Everyone has ideas about love; for human beings, it is a lifelong preoccupation. The love relationship is unique in that, across cultures, nothing drives otherwise normal human beings to do crazy things than the quest for a love bond in a couple relationship.
What is genuine love, however?
It has many attributes. One experience of love is, as Mark Twain describes, “the irresistible desire to be irresistibly desired.” Recent findings in neuroscience would agree with Mr. Twain’s statement. Romantic attraction appears to release the same levels, if not higher, of dopamine and oxytocin into the bloodstream as drugs.
Genuine love, however, is all encompassing. It mirrors the attributes of human nature at its best.
“Love is the only sane and satisfactory answer to the problem of human existence,” says psychological theorist Eric Fromm. It’s something that “stretches your heart and makes you big inside,” notes poet and author Margaret Walker.
An even more far reaching view says that,
“Love has no awareness of merit or demerit; it has no scale… Love loves; this is its nature.” ~ HOWARD THURMAN
Attributes of a genuine love are ones that reflect our human nature. We are relationship beings, hardwired with inborn strivings for empathic connection.
A giving, based on knowing self and other?
Top athletes know there’s truth in the, ‘no pain, no gain‘ cliche. Similarly, partners in healthy, strong relationships recognize love is a daily discipline, replete with exercises, that keep their hearts and minds supple and strong.
Studies show Romantic love can last a lifetime and lead to happier, healthier relationships. Keeping passionate love alive for a lifetime is more than possible; it also leads to happier, healthier partners. A genuine romantic love between partners is not the same as the first intense phase of ‘falling in love,’ according to researcher Dr. Biance Acevedo at the University of California.
Dr Acevedo points out that, “Romantic love has the intensity, engagement and sexual chemistry that [the ‘falling in love’ phase] has, minus the obsessive component.” Whereas obsessive love causes spikes of anxiety, and feelings of insecurity and uncertainty, what facilitates a healthy long-term passionate friendship is the “feeling that a partner is ‘there for you,'” states Dr. Acevedo.
Genuine love nurtures an empathic connection to self and other that allows both partners in a couple relationship to grow a compassionate understanding of the personal value each partner brings to their life.
A sense of one’s value cannot be given by another, however. It is an inner quality that is fostered within self, a skill that must be learned, more often the hard way, if at all, throughout the course of a relationship.
This quality is a prerequisite to becoming a mature giver in your relationship. How else can a partner give one another what each most yearns — a secure shared connection with the other, in which they are also seen and valued for the unique person they are. This idea is covered by the following:
“The success of marriage comes not in finding the “right” person, but in the ability of both partners to adjust to the real person they inevitably realize they married.” ~ JOHN FISHER
Ultimately, human beings go to their relationships to give more than get love. We are wired with an “urge” to matter, and meaningfully contribute, and that applies to partners in relation to one another.
Ideally, partners compete to enrich one another’s lives in ways that nourish their relationship. Or, as Diane Sawyer notes, “A good marriage is (in actuality) a contest of generosity.”
Infidelity, and romanticized notions of love?
Too often, partners go looking for love, misled by the romanticized notion of finding a soulmate in order to have a great marriage. Many waste time looking for the ideal lover, instead of using their energy to create the love relationship the aspire.
When partners are unhappy, this notion can mislead them to start looking elsewhere. In such moments, they need a wake-up call. In truth, “bad marriages don’t cause infidelity; infidelity causes bad marriages,” states psychiatrist, author and family therapist Frank Pittman.
Infidelity is not a viable solution. It’s an invitation to chaos and suffering, with enduring consequences, not only for the partner that was betrayed, but also the betraying partner.
Dr. Pittman further adds:
“Infidelity flows from a belief that women [men] have the power to make you feel like a man [a woman] if you only find a woman [a man] that thinks you’re perfect; if you can only find a woman [a man] that you haven’t hurt or disappointed yet [or that needs and values your giving].” ~ FRANK PITTMAN
Unquestionably, there’s wisdom in waiting for the right person, and chemistry factors in to bring partners together, even evidence that we subconsciously choose a partner, who has positive and negative traits similar to our parents, our ‘Imago’ match, as Dr. Harville Hendrix notes in his books Getting the Love You Want (for couples), and Keeping the Love You Find (for singles) – so we can work together to resolve early wounds.
