We spend our lives chasing it, nurturing it, or watching it slip away. Yet the truth about love seems to dissolve in the light, evading any attempt at definition. Are we any closer than the famously love-struck ancient Greeks to understanding what it is?
The definitions that work best are deliberately imprecise. Love is “kind of like when you see a fog in the morning… before the sun comes out” (Charles Bukowski); or “a bright stain on the vision, blotting out reason” (Robert Graves); or “the extremely difficult realisation that something other than oneself is real” (Iris Murdoch). A friend of mine, after considering the question, produced his favourite cookery book, from which he had entertained countless friends and family. Love is a different thing to each of us, and everything to all of us. It leaves us enormously vulnerable: we know what it is for sure when we lose it.
Like what you’re reading? Get the free UnHerd daily email
Already registered? Sign in
In recent years, neuroscientists have tried to explain love in terms of the brain chemicals that accompany it, which have a powerful influence on our behaviour. Is that sufficient? Can this thing that “looks not with the eyes, but with the mind”, as Shakespeare had it, really be understood as a neurological condition?
This question is at the heart of Lucy Prebble’s play The Effect. It tells the story of two young people who enrol in a clinical trial for a new antidepressant. During the trial they fall for each other and then worry whether what they’re feeling is real or merely “chemical”, a side-effect of the drug. Things get even more confusing when one of them learns she’s on a placebo, which convinces her that she can’t possibly be feeling for her lover what he feels for her. If love is a drug, can a drug lead to love? Not while you’re still on it, she seems to be saying.
The Effect is fraught with existential angst about the nature of emotional health and how we interpret what we feel. We learn, for example, that the clinical psychiatrist who is running the trial suffers from long-term depression, a condition she has chosen never to be treated for: she believes that the drugs don’t work, and in line with a particular strand of philosophical thinking views the illness as a grand existential tragedy or the natural state of things. The central conundrum — is love authentic if it’s manipulated by chemicals? — is never fully answered, though the ending gives us pause when the protagonists walk off hand-in-hand and drug-free into their uncertain futures looking a lot more loving than they did at any time during their chemical romance.
At a certain level, love is all about chemistry. Neuroscientists have found that different kinds of love are associated with different hormones and neurotransmitters. Sexual desire is driven by testosterone, whose main purpose seems to be to encourage us to have sex with as many partners as possible. Romantic love, that giddy, obsessive state designed to win us the affections of a particular partner, is the brain’s dopamine reward system on overdrive — a hit for every Whatsapp message returned, every infatuated thought of the beloved. Meanwhile, those warm feelings of security and connection characteristic of long-term attachment are marked by increased levels of vasopressin and oxytocin.
None of this really cuts it as an explanation. Reducing love to its neural correlates may tell us something about how the brain affects behaviour, but it doesn’t work as an answer to the important questions about what it all means. It doesn’t begin to account for the vastness of the enterprise.
We can learn a little more from a different area of science: psychology. Over the past four decades, the psychologist John Gottman and his team have studied thousands of couples at their “love lab” in Seattle to try to understand the ingredients of a successful partnership. They claim they can predict to over 90% accuracy whether two people will stay together simply by watching the way they communicate: how they manage conflict and how empathic they are towards each other. In the strongest relationships, positive behaviours towards the other person (humour, affection, empathy) outweigh negative behaviours (criticism, defensiveness, contempt) by at least five to one. Love is kind: we can agree on that at least.
We can agree also that kindness, and therefore love, requires selflessness, a deliberate reaching beyond ourselves in recognition or consideration of another. Iris Murdoch called it unselfing, the capacity both to imagine the lives of others and to find them beautiful. It is quite different to the popular idea of love as some kind of union or fusion, the notion that two lovers must complete each other. This is upselfing rather than unselfing. Not only does it set impossibly high expectations, it also regards a relationship as a vehicle for satisfying our own needs. Such an approach is unlikely to lead to love. Better to start with the thought that the other person may want something very different from us, and then do our best to provide it.
For all our selfless efforts and good intentions, some love affairs may simply not be destined to turn into loving relationships. It can be very difficult to find someone with whom we are truly compatible. How can we raise the odds of picking a winner at the start?
Psychology can help us here too. Certain shared traits have been found to be indicative of strong relationships. For example, couples who stick together tend to share a similar level of general intelligence, and a similar level of attractiveness (as rated by others). Psychological studies have also demonstrated the importance of shared values. Values are a measure of your moral and cultural outlook, the way you see the world. Disagree too much in your attitudes towards things like fidelity (are you happy for your partner to sleep around?), idealism (liberal or conservative?) and family (how important to you are your relatives?) and you’re in for a rocky ride.
A few years ago, I ran a dating website called 21Pictures where we paid close attention to these kinds of findings. The aim was to use insights from psychology to give people the best chance of meeting someone compatible. We designed the website to match people on their core values, rather than on their interests, habits, and other preferences that most dating sites rely on (these are far less significant to compatibility). We also encouraged users to make more intuitive choices by getting them to describe their lives in pictures, since pictures are better than words at conveying the kind of contextual information that potential partners find useful. We wanted to make online dating as much like real-world dating as possible. 21Pictures ran for just a couple of years and had only a few hundred active users, but we had some success: at least one couple who met on the site ended up getting married.
One thing we pondered at 21Pictures but never had enough data to investigate was the extent to which people’s expectations for relationships or love are shaped by their background or culture. Evidence from anthropologists suggests there is an effect, though only up to a point. Culture seems to have an influence on the kind of person we prefer as a mate: for example, young people in China, India and predominantly Muslim countries prefer their partner to be chaste, in Western countries not so much. Likewise, the relentless idealisation of romantic love that permeates the West is less evident in Asian and other collectivist cultures, which emphasise family ties and community responsibility over individual gratification (at least publicly).
In general, however, anthropologists believe that the basic experience of love is universal, driven by innate biological mechanisms. One study from the Nineties found that romantic love was commonplace in 147 of the 166 cultures it looked at (the researchers said they failed to measure it in the other 19 due to “ethnographic oversight” rather than cultural norms). The expression of love can be thwarted temporarily by the dictates of totalitarian regimes (China under Mao) or religions (the Christian Church in Medieval times), or by the constraints of mental illness. But as a possibility, it seems to be indestructible.
This transcendent quality of love is heartening since it is perhaps the one enduring truth that everyone can agree on. Love is as universal as grief. The inevitability of it unites us all, even as we struggle to understand it.