By Chelsea Lenoble
Love is one of the most intricate and baffling concepts that humans have attempted to tackle for as long as we could communicate. Although recent studies have attributed its potency to simply neurotransmitters fired in the brain, the vast majority of people cling to the idea that romantic, or true love is an inexplicable, incontrollable phenomenon with abstract and unknown origins. Any attempts to explain love through metaphysical means, however, are rationalizations for its true purpose. Love is a powerful concept created by humans from the experiences of emotions driving us towards social connections. It is a set of distinct components forced together by the human desire to transcend humanity and distinguish ourselves from other creatures that inhabit our planet. Love’s concrete functions of bolstering social connectivity and increasing procreation (thus the species’ survival) are obvious in society yet are painted over with a sparkly glaze that mutes its tangibility and boosts it to a status akin to spirituality and religion. We would like romantic love to be capable of transcending humanity; the reality is that it cannot.
The social and cultural institution of marriage is most closely linked to the idea of romantic love, and it has caused love to develop into the misleading concept many currently understand it to be. Love is the word we use to describe the emotional reaction we experience towards others when a desire for social connection hits us. The problem is that not only does it serve to represent this combination, but it is also enhanced by a connotation of intangibility and abstraction. We conceive of marital love being more real than it actually is. Traditionally, however this was not so. According to E.G. Graff, marriage was arranged by a couple’s family to ensure economic and political stability, the factors of sexual attraction or greater emotional bond never entering the equation (Graff, 269). The early Eskimo marriage ritual exemplifies this. Imenak and Arnaluk are both members of strong warrior families from different Eskimo tribes (Freuchen, 230). Their union would assure three things: a positive political connection between the two tribes, an economic bond fit to aid the community, and a family that will help the survival of the race and be able to repeat the cycle. Physical strength and attractiveness were considered economic bonuses where Arneluk could be assured a constant supply of food, and Imenak could be assured healthy, attractive children. These two factors were not attributed to love at all. It is interesting to see how they have become labeled so.
As survival became less dependent on physical prowess and political alliances geared towards protection from outside threat, humans began desiring social connections to fill the gap once occupied by the necessities of hunting, gathering, making clothes from animal hides, etc. The previous motives for marital unions failed to justify any longer the necessity of humans marrying essentially, complete strangers. As Graff explains it, the concept of a “holy matrimony” arose, which allowed people to say that God desired them to join a marital partnership for a spiritual reason; and that they could represent their devotion to Him through love of their partner (Graff, 628). Society finally allowed emotions to play a part in the search for a life partner, yet these emotions needed to be rationalized in order to be acceptable. Immediately, love became associated with a higher, omnipotent being, placed into the category of external locus of control. Love evolved from a conscious rationalization to a being in and of itself, whose motives and explanations could hide safely in the unconscious. Love could now come out of nowhere, affecting anyone at anytime. In “The Magic Barrel,” an ancient Jewish tradition of matchmaking to fulfill a sort of economic and political stability is turned into a personal dating service, and the main character is able to find love at first sight from a picture of a woman (Malamud). The woman in the picture was a prostitute and daughter of a mere matchmaker, yet Finkle became completely enthralled. Because he was economically stable, he allowed himself the luxury of bringing his emotional response to the foreground. This story, which is part fairy tale, is a great example of the way people began to think once marriage became more about the idea of romantic love and less about immediate survival concerns.
Now, marriage itself is on a decline. Nearly half of all marriages result in a divorce (Goshgarian& Krueger, 595). According to the National Marriage Project, marriage does not include a connection among economic stability, religious doctrine, and social or political affluence that it once did. People are now seeking active gratification and happiness through romantic relationships that no longer need to last a lifetime. For survival, marriage is no longer necessary. Single women are perfectly capable of raising children without the help of a father. Therefore, subtracting marriage, the bond between two people is reduced to goals of physical and psychological gratification, the combination of which appears to be love.