Referring to one’s partner as a soulmate is not the problem; obsessing on or repeatedly questioning whether we’ve married the wrong person, in many cases (not all), steals away energy that would be better used on digging deep, getting to work, accessing those resources inside, to start healing as individuals and a couple. It can also leave partners vulnerable to sex or love addiction.
Zig Zigler says it best in the following quote:
“I have no way of knowing whether or not you married the wrong person, but I do know that many people have a lot of wrong ideas about marriage and what it takes to make that marriage happy and successful. I’ll be the first to admit that it’s possible that you did marry the wrong person. However, if you treat the wrong person like the right person, you could well end up having married the right person after all. On the other hand, if you marry the right person, and treat that person wrong, you certainly will have ended up marrying the wrong person. I also know that it is far more important to be the right kind of person than it is to marry the right person. In short, whether you married the right or wrong person is primarily up to you.” ~ ZIG ZIGLER
Continuing to look for a soulmate, as a response to inevitable challenges in the formation of healthy emotional intimacy in a relationship, is risky at best. Genuine love creates soul mates; it’s a process, and not a destination.
Empathy, and relationship quality during conflict?
It’s not love that sustains your couple relationship, however. It’s the quality of the relationship that sustains your love.
To seek an empathic connection in relation to the other is to seek to understand every word the other is not saying. Not an easy feat.
Conflict literally throws the energies of the body and mind off balance by activating our body’s survival response or the sympathetic nervous system.
And this is where the rubber meets the road. How does one maintain a quality relationship, considering the reality that, as one of the most popular and admired poets noted:
“Marriage is one long conversation, checkered with disputes.” ~ ROBERT LOUIS STEVENSON
Disputes with loved ones pose huge challenges, and yes, even for those who seem to make arguing a habit. Humans are wired with inborn urges to matter and meaningfully connect, thus, ‘differences’ between lovers trigger core fears, such as rejection, inadequacy or abandonment.
One of the most essential ways to express love is to listen, with your heart to the heart of the other, meaning with a compassionate understanding. It’s what an empathic connection is about. And, empathy is not an option. You and your partner are wired with circuitry to empathically connect. Like a computer, to enjoy this equipment and its benefits, you need instructions and regular practice.
Regulating anger and fear, to transform them into positive assets?
It scares us to feel disconnected from those we love; yet it also scares us when the other does not see, and value, who we are and the unique contributions we yearn to bring to life and key relationships. These seem to be our greatest fears, both intimacy fears of: closeness and separation. Upsetting emotions, when not regulated, release high levels of stress hormones in the body.
Like other parts of the nervous system, the sympathetic nervous system operates through a series of interconnected neurons. Fortunately, it works in complementary fashion, as a team and not opposition, with the parasympathetic nervous system.
Whereas the sympathetic is an instant response that prepares you to have extraordinary strength to fight or flee, and the parasympathetic nervous system, in contrast, is a gradual response that restores a relative balance to the energies of your body and mind. We can learn to regular anger and fear in ways that we calm our mind and body.
The gift of listening to one another for understanding, when applied skillfully, is one of the most powerful regulators of fear. As one existential philosopher describes it:
“The first duty of love is to listen.” ~ PAUL TILLICH
It is in moments where your sense of safety feels threatened that you and your partner most need an assuring response from one another, one that releases oxytocin, the safety and love hormone, into your bloodstreams.
A partner’s caring response when the other is triggered, can work healing wonders. It is one of the top skills, according to marriage researcher Dr. John Gottman, that predicts whether a couple’s relationship will endure the storms.
Setting an intention to create positive outcomes in heated moments is key. In his words,
“A relationship is a contract of mutual nurturance. Relationships have to be a rich climate of positivity. For relationships to be strong, the ideal climate is one teeming with positive interactions.” ~ JOHN GOTTMAN, May 2009
So often, we forget that, as human beings, we are governed by the same Laws that govern the entire Universe. We are at once scientists and the focus of scientific study.
Our brains are wired not only for relationships, they are wired for healthy ones, which are all about balance. High levels of fear or anger cause the release of high levels of cortisol that can cause imbalances and psychological or emotional distress as well as psycho-somatic illness.
