Whenever I hear the question “What is love?”, I can’t help but sing in my head “What is love? Baby, don’t hurt me… no more”. You too? Good!
However, we’re not going to travel to the ’90s, where this Haddaway song was all the rage. Instead, we’re going to travel to the nostalgically warm autumn of 2018, to that time when I fell in love for the last time (so far!).
I can still see it as if it happened yesterday…
He’s sitting across the table from me, and he may be the most charming man I’ve ever met. I can smell the trouble.
We’re in a lovely restaurant, with white tablecloths, cosy lights, romantic music and an Italian waiter who just gave us the whole theatrical performance trying to describe the special of the day (oh, those Italian hand gestures!). Intoxicating chardonnay is being refilled in our glasses and already flowing in our bloodstreams.
It’s been one hour into our date, and he’s already told me about twenty-seven compliments — on everything from my hair, to my thinking, to the way I laugh. And, boy, do I laugh a lot because his sense of humour is next level hilarious. We’re flirting so hard, I’m sure someone at the next table is either jealous or nauseous of such infatuation.
It’s our second date, and we’re talking about past relationships.
Let’s call him Daniel. (The real name has been changed).
“How many times have you been in love?” I ask him.
He looks up and to his left… I’m wondering whether he’s trying to recall the past and is genuinely counting, or whether he is just a master of NLP (neuro-linguistic programming)? We’ll find out.
“Six,” he replies.
“Wow, that’s a lot,” I react with a bit of a surprise. “When was the last time you were in love?” I keep questioning.
“What’s the time now?” he quickly asks.
I glance at my watch and say “8:15 PM”.
“Then 8:15 tonight has been the last time”.
Smooooooth. Well, I see you’re a player. Nice to meet you, I’m the coach… (Actually, coaching is what I do for a living).
But you’ll never guess who outplayed whom in the end… I promise to tell you the full story throughout this article!
But let’s get back to the table for now.
“How many times have you been in love?” Daniel wants to know about me.
And that’s when it hit me. I don’t know how to count! I know at least two for sure. But I think it’s more like three. Or maybe three and a half… Because the last one felt so intense and real, but it’s too short to qualify — how can someone I dated for a week compare to someone I spent almost a decade with?
And here’s an even more mind-boggling question: how do you know Love from Lust?
In an attempt to solve the unsolvable and define the undefinable, I got inspired to look at love from multiple different angles. My aim of this article is to give you food for thought and help you define what love is for you. Because let’s face it, if ten different people say “I love you”, it means ten different things. Or does it?
Evolutionary (Survival) Perspective
If it weren’t for love, perhaps humanity would go extinct. Or maybe would have never existed in the first place.
From an evolutionary viewpoint, love is a survival tool — a mechanism that has evolved to promote long-term relationships, mutual defence, fidelity, parental support of children, as well as enhance the feeling of safety and security. Love is the greatest motivation to take care of each other and bond with one another.
When it comes to romantic love, it’s a prerequisite for our species to survive. Love may bypass reason, but necessarily so. Evolution expects us to love madly, otherwise, we might not love at all; procreation being far too important to be left to good sense.
And oh, this “drive to procreate” often brings magic to our lives: we feel exhilarated, powerful, alive, creative. (Remember that last time you were in love?) But it also produces a cocktail of chemicals in our brains that sometimes make us act like total dumbasses or maniacs, which leads me to the next part — love from a biological perspective.
Biological (Scientific) Perspective
Biologically, love is a powerful neurological condition, or a “brain bath” of dopamine, norepinephrine and other potent hormones and neurotransmitters.
If you’re human (and if not — what the heck are you doing reading my article?), you have been a love addict at some point in your life. And it’s not your fault — you’re just high on naturally occurring amphetamine-like chemicals produced by your own brain.
Biological anthropologist Dr Helen Fisher has studied love extensively and has theorised that human beings have evolved three different brain networks, also known as phases, for romantic love: lust, attraction, and attachment. It’s important to note that they don’t necessarily have to go in that particular order, and one doesn’t need to be mutually exclusive of another; love is not linear.
Lust (“Let’s Get It On”)
Lust is a temporary passionate sexual desire or the craving for sexual gratification. It’s that intense magnetic pull, arousal, an overwhelming urge to be close, touch them, kiss them right on the spot, and do lots of naughty things to them.
If it weren’t for that intense sexual “chemistry” (and some really strange fatal circumstances, as we later found out), I would have never met Daniel. One late Tuesday afternoon I walked into a frantically crowded tube (aka underground train, metro, or subway) and instantly felt the presence of this very tall handsome man.
