with pining, can not exist with each other. For six years and six months, I was one half of such a couple. Chris and I were together morning, noon, and night as well as the hours in between. Every minute we spent in each other’s presence was better somehow, brighter. During brief interludes of absence, we would call each other and occasionally interrupt periods of breathing with actual conversation. No one had experienced love like ours, we proclaimed. We were different. We were unique.
We were clearly out of our minds.
Really. The sheer energy it took to sustain the passionately obsessive nature of our relationship paved the way to its impending doom. For more than six years, however, we surfed the waves of norepinephrine and serotonin induced devotion that can only be attributed to love… or obsessive compulsive disorder… or manic depression.
Score another point for research.
The Definition: (n.) something pledged; the state or an instance of being obligated or emotionally impelled; a consignment to a penal or mental institution (Note: I find great interest and no small amount of satisfaction that the word “mental” should appear in this definition.)
The Research: Love’s last phase encompasses the twilight years. This is the stage that sees past black nylon knee socks with white loafers, or the badly dyed blue hair, and settles comfortably into wicker rocking chairs on the front porch of the retirement home. The brain releases steady levels of oxytocin, or the “cuddling hormone” as it is referred to by Dr. James H. Fallon, a professor of anatomy and neurobiology at the University of California at Irvine.
The Reality: I haven’t experienced this stage yet and I’m not certain that I have the desire or fortitude to do so. Realizing that long-term commitment arrives only after lust has faded and the experience of romantic love has began to stabilize, it may be awhile yet before I have the urge to commit. Although I am deeply loyal and monogamously committed to the man with whom I am currently involved, I just don’t feel that all-encompassing, pulse-pounding, toe-tingling sensation described by romantics and scientists alike. Clearly, as proven by research, these are the symptoms of mind altering and addictive chemicals. If this emotional state could be wrapped in whisper-thin squares of tobacco paper and smoked, it, too, would then be illegal, like common street drugs. And though illegal, we could better control our consumption, by and of this thing called love.
As a newly anointed member to the club of commitment-phobes, I submit that we should stop the madness and just like each other, thereby leaving our logic and libidos intact. Until such time, I am and will continue to be an advocate of “like”, which is the emotional equivalent of a less filling, but great tasting light beer.