Love relationships, as top-notch Schools of Life?
A love relationship is unique in that it poses challenges like no other. Conceivably, it’s because it’s potentially a top notch school, a relationship that challenges us more than any other, to stretch in ways that allow us to love courageously with our whole heart.
The parent-child relationship may be heart-wrenching and challenging, in comparison, however, it’s much easier to love children. It’s easier, perhaps, to love our children as giving to children, unlike giving to our partners, is more fulfilling because children tend to be more receptive. (Parents also tend to favor children that are more receptive to their giving.)
It’s significantly easier to have a great relationship with our children than it is with our partner. Thus, children are not our ‘best’ teachers in the School of Life.
Why does it have to be challenging?
The innate challenges of a couple relationship are precisely what we need to break free of, release and shed the shackles and wounds of early childhood. In the words of Joseph Barth,
“Marriage is our last, best chance to grow up.” ~ JOSEPH BARTH
Genuine giving is less about what we ‘need’ to give, particularly, giving’ that is, in actuality, as partners often discover, based on preconceived notions of what it means to be values and loved, neural patterns imprinted in cellular memory – or early survival-love maps.
It is this maturing process that brings partners to realize that genuine giving is based on getting to know what nourishes the other, from the other’s perspective! A child cannot challenge us in the same way as a life partner. That’s because it’s too easy to dismiss or tune out children, and tell ourselves that, as parents, we know better.
We do in many ways, of course. The point is that we have had our unique inner sense of self and wisdom from the time we were children. Wouldn’t it have been wonderful if our parents had known how to listen more, and to lecture less?
Love, as a spiritual quest to self-actualize?
In a ground-breaking, best-selling primer on love and personal growth, The Road Less Traveled, psychiatrist and author Scott Peck gives us the following definition of love as:
“The will to extend one’s self for purpose of nurturing one’s own or another’s spiritual growth.” ~ SCOTT PECK
What does spiritual growth have to do with the neuroscience of the brain and relationships?
Notably, Dr. Peck’s use of the word ‘spiritual‘ does not pertain to a religion per se, and rather to clinical observations of human behavior as innately motivated by emotional (spiritual) strivings for meaningful connection, transcendence and love, a conceptualization that is closely aligned with Dr. Abraham Maslow’s concept of ‘self-actualization.’
What was once theory, when Drs. Peck and Maslow published their works, is now backed by decades of neuroscience. Studies show the human brain is wired for relationships with circuitry for caring, compassion and empathic connection, among other amazing capacities, such as imagination, possibility thinking, and an inner connection to a wondrous source of creative genius that defies logical explanation.
In a controversial book of published research on the science of spirituality, How God Changes Your Brain, neuroscientist Andrew Newberg, and therapist Mark Waldman, used brain-scans to study spiritual practices such as prayer and meditation, and concluded that, whereas compassion-based perceptions of God and spiritual matters affect qualitatively beneficial and healing changes to the structure in the brain, punitive, harsh or judgmental perceptions cause actual damage. These findings were conclusive across different religions, and even non participation in any religion, i.e., professed atheists.
Well before the recent findings in neuroscience, Albert Einstein intuitively made a similar conclusion,
“The most important decision we make is whether we believe we live in a friendly or hostile universe.” ~ ALBERT EINSTEIN
What is even more amazing is that acts of love, whether given or received, nourish every cell of the body with healthful hormones. Why take pills? Take the advice of the love doctor himself, Dr. Buscaglia, instead,
“Too often we underestimate the power of a touch, a smile, a kind word, a listening ear, an honest compliment, or the smallest act of caring, all of which have the potential to turn a life around.” ~ LEO BUSCAGLIA
Conceivably, emotional states, such as compassion, creative expression, empathic connection, and so on, are more than mere emotions. Much more. They are hardwired motivational drives, shared universal yearnings, an inner value system of sorts.
Around the clock, quite literally, these emotional or spiritual drivers shape human behaviors, subconsciously from within, to seek to do more than merely survive, to give, to contribute to thrive in life and relationship contexts.
The clearest evidence, perhaps, of the power of these emotional drivers is the increasingly successful application of the science of human motivation and behavior (Maslow, and others since), for example, by marketing or political campaigns, designed to powerfully harness consumer spending or public opinion to serve monetary profit or political interests.