It wasn’t the fact that he was staring at me (men often do), but the strong electric current pulling me into him, that made it impossible to ignore his existence. We weren’t even close to each other, maybe ten feet away and half dozen people between us, but I could feel the excitement bubbling beneath my skin and vibrating right down to the marrow of my bones. Daniel was even more nervous than I was, but he still asked for my number. My body reacted in a lot of interesting ways. Blame the hormones.
Estrogen is to a woman’s vulva and vagina what moisturiser is to your face — critical for keeping things moist, flexible and healthy down there. It’s also responsible for sensitivity and blood flow to these areas.
Testosterone is associated with increased libido in both sexes. It contributes to blood flow to the sex organs, which, in turn, contributes to arousability and orgasm. Though it’s often considered a male hormone, testosterone — like estrogen — is present in both men and women, though the proportions differ between the sexes.
Although these hormones play a massive role in the sex drive, it does not explain the favouritism, i.e. why we prefer one person versus another. It’s not always just our “type” that attracts us. Some claim that pheromones are to blame, yet it hasn’t been scientifically proven in humans. Maybe it’s merely soul recognition, and the brain chemistry is just the by-product of it? We’ll explore this idea further throughout this article.
Attraction (“Total Eclipse Of The Brain”)
What scientists call the attraction phase, we usually call falling in love, and it’s so bittersweet. All the song lyrics finally makes sense. You feel euphoria, exhilaration, a longing for emotional union, obsessive thinking about your love object, and happiness that is often unbearable and certainly ineffable. You may look at your loved one’s pictures for ages, and check your phone a trillion times per day, in case they texted or called again.
It’s like a blissful roller coaster which can quickly break down all the coping strategies of a carefully created and nurtured persona. Needs and emotions you never thought you had, are gushing out of you. What’s really going on to cause this delirium?
Love and romance seem to be one of the most powerful activators of our pleasure centres. A person’s reaction to his lover resembles the feeling that the stimulants like amphetamine or cocaine produce.
When you’re falling in love, your brain gets flooded with the neurotransmitter dopamine, a chemical that drives us toward a perceived reward. A release of it puts one in a “feel good” state, and it seems to be intimately linked not only to the formation of relationships but also to the sex drive. Basically, dopamine is what makes falling in love and sex a pleasurable experience.
Another neurotransmitter related to stress and excitement, called norepinephrine, is elevated as well during the attraction phase. It causes the heart to beat faster and stronger, resulting in a surge of energy and focused attention on a partner. It can also cause heightened feelings of anxiety and nervousness, sleeplessness, loss of appetite, and is responsible for the feeling of “butterflies in your stomach”. Knowing this makes me have more compassion for my “past self” whose body was going haywire, despite the mind’s harsh judgment for “losing my shit over a man”. The next time I fall in love and go a bit bonkers, I’ll use it as an opportunity to practice self-love, gentleness and self-compassion.
Phenethylamine, or PEA, a naturally occurring amphetamine-like substance, produces the mood lifting and energizing effects during the attraction phase. This interesting study suggests that love is a natural addiction, and apparently, love addicts and drug addicts have a lot in common.
Studies have shown a depletion of serotonin in the early stages of romantic love. This neurotransmitter plays a role in maintaining mood balance, appetite, sleep, memory, sexual desire, and sexual function. Low levels of serotonin are found in individuals with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), depression, and anxiety, which suggests that reduction of serotonin during the attraction phase may explain obsessive thinking about a new partner and consistent reflection on romantic times spent with them.
The all-engaging passion of romantic love is mirrored by a suspension of critical judgment that we otherwise use to assess people, a function of the prefrontal cortex. That explains why I saw a lot of red flags with Daniel, but chose to ignore them. For example, he didn’t talk to his parents, often glossed things over with humour or sex, and lived in Switzerland although he worked in London. I’m not a naïve girl, I could sense that something was off, but I just chose not to know. It almost felt like observing myself falling from the cliff (or falling in love), but not being able to do anything about it; blame the compromised prefrontal cortex function! No matter how wise, experienced or aware, one is not immune to love.
Although usually the attraction phase lasts anything from two weeks to two years, there are no rules, and every situation is different. Eventually, the novelty wears out, and we come back to our senses. And thank God! Because living in a constant state of stress, even the pleasant one, is too taxing on the body and mind. However, we can learn how to tap into these romantic feelings, even years after initially falling in love. Is it natural in humans? Probably not. But neither is the internet, coffee machines or the device you’re reading this on. If you’re interested in keeping the romance going after the initial honeymoon phase is over, watch this video where relationship expert Esther Perel talks about how to find the sweet spot between long term love and desire.
