What Is Love?
A question that has plagued the minds of cavemen and conquistadors, plebes and presidents, kings and other kings.
The obvious answer is “baby don’t hurt me / don’t hurt me / no more.”
But let’s dig a little deeper.
First, let me confess, I’m not a very romantic being. I don’t subscribe to superstitions. Or even magazines. I don’t subscribe to many things at all. Except Hulu+.
But I have felt cupid’s keen arrow pierce my butt, and thus can’t deny that love is a thing.
Love is, in fact, several things. It’s one of the most obtuse words there is. They say the Eskimos have a billion words for snow.*
*This is a rough estimate.
Snow is a pretty simple thing (shut up meteorologists, go nerd some Magic cards), and they have a BILLION words for it.*
*Pretty sure this is a fact, now that I think about it.
And we use one word, “LOVE,” to describe an entire spectrum of emotions, encompassing complex feelings like devotion, limerence, admiration, protectiveness—many of which don’t even overlap. Of course, it is an acronym (L is for the way you look at me, etc.), but it is a single term nonetheless, and is, agets such, limiting and reductive.
We say “I love my mother, the woman who brought me into this world” and also “I love EasyMac.” These are two very different emotions.
We also say “I love you” to our girlfriends and boyfriends in middle school. At the time, we think that love is the absence of cooties. Maybe love is having cool gel pens and sharing whichever one they don’t really want. And later on it’s that girl who got boobs first. Gina Thompson. Ugh, Gina Thompson.
In high school, maybe your definition of love is Juno. Love is will you build a pillow fort with me and play ukulele and ride bikes and we’ll never grow up or else oh god I’m scared.
Maybe after that your definition of love is 500 Days of Summer. Love is this is amazing we can hang out naked and you’re not disgusted by my weird naked body. You’ve seen me vomit and held my hair back and still want to shop for vintage records with me. We like the same things we are soulmates.
And then what? I don’t know, I’m still in college. What I’ve gathered from US media is that love is Sandra Bullock. Meg Ryan if I’m lucky. Hugh Grant if I’m very lucky.
Hopefully it will incorporate gel pens and breasts and ukulele and bikes and hanging out naked and vomiting and maybe Meg Ryan if the girl is okay with that.
Love will probably be a lot harder because life will be a lot harder. And it will probably involve adult things like dishes and credit cards and bills.
But I urge you to expand your definition of the term “love,” and I offer to you my favorite explanation, anthropologist Helen Fisher’s three part model.
Fisher posits that humans have evolved three systems for the purposes of reproduction:
(That they were developed in order to facilitate reproduction does not delegitimize same-sex couples. It’s just where the mechanisms came from and why they were passed on.)
1. Lust, the libido, The Big L. (I just made up “The Big L” but I think it has promise as maybe a reality show or something.)
Lust is here to make us want to fuck. It’s serotonin and adrenaline. It’s sweaty palms and goosebumps. I wrote a song about it once. Lust’s job is to get the sperm to the egg. You know how it works.
2. Attraction. Also known as tunnel-vision. Attraction exists to pare down your choices and make you lock in on one person. This is the dangerous one. This is the one that walks into poles and fails your tests and burns your bacon because all you’re thinking about is this person’s eyebrows. How does this person have such beautiful eyebrows, I didn’t even know eyebrows could be beautiful.
Because you have a better chance of producing and nourishing offspring by gettin’ it on with one person over and over, evolution decided to curse you with this shit. The only catch is that you don’t get to choose who you’re attracted to.
Sidenote: The line of sexual dimorphism is drawn jaggedly through this trait, because of the different levels of investment required by each parent’s role in reproduction. If you actually care, read some Trivers.
3. Attachment. Think about that heartbreaking scene in Up. You know, where that bird is lost in the woods. No, you know the one I mean. It’s the “let’s grow old together” thing. The “you’re my best friend” thing. The “you get me” thing. Attachment keeps people together, like wood glue keeps wood together, or like wood glue keeps people together.
Attachment serves to keep both parents invested in their relationship so the offspring aren’t abandoned and can benefit from the dual parental investment. With divorce rates higher than mortgage rates, it’s easy to see which of the three is the hardest to come by.
So you love someone? Great. That probably means you feel one or more of these things for them. But even in this relatively simple system, there are a billion permutations and combinations of these feelings.*
*An exact figure.
If you only feel attachment to someone, they could be a great best friend. If you only feel lust, a great fling. Only 1 and 3? Try polyamory. The amount of different interpersonal relationships is as great as the amount of weird and wonderful feelings you can have for another person.
“Love can start off with any of these three feelings, Fisher maintains. Some people have sex with someone new and then fall in love. Some fall in love first, then have sex. Some feel a deep feeling of attachment to another, which then turns into romance and the sex drive. But the sex drive evolved to initiate mating with a range of partners; romantic love evolved to focus one’s mating energy on one partner at a time; and attachment evolved to enable us to form a pairbond and rear our young together as a team.”“
Here’s a link to Fisher’s peer-reviewed paper, if you’re interested.
As a parting note, I’d like to make an important clarification. When some people hear scientific and evolutionary explanations of romantic things, they get peeved. I’ve had people tell me that I’ve “ruined love for them.”
But it’s one of my core beliefs that knowing what’s going on behind the curtain doesn’t have to ruin your enjoyment of the show. Knowing what forces are behind a feeling or a phenomenon doesn’t discount the beauty of it—in fact sometimes it enhances the beauty.
A rainbow is, when you’re a kid, a pretty sort of semi-transparent circle in the sky. Then you learn that the moisture in the air, the millions of water particles just sort of hanging there, are refracting the visible light, which contains ALL THE COLORS THERE ARE. And it’s an absolute miracle. Don’t let anyone tell you science doesn’t allow room for miracles. That science isn’t romantic.
We like candy because the synthetic sugars trick our tongues into thinking we’re eating fruit, which is full of essential carbohydrates—the kind of shit we needed in our Pleistocene environment a billion years ago.*
But does knowing that make it taste any less sweet?
*You get it.
So what? So the reason your heart skips a beat when their hand touches your hand accidentally is because you’re getting a supersoaker of dopamine, norepinephrine, phenylethylamine, serotonin, and adrenaline to the face.
Still feels pretty good, doesn’t it?
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