I have read a lot about love. Both as a psychotherapist, but before that as an artist. I went through the predictable late adolescent stage of reading the great poets, listening to Morrisey, and of course watching my weight in teen romantic comedies - by the way I think Never Been Kissed is still my favorite. Through research, my own experience with love, and all the romantic swoons of my teenage years, I think the greatest sentiment on love comes from Nikki Giovanni. She says, “We love because it is the only true adventure.” And if that doesn't some up my relationship to this super big, gigantic, like maybe this is really why we are here emotion.
So if love really is what we are here, the big, big thing that’s out there for us to experience, what is it and where does it come from. Because on our own we are not so great as describing it, except for maybe Nikki Giovanni.
The skinny on love is this. It’s essential for survival. The primary drive of humanity as a whole is to survive as a species. Procreation is essential. And in order to procreate, the pathway to it, better be desirable. Love in and of itself is primitive. From a neurologic perspective, love is linked to the most primitive region of the brain. The ventral tegmental area, or better known as the brain’s reward circuit. This primitive neural network links to the nucleus accumbens, along with the amygdala, hippocampus, and prefrontal cortex. All these areas are not only especially sensitive to behavior that results in pleasure but also reinforcing of it. Think food, sex, and drugs. All the good ones that are the solution to and cause of all of life’s problems.
When we experience love, the feel good reward chemicals, like dopamine activate the reward center and make love feel like a pleasurable experience. Even though the initial result of anxiety, high cortisol levels, obsessive thoughts, and a racing heart signal a stress response in the body. Love gets us every time with the perfect cocktail of dopamine, oxytocin, and vasopressin. Oxytocin, otherwise known as the love hormone, provides feelings of contentment and security, while vasopressin is linked to behavior that creates an environment for long term monogamous relationships. Here’s where it gets really interesting...Along with love activating our reward circuit and releasing a whole host of feel good responses, love also deactivates the neural pathway responsible for negative emotions including fear and social judgement. So if you were ever wondering why you were in love with Dylan McKay, well you’re no better than Kelly Taylor and Brenda Walsh. That and his vintage Porshce was pretty cool. Now I do want to give space for the psychoanalytic perspective here which is interesting. While neuroscience shows that love turns off the natural pathway responsible for negative emotions, psychoanalysis would say, well, let's look deeper. In psychoanalytic thought, love is right up next to annihilation. You know those two way doors in restaurant kitchens? It’s like one side is love, the other is annihilation and destruction. Both sides open. With love comes fear and analysts would say that within that fear is our own unconscious fear to destroy what we love. It all at once both scares us to feel out of control for the way we feel about someone and this makes us want to destroy the whole experience, along with also desiring the object in this case person or relationship to belong exclusively to us. Our desire is insatiable and there is not room for anyone else. So we must destroy it. Yikes, but there’s a lot of good stuff in there. Someday if we have three more hours, and you smoke enough dope to make you motionless. I’ll get around to it.
The cool thing about all this is that yeah, our brains encourage us to go after the Dylan Mckays of the world at least once, whether it is lack of judgement or because their car is so cool we live in conflict between love and annihilation forever, but the truth is love is blind. And if we are to survive as a species, well it better be. If we were all Kellys looking for Dylans competition would be too high. And we wouldn’t last very long. Lucky for us, there's Donna Martins and David Silvers and Andrea Zuckermans. And don’t forget Steve Sanders. Somewhere there’s someone who crushed on him. And isn’t that great?! I mean he was the one who always had major parties when his mom was away.
What does it mean to fall in love? And why is it falling? Does that mean love is an accident? Does it occur only when we lose our balance? Does love only happen when we lose control? These are questions that German psychoanalyst Erich Fromm explored in his iconic 1956 masterwork, The Art of Loving. He argues that LOVE, being in love, experiencing love is not something one falls into. In fact, it is quite the opposite. Love, the capacity for love, and the ability to be in love takes work. Like a lot. But the good news is that it takes the kind of work that we are all capable of doing and all capable of actually being really good at.
Fromm believed first and foremost that love takes practice. Not only the act itself, but also being equipped to be in love. We must stand in love. Not fall. He often compares love to the artistic process - which I love. Thank you Fromm for actually framing the artistic process and artistic pursuits as something that requires practice. Not everyone does. Practice, more practice and then some more. Skill building really. He writes,
“The first step to take is to become aware that love is an art, just as living is an art; if we want to learn how to love we must proceed in the same way we have to proceed if we want to learn any other art, say music, painting, carpentry, or the art of medicine or engineering. What are the necessary steps in learning any art? The process of learning an art can be divided conveniently into two parts: one, the mastery of the theory; the other, the mastery of the practice. If I want to learn the art of medicine, I must first know the facts about the human body, and about various diseases. When I have all this theoretical knowledge, I am by no means competent in the art of medicine. I shall become a master in this art only after a great deal of practice, until eventually the results of my theoretical knowledge and the results of my practice are blended into one — my intuition, the essence of the mastery of any art. But, aside from learning the theory and practice, there is a third factor necessary to becoming a master in any art — the mastery of the art must be a matter of ultimate concern; there must be nothing else in the world more important than the art. This holds true for music, for medicine, for carpentry — and for love. And, maybe, here lies the answer to the question of why people in our culture try so rarely to learn this art, in spite of their obvious failures: in spite of the deep-seated craving for love, almost everything else is considered to be more important than love: success, prestige, money, power — almost all our energy is used for the learning of how to achieve these aims, and almost none to learn the art of loving.”
So love is learned. Fromm would say, mostly from self reflection and understanding ourselves. Add of course how we were loved and witnessed love from our caregivers. Fromm wonders how we can truly love another if we do not know and understand ourselves. We cannot love another if we do not fundamentally understand what loving ourselves feels like. And yeah that’s cool, but also pretty damn dicey. It is hard to love yourself, even though social media tells us it’s super easy and we all should be able to do it. No problem. But here’s where I like the self love part of Fromm’s theory. He’s saying, it takes work. It’s not easy, and if you want to get good at it, you have to practice. And then practice some more. And what is universal about practice? Failing. A little and sometimes a lot. But there is great honor in this failing. As someone who not only touts both the hard science benefits, along with the emotional and spiritual benefits of maintaining a daily practice, this rings true and also gives me enormous hope. What practice does, whether it is every day or less frequent is it amasses experience. It collects a knowingness. So much so that when we find ourselves finding ease in a process, it seems magical. Like all of the sudden. When in fact, that moment is a gathering of hours and hours of practice. And maybe that’s where the falling comes from. Maybe that falling is flow. A gathering, a merging, a magical, illuminating moment of freedom that feels so true. If love is about practice, then maybe we do fall, but only after putting in the hours and learning how to stand.