Attachment (“Together, Forever, Stay In My Heart”)
Once the initial stress, angst, and constant craving of romantic love subsides, and a couple survives the test, they may enter the attachment phase, also known as a long-term relationship, or marriage. Stress hormone levels and serotonin levels return to normal, and love becomes a buffer against stress. Brain areas associated with reward and pleasure are still activated, but intense desire often lessens.
The attachment phase is associated with feelings of closeness, security, warmth, peace, desire to protect, social comfort, mild euphoria, reduced anxiety when in contact with a partner, and separation anxiety when apart for a length of time. Studies indicate that oxytocin and vasopressin released in the central nervous system are the primary hormones that produce monogamous male-female attachment behaviours.
Oxytocin, also called the “love hormone,” is released during physical touch and skin-to-skin contact such as hugging, cuddling, kissing, and other sexual behaviours. It also activates brain areas associated with pleasure and reward, likely because the body releases dopamine in coordination with oxytocin as the result of physical touch.
Vasopressin initiates the desire to stay with that particular person and facilitates strong, emotional attachment. It is also associated with behaviours that produce long-term, monogamous relationships.
Up until last June, I was in a relationship for nine and a half years; therefore this phase is so intimately familiar. The physical closeness, safety and trust was the reason why we stayed in a relationship longer than we should have. I think I was addicted to oxytocin and cuddles. In my humble opinion, the attachment should not be the reason to stay with a person that no longer feels in full alignment. I was afraid to lose my best friend and the dearest person in my life, but fortunately, the breakup, or the “conscious uncoupling” as we call it, was harmonious and we’re still family, just no longer as a romantic couple. In fact, I helped him tweak his online dating profile, and he helped me proofread this article. (If you’re also going through a similar transition in your life, you may want to consider getting support).
Do The Hormones And Other Chemicals Actually Cause Us To Fall In Love?
Some may see the three love phases as a kind of progression in a relationship. First lust (“hey, you’re so hot!”), then attraction (“I’ll write a love song”), then attachment (“let’s cuddle and hangout”). Perhaps we’re wired this way so that the sex drive enables individuals to initiate courtship and mating with a range of partners; attraction/romantic love motivates them to focus their mating energy on specific individuals, thereby conserving time and metabolic energy; and partner attachment evolved to motivate mating individuals to remain together long enough to perform parental duties.
Looking at the scientific evidence, it may be tempting to adopt the Darwinian view and jump into a conclusion that these chemicals produced by our own bodies cause us to fall in love. Not so fast! Although we can use the new technology to observe what’s happening in our brain, scientists still admit that they don’t know how a change in brain chemistry becomes a feeling. Plus, these biochemicals do not cause the behaviour, they only increase the likelihood of it.
Call me a hopeless romantic, but I refuse to believe that the chemicals cause love. Nor am I in denial that they affect us — well, I remember how I could barely sleep or eat that week after the date with Daniel! Surely, there was an increased level of norepinephrine flowing in my system.
Again, maybe falling in love is a soul recognition, and these hormones are only an expression or a by-product of that connection, but not the causation? That’s what I believe, but we’ll explore these beliefs more in the “spiritual perspective” section.
Well, first of all, philosophers aren’t particularly renowned for having successful love lives, so what do they know! But most importantly, the problem with trying to figure out love on the mind level is, that it’s not a matter of the mind. Love is not logic — love is pure magic.
As my favourite poet, Rumi wrote, “Love is the sea where intellect drowns.” Hence, let’s leave the philosophers to ponder all other life questions, and let’s place the matter of love into the hands of artists.
Love drives all great stories. Lovers fight armies, swim oceans, or walk hundreds of miles to be together. In a word, they’re high.
How would our lives look like if there were no art? No love songs, poems, novels, movies, plays, paintings. Love is the greatest inspiration, no wonder why artists of all times needed a muse. I also always need a muse! I cannot live without love; I need a source of inspiration, which I often find in the idea of romantic love. Even this article was inspired by a male muse, namely Daniel. I channelled my longing, heartbreak, and the need to reconcile (not with him, but in my own mind and heart) into something more productive than self-pitying or drinking wine (albeit I’ve done both at some point in the past).
