As we approach this Valentine’s Day and think about romantic love, let us remember that love is one complex emotion. Love arises out of multiple structures and specific neurotransmitters for its origins. Love increases blood flow to the nucleus accumbens which in turn floods the caudate nucleus with dopamine, the reward neurotransmitter. The resulting feeling is one of need, urge, craving, want, and obsession, much like addiction to substances. In fact, in functional MRIs, love lights up the same areas of the brain that cocaine does. Something as simple as receiving a text from someone you love affects the brain the same as cocaine. Researchers are now starting to state that love is showing up in the brain like addiction, not an emotion. Love can have highly positive effects however, increasing energy level, sharpening focus and cognitive performance as well as improving motor skills. What is it about love that makes us lose our perspective and sometimes even our rational balance? What blinds us to the shortcomings of our beloved and allows us to project their attributes as bigger than life? What is it about love that makes us go around with a goofy smile on our face humming our favorite song? Well, maybe only Cupid has the answers to those questions because even science struggles to find them.
Advice to the lovelorn is abundant but elusive. As a professional who has facilitated relationship and marital issues over the years, it is clear there is never any easy answer, perhaps because we are ultimately so unique in our thoughts and perceptions. However, we try to generalize the human condition so we can come up with theories and strategies that work with the majority of clients. So let’s take a look at some situations and try to make some sense out of mishaps in the world of love. Let us begin at the beginning, that magical time when our hearts race upon seeing our beloved’s face, when our knees are weak when our beloved offers us a smile, and when our minds drift off to the newly familiar place of safety and exhilarant being. Despite this euphoria, there is anxiety. It is a time of sharing which begs the question, “how much should I share?” Your story will take form over time but it is important to be open and transparent at the very beginning about issues which could end up hurting the one you love. The sooner you share the fact that you have a roommate of the opposite sex, the better. The sooner you share the fact that you are the parent of three young children, the better. You get the idea; it is better to eliminate surprises that could be hurtful down the road. Such openness at the beginning goes a long way towards the establishment of trust, a key ingredient in any relationship.
You might have great chemistry but are your long term goals and dreams in alignment? The closer you both are in your core values and in your long term plans, the more solid the relationship. I once did marital therapy with a couple in their 50s that eventually got divorced. Her dream was to have an organic farming business and he endorsed the idea for years. At the end before he walked out, he declared he had never really been on board with the idea. At first he hadn’t wanted to hurt her feelings; later he became vindictive allowing her to think the plan was moving forward when it clearly was not. He later married a much younger woman and moved into an apartment in Brooklyn. What had she missed? Perhaps his ongoing agreement never challenged her to truly explore her husband’s mind in terms of his own dreams. Lesson learned: it is easy to take things for granted, to accept what is presented on the surface. Try to avoid being complacent about your beloved’s thoughts. Unless you routinely check in with him/her, you will not truly know. In doing so, you will also benefit from the nonverbal language that gives us much information about a person’s emotional state.
Since we all are human, we make mistakes and hurt the ones we love, hopefully in small ways only. Handling this situation is extremely important in relationships. Some say women have higher emotional intelligence than men but both genders can be reluctant to take responsibility for their “lapses in judgment.” Here is a pattern I have discerned over the years: the higher a person’s self-esteem, the more easily they are able to apologize for their actions. Why would that be the case? When a person feels good about him/herself, an appropriate apology is a tool to simply get life back on track again. It is not construed as a blow to the ego. Such a person knows that making silly, but hurtful mistakes can cause pain for the one they love and they also know how to rectify the situation. Apologies come in all forms and adding in a special treat or surprise cannot hurt at all! But it’s those three little simple words “ I am sorry” that can literally put a relationship back on track again and all is forgotten. That is something well worth remembering on this special day.
A recent study in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships found that couples who placed a higher value on friendship with their partner, were more committed, more in love and more sexually satisfied than their friends who did not place as much value on friendship. Another study discovered that couples that laughed 10 or more minutes per day were happier than those who did not laugh that much. Think about being a good friend to your partner as it just might be the most important tool in the toolbox of love. It provides an opportunity to make your partner feel accepted, be it fair or stormy weather. Friendship can be a powerful foundation upon which you can build a “home” in your heart. It is one of the greatest gifts you can give your partner.
So what is love? Love knows no boundaries in terms of time, age, distance or expectations. Love is its own master, beholden to none. It is so powerful it can topple hierarchies and governments; it can bring the most unlikely together in unison and song. It is the basis of joy and ecstasy; it is the glue that brings people together; it brings meaning to life.
Hold your loved one tight this Valentine’s Day and tell them why they are so special!