These misconceptions about love were not again realized until scientific exploration of the brain became possible. According to Donatella Marazziti, what humans consider falling in love is “an integrated neurobiobehavioral process” that is the result of a chemical predisposition to the stimulus of another individual based on hormonal changes (Marazziti, 332). Humans are now capable of realizing that physical attraction and emotional responses have a definite biological source, a sort of internalized survival mechanism that tests for compatibility without being noticed. Chemicals in the brain trigger feelings of attraction. Oxytocin is a chemical that redirects temperatures in the body when others touch the body (Cacioppo& Patrick, 142). Studies have shown that young women are more attracted to a man whose genetic makeup is different from and can complement their own (Marazziti, 331). In this fashion, people are attracted to one another through physical means that serve greater purpose than, “She’s so beautiful. I’m in love with her.” In fact, Cacioppo and Patrick explain the way internal chemistry affects human relationships. The period of intense romantic passion stereotypically experienced by young couples expires according to a trend of about three to seven years from when it first began. This is the time it takes, they explain, for a child to mature beyond its level of highest dependency (Cacioppo and Patrick, 142). This concept shows how love has a concrete function of providing for the survival of the species, and not an extravagant connection shared independently between two people. In the poem, “True Love,” the speaker asserts that the idea of love is impractical because it suggests that people who claim to experience it do so selfishly, in a way that sacrifices the good of the race as a whole and is seated in a delusion which “makes it easier for them to live and die” (Szymbotska, 577). As the speaker points out, there have been plenty of healthy, successful children born not of a source of love.
Need for social connections and perception of deficits in this area cause humans to seek romantic relationships, referring to these relationships as dependent on love, in order to curb loneliness. A person who is “in love” displays brain activity of extreme happiness and strength and tends to lose interest in typical daily activities that do not involve his loved one. These “neurochemical abnormalities” appear in the brains of patients suffering the hypomanic state of bipolar disorder (Marazziti 332). It is the brain’s way of distorting one’s perception and enabling a belief that the lusts and desires that lay the foundation for an intention of species proliferation are actually a beautiful and wholesome emotion. In Loneliness, Cacioppo and Patrick assert that people constantly seek social connection, and this serves the function of a survival mechanism. Loneliness is an emotional response that drives people out of solitude, a condition where the chances of procreation are slim thus chance of survival is nonexistent (Cacioppo& Patrick). Yet because humans have an inherent desire to prove superiority to other Earth creatures, this very basic, primal need appears too animalistic and must be rationalized away as being love. The issue with this mentality is that animals too, are said to be capable of romantic love by the human definition. Widowed parrots die soon after the death of their partner, even if they are in top physical condition. Emperor penguins that have mated can locate their particular mate out of thousands (Sayre 90). Humans do not hold a monopoly over the emotion of love as once believed. In fact, what humans do hold over other animals is the ability to romanticize the combination of neural exchanges and survival mechanisms into an abstraction of transcendent nature.
Humans have long held onto a romanticized notion of the physical and psychological responses they experience in daily interactions with others. We constantly attempt to defeat our own mortality, attempting to find ways in which our primal instincts have higher functions. We desire proof that we have evolved beyond the barbaric tendencies of our most ancient ancestors. This need for progression, too, is an impulse rooted in our survival mechanisms. The more emotionally and morally advanced we become, the higher the chance of the species surviving as a whole. A huge aspect of this delusion pertains to romantic love. Unfortunately, it simply does not exist in the way people stereotypically express it. There are parts of love that do exist. Kind acts, gift giving, embracing—all of these which we associate with love actually serve a survival purpose. Love, as a definition for the chemical responses triggered in the brain and the active pursuit of assuaging loneliness, does exist. When humans reach beyond the concept of love as an abstraction, they run the risk of blinding ignoring their own needs by attributing love to external sources. This tendency is counterproductive, and as exemplified by those who die in the name of an unrequited love, simply dangerous. It is the responsibility of humans to embrace their physical and emotional responses to others as what they truly are, and refrain from romanticizing them as an excuse to attempt to immortalize themselves.
Cacioppo, John T., and William Patrick. Loneliness. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2008.
Freuchen, Peter. “An Eskimo Takes a Bride.” The Peter Freuchen Reader. Julian Messner, 1965.
Goshgarian, Gary, and Kathleen Kreuger. “What’s Happening to Marriage?” Dialogues: An
Argument Rhetoric and Reader. 5th ed. NY: Longman, 2006. 591-96.
Graff, E. G. “What’s Love Got to Do with It?” Dialogues: An Argument Rhetoric and Reader. By Gary Goshgarian and Kathleen Kreuger. 5th ed. NY: Longman, 2006. 627-30.
Malamud, Bernard. The Magic Barrel. The Magic Barrel and Other Stories. Vintage Classics, 1958.
Marazziti, Donatella. “The Neurobiology of Love.” Current Psychiatry Reviews 1 (2005): 331-35.
Sayre, Carolyn. “Wildly In Love.” Time 171 (2008): 90-91.
Szymborska, Wislawa. “True Love.” Making Literature Matter. By John Shilb and John Clifford. 4th ed. Boston: Bedford, 2009. 577-78.