New research has found that falling in love, or thinking about the act of falling in love, can actually increase creativity. It interferes with more logical, analytical thinking, and helps develop remote and uncommon associations that a person would not typically make.
Instead of trying to reiterate how great the artists are, here are a few of my favourite literature quotes on love:
takes my hand
i will hold you with the other
and promise to find you
in every lifetime”
― Rupi Kaur
“Now, I’m not going to deny that I was aware of your beauty. But the point is, this has nothing to do with your beauty. As I got to know you, I began to realise that beauty was the least of your qualities. I became fascinated by your goodness. I was drawn in by it. I didn’t understand what was happening to me. And it was only when I began to feel actual, physical pain every time you left the room that it finally dawned on me: I was in love, for the first time in my life. I knew it was hopeless, but that didn’t matter to me. And it’s not that I want to have you. All I want is to deserve you. Tell me what to do. Show me how to behave. I’ll do anything you say.”
― Dangerous Liaisons by Choderlos de Laclos
“If you live to be a hundred, I want to live to be a hundred minus one day, so I never have to live without you.”
―Vinnie The Pooh by A.A. Milne
“To love or have loved, that is enough. Ask nothing further. There is no other pearl to be found in the dark folds of life.”
― Les Miserables by Victor Hugo
“This is time for us. Memory. A nostalgia. The pain of absence. But it isn’t absence that causes sorrow. It is affection and love. Without affection, without love, such absences would cause us no pain. For this reason, even the pain caused by absence is in the end something good and even beautiful. Because it feeds on that which gives meaning to life.”
― The Order Of Time by Carlo Rovelli.
In the alleged letter to his daughter Lieserl, Albert Einstein wrote, “There is an extremely powerful force that, so far, science has not found a formal explanation to. It is a force that includes and governs all others, and is even behind any phenomenon operating in the universe and has not yet been identified by us. This universal force is LOVE.”
As humans, we are born to love. Love is the purpose and the meaning of life, and through love, we can get closer to our true nature, which is Oneness. We are all connected, all related, and we’re all made of each other. We’re like millions of water drops — tiny parts of the same ocean. Therefore, separation is an illusion that we collectively choose to believe in, because it serves our growth and personal evolution. But when we love and deeply connect with another human being, we may break that illusion, lift the veil of separation, transcend duality, and thus we experience our true essence.
Perhaps that’s where this longing to connect with another comes from. We try to find our soul through the soul of another. We don’t just want someone to share a household; we want a soul-mate, someone close with whom we can feel seen, connected and at home.
The English language has only one word for love, whereas, for example, ancient Greeks had seven and Sanskrit — 96. While love is vast and all-encompassing, in this article, I’m merely focusing on romantic love, which is so powerful because it’s the type of love that seeks direct union with another. Sexual union is as close as humans can get to achieving that unity. The erotic nature of the encounter is psychologically symbolic; we truly want to merge with or penetrate into something bigger than ourselves.
My Question Got Finally Answered
Doing research for this article, I got the answer to my original question, “how many times have I been in love?” My answer is — once — from the moment I was born till the moment I’ll die because Love is who I am. And Love is who you are. When we fall in love, it’s because another person triggers and awakens something within us that reminds us of our true nature. Sometimes it’s a kindred spirit, a soul contract, or a mirror of those desperate parts of ourselves that we have abandoned and thus long for.
Therefore, there’s no point in counting how many people we have loved romantically. If a person falls in love with a new object every month, does that make love less valuable and true? Some say that true love can only be when it’s built and tested over time. But what is true love versus not true love? And how much time is needed to qualify? Five years? If so, would four years and eleven months count? This argument is pointless because linear time is an illusion, hence love is not bound by time. If you feel in love, and feel like you’re connected to something bigger than yourself — your true essence, it’s enough to qualify, no matter if it lasts a day, a week, seven decades, or twelve lifetimes.
Putting Barriers Against Love
Some of us go through life trying to find and gain love, yet there’s nothing to gain — you already are it. As Rumi so eloquently writes, “Your task is not to seek for love, but merely to seek and find all the barriers within yourself that you have built against it.” In my work as a coach, I see so many people putting their guards up and trying to protect themselves from heartbreak and disappointment, and thus not allowing the love in. I believe this is a trap that keeps people pursuing yet not being able to receive what they desire. Do not wish to have a lover, simply be a lover; having a lover is a result of being a lover.