In a book titled Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi discusses his research. Also known as ‘in the zone’ by athletes, flow is a state of consciousness in which the mind and body are absorbed in an activity without concept of time. Csikszentmihalyi contends people are not happy because they have not yet understood that the ‘universe’ was not created to make them happy, that on the contrary, the universe intends to frustrate them in unique ways for the purpose of helping them grow.
Interestingly, he found that when people are asked about the best moments in their lives, they overwhelmingly report that:
“The best moments in our lives are not the passive, receptive, relaxing times … the best moments usually occur when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult and worthwhile. Optimal experience is thus something that we make happen.” ~ MIHALY CSIKSZENTMIHALYI
The human experience of striving to find purpose and to matter in relation to life and loved ones, is indeed a spiritual quest. As human beings, partners in couple relationships are wired for these essential connections, regardless that, like most scientists, they may not label them as spiritual.
In a sense, love is a seeking for spiritual connection within self, and between self and the other. It’s a lifelong process toward mature love and wisdom. Cokie Roberts put it this way:
“Remember, sustaining a pleasurable, long-term marriage takes effort, deliberateness and an intention to learn about one another. In other words, marriage is for grown-ups.” ~ COKIE ROBERTS
Regardless that most scientists may avoid the word ‘spiritual,’ and that our science textbooks explain human behaviors narrowly in terms of survival of the species, evidence says otherwise. Clearly, the human brain is hardwired to gravitate toward – and to fulfill a lifelong personal quest to meaningfully connect, to transcend a mere sensory existence – or to simply ensure our ongoing survival as human beings.
Words are limited in describing spiritual matters, which makes the hesitation of science understandable in part. According to Einstein,
“It would be possible to describe everything scientifically, but it would make no sense; it would be without meaning, as if you described a Beethoven symphony as a variation of wave pressure.” ~ ALBERT EINSTEIN
At this time in our evolution, however, it appears our species is threatened by forces that use words, for the purpose of monetary or political gain, to conceptualize human beings, and male and female relationships, in mechanistic, dehumanizing or adversarial terms.
Plainly stated, spirituality is simply a lifelong quest to matter, that is, for meaningful connection to life. Harsh treatment, violence, war games, or tactics of fear, humiliation, shame or hatred, and the like, harm essential inner connections, damaging neural networks of the brain and body.
Emotions give life meaning. To live meaningfully is always about an inside-out emotional connection. A healthy relationship is not an either-or proposition; it is an ongoing act of balancing both-and processes. It takes a lot of courage and determination to realize this whole-hearted way of learning to love self and other, as inevitable feelings of vulnerability come with the territory of intimate relations.
Genuine love gives in ways that lets the other know that you see them as the unique individual they are, and expresses your love and acceptance with caring action and thoughtful response. Even a wise president exercises the power of his choices to take time to recognize the value of his partner as a unique being:
What I realize as I get older is that Michelle is less concerned about me giving her flowers than she is that “me doing things that are hard for me — carving out time. That to her is proof, evidence that I’m thinking about her. She appreciates the flowers, but to her romance is that I’m actually paying attention to things that she cares about, and time is always an important factor.” ~ BARACK OBAMA, Ebony, 200
A genuine love for self and other, between life partners, has far reaching implications on a family and, potentially, our world. Findings show that a quality couple relationship has a calming effect on its partners.
“When there is love in a marriage, there is harmony in the home; when there is harmony in the home, there is contentment in the community; when there is contentment in the community, there is prosperity in the nation; when there is prosperity in the nation,
there is peace in the world.” ~ CHINESE PROVERB
What is genuine love, in conclusion? In the words of David and Vera Mace, “the development of a really good marriage is not a natural process. [Genuine love] is an [ongoing] achievement[!]”
Damasio, Antonio (2010). Self Comes to Mind: Constructing the Conscious Brain. NY: Pantheon Books.
Lewis, Thomas, Fari Amini and Richard Lannon (2000). A General Theory of Love. NY: Vintage Books.
Ramachandran, Vilayanur S. (2011). The Tell-Tale Brain: A Neuroscientist’s Quest for What Makes Us Human. NY: W.W. Norton and company.