We build those barriers within ourselves because we try to protect ourselves from heartbreak. But truly, people do not break your heart — they only break your expectations. By breaking the expectations, you allow them closer to your heart. And no, this doesn’t mean that we should have no expectations. If you ever tried, you know it’s like trying to stop the river from flowing; having expectations is just part of human nature. Trying to go against it is yet another form of shutting yourself down, putting the guards up. Instead, I choose to allow expectations to arise as they do, and then let my heart to break if it needs to… Because there’s nothing to protect, nothing to control, nothing to force. I know I can handle it all, over and over again. And every single time I get disappointed in life, I become wiser and stronger. Not stronger in a sense that nothing touches me. Quite the opposite — I allow all the emotions and feelings fully hit me. Because I know that deep inside I’m so okay, so safe, so fine. I remind myself that everything is transient, fragile, and will pass anyway. Therefore, I can handle anything — and that is my power.
So What Happened With The Guy From The Date?
Later that night, he held my hand across the table and kissed me. That kiss was eleven out of ten; I could feel the electric shivers going down my spine. And at that moment I knew I could actually fall in love with this man. Not because of the kiss; I just felt that the thirst I’d had for so long was finally quenched.
The next couple of months with him showed me a new level of joy I’d never experienced before — every day spent together felt like being a kid on a Christmas morning. The smell of his skin didn’t just make my knees weak; it made my body forget it had knees altogether. Drinking tea on a couch, with our feet touching, was more exciting than the fanciest holiday in an exotic destination. Giggling on a crowded tube during the morning rush hour was more fun than attending the award-winning comedy show. I didn’t care where we were or what we did; if we were together, it was pure bliss.
I knew he wasn’t deep. But I thought my depth was enough for both of us. He could compensate for the lack of it by making me laugh and giving me those earth-shattering orgasms. I could look into his big brown eyes and see that the depth was there, it’s just his human self had lost touch with his soul; he was wounded. I could sense that he worried a lot and had secrets, but I didn’t want to question him and chose to give him space. I didn’t even expect that one day, inspired by my endless love for him, he’d open up and deepen. No, I didn’t need that — I was prepared to love him without him changing the slightest bit, without being any different than he was: a boy, insatiably longing for love, in a handsome man’s body, with the most charming masks and protection mechanisms one could possess. And that fire in his eyes when he looked at me… No man has ever looked at me that way. And that was enough to love him.
Although I was happier than I’d ever been, this is not a happy story. Just before Christmas, my heart was shattered into fifty million pieces. Daniel turned out to be… (drum roll)… fucking married. I found he had a family in Switzerland; I also found myself crying on the floor. But you know what, I’m not trying to pick and glue those pieces of my crushed heart together. Instead, I’m following Rumi’s advice, “You have to keep your heart breaking until it opens”. I didn’t judge my pain, nor did I try to prematurely reframe it and turn it into positive before I was ready. I just sat with all my feelings, respectfully endured them, and allowed my heart to open even more. Because I’ve learned that putting your guards up and trying to protect your heart does more damage than the threat itself. You have to either risk the heartbreak of love or suffer the isolation of loneliness. I will always choose love and will never allow life to make me bitter, no matter what. And that’s what makes me unbreakable; my power is in my loving.
I may still need some time to grieve for the future which Daniel and I will never have together, yet I shyly hoped for. And my teeth may still be aching with the memory of his taste. But I know I will love again.
Falling in love is a profound human experience. Love aims at transcending human existence, infusing grey with colour, blowing away mundane with awe, making the impossible possible and invisible revealed.
Evolutionary, love may be a survival tool helping humanity reproduce. Biologically, when we fall in love, our brains “fall” into a bath of hormones and neurotransmitters that make us act like maniacs or even addicts. Love inspires all great stories and serves as a muse for artists. But truly, all of it is just an expression, a manifestation or a by-product of re-connecting with our true nature.
Love is everything. There is nothing that is not love. Love is sacred, unlimited and unconditional. It takes us beyond reason, beyond intellect and beyond description. It’s the universal force that drives everything, as Albert Einstein proclaimed. We’re all able to tap into it, if we’re willing to open our hearts and let our guards down.
It is my life’s goal and daily intention to live as an embodiment of love. I may not be perfect at it, but I do my best and choose to love and feel compassion for every human being I encounter, whether it’s a man on a date, a homeless person begging for money or an angry woman on the train. This love doesn’t have to be personal and can last only a minute. But I can feel its power. If every human being in this world lived with this intention, perhaps the oceans would clear up, all violence, wars and hatred would be over. So I decided to start with myself. This mission is not mine or yours to finish, but it’s too important to not participate. Will you join me?
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