THE HEARTFELT QUESTION: Is Love Real?
I hope you love reading this. Love it as much as I’ve loved writing it, sitting looking out over the large tree-filled communal park which inhabits the centre of our lovely ‘90s housing block. I love that park because it looks like someone started playing Jumanji inside the concrete enclosure and was never able to finish. In fact, I love Jumanji. I love that I used to watch it with my little brother, who I love dearly… Alright, you get the point.
‘Love’ is a word we are bombarded with almost constantly. Hugh Grant’s voiceover was right in Love Actually: “if you look for it, I’ve got a sneaky feeling you’ll find that love actually is all around.” But ‘love’ is actually a difficult thing to define, perhaps that’s why it’s used with such gay abandon. We’re often led to believe it’s an emotional state: ‘I AM IN LOVE’/ ‘I AM NOT IN LOVE’ – a strangely binary choice which would make it seem clear-cut, but alas, it’s not so. Let’s take pain as an example of something we can think of in a binary sense;
“Hi Ben. Gosh, your finger looks broken. I can imagine that’s very painful.”
“Hi Carol. Yes, it is broken. I am indeed in a huge amount of pain.”
Easy-peasy. Ben knows he’s in pain, Carol understands what Ben means when he says he’s in pain.
Now let’s try that again, this time with love;
“Hi Ben. Gosh, you’ve been dating Charlie for months now. Are you in love with them?”
“Hi Carol. Yes, I have been dating Charlie for months. I have no idea if I’m in love with them. Or wait, am I? Maybe…a bit… No…ah… Yes.”
“Oh, poor you. I’m definitely in love with Bailey, and it’s only been a month! You’ll find it, just keep looking. They’re out there.”
“… have you ever had a broken finger, Carol?”
Now we encounter some problems. Ben can’t be sure if he’s in love or not because it’s completely subjective, what ‘love’ is to one person might be just a reassuring feeling of familiarity to another. Yes, how we perceive pain is subjective, but that regards the degree of pain, not if it is present or not. Imagine someone asking you how much you loved your partner on a scale of one to ten. We’re taught love doesn’t exist on a scale, it is there or it isn’t. Similarly, annoying as Carol is, there’s no way of knowing if she’s actually in love with Bailey as she says. Although the fact that they’ve only been dating for a month makes me doubt it; more on this later.
‘Love’ is an umbrella term for a range of different thoughts and emotions. Familial love is different from friendship love, is different from romantic love. There are languages other than English that have a whole collection of words to describe the multitudes of love, Sanskrit for example has 96. English has one. No wonder things don’t quite make sense. But rather than drown in words, let us take what I think the term ‘love’ has become in our modern Western society, this is the romantic-comedy, Instagram pushing, Coca-Cola selling version of love… but is it real?
THE BIOLOGICAL TAKE
Don’t ever lose sight of the fact that we’re still just clever monkeys. Millions of years of evolution don’t just disappear because we use toilets and can hold a knife and fork. In a purely evolutionary sense, sex is for making babies. Before the internet explodes with rebuttals: yes, I’m a gay man. As such, I’m unlikely to get pregnant any time soon, so of course sex now has different functions, but I have a penis because biologically I’m meant to be impregnating women.
Love therefore, if taken as a specific chemical state of the brain, serves a function we have developed during our evolution, one likely linked to sex and the rearing of children. Oxytocin is the chemical which most research so far had focused on, and although we’ve only really scratched the surface, there is strong evidence to suggest that it is related to ‘pro-social’ behaviours. Oxytocin is found to be higher in the first six months of people entering into new relationships, and after sex and childbirth. Its effect is to promote a bond and increase our positive social behaviours. It has become known as the ‘love hormone’ because rather than increasing sexual libido, it strengthens bonding and social interaction.
Drugs like MDMA and ecstasy also modify the levels of oxytocin. Primarily affecting your levels of serotonin, dopamine and norepinephrine, ecstasy has also been shown to create a surge of oxytocin, creating a sensation of love and bonding to those around the user. Therefore, in this reductionist sense, love does exist, but it is a ‘trick’ and one that can be reproduced by taking a small pill and running around a sweaty nightclub. But Shakespeare wasn’t watching the sun rise in Sisyphos when he wrote his sonnets, so as with most things in life, it’s not quite that simple.
THE PSYCHOLOGICAL TAKE
Given that anyone can tell you that they’re in love, perhaps love is defined on an individual basis. My definition of love may differ from yours and could well be more associated with our individual personality and needs, rather than the chemical soup our brain is in alone.
For example, I am a very extroverted person, I find my energy levels boosted and my mood lifted when I’m around other people. And although I would say I’ve never been in love, I could imagine a companion who also thrived in these situations, someone equally social who fits well with my personality; the outcome could be love.
Equally, some people find opposites attract, and perhaps the ideal is having a counter balance, an introverted person who can open up and offer a new perspective or state of being. If you are a more positive and hopeful person, you might find yourself saying you’re in love often, and you may well be right. A more pessimistic personality might deny the same feelings as infatuation. Your psychological model of love may also focus on certain behaviours; we hold hands in the park, kiss each other, have sex, therefore the fact that we are sharing these behaviours means we are in love Essentially if you’re the kind of personality who falls in love often, then you’re the kind of person who falls in love often; but remember, that’s by your own definition, and I would hazard that you’re not getting it right; see below.
THE SOCIAL TAKE
Finally, the social approach to understanding love, and a factor which I suspect is gaining more and more influence in our lives. As a writer for film and television I often have to create characters known as ‘the love interest’. They exist to provide the primary character with an opportunity to explore what the writer and the audience have come to think of as ‘love’. Make no mistake, these are FUNDAMENTAL characters in the vast majority of films and television shows, and for films focusing specifically on romance, such as Notting Hill, Love Actually and Titanic, they can be the entire point. Titanic without Rose and Jack’s love story would simply be a disaster movie, and there’s a reason why so many people relate to that story and why the film was so successful with capturing audiences.
However, I have come to realise that I am part of the problem of misselling ‘love’ to audiences. The ‘love interest’ is incorrectly named, and their presence is feeding into a mythology which I don’t believe reflects reality. Films and television are very strong influencers to how we see the society around us, as they provide strong templates of what ‘love’ is and how it develops. Love at first sight is an idea that I think was cooked up by the entertainment industry, and yes I’m counting Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet under that broad umbrella. But I now strongly believe that what we have come to think of as ‘love stories’ are actually ‘lust-stories’.
Now, I don’t think that the entire motivation behind the characters of Romeo and Juliet or Jack and Rose (not a coincidence about the name similarity by the way) was that they just wanted to get into each other’s pants, but I also don’t think that it’s possible to be in ‘love’ after spending such a short amount of time together. This is not to deny that a strong connection can be made quickly, spending a weekend with someone you just met on Tinder can still get your heart racing and the butterflies flapping in your tummy. But I have come to more and more believe that this as deeply felt LUST. Perhaps we need another word here, one of those 96 Sanskrit ones might have been helpful.
There’s purely sexual lust, where all you want is the biological release, but then there’s a deeper more emotionally felt connection, let’s call it ‘deep-lust’. It can give you all the highs and lows that we have come to associate with ‘love’; the desire to spend time with the person, the biological surge of hormones, sexual desire, ruminating thoughts, everything society has incorrectly lead us to believe is ‘love’.
Using this new distinction, I can tell you that I have fallen in ‘deep-lust’ many times. I have dated people for a month and felt strongly connected to them, hell even after one date I’ve felt the same! I have looked from afar during the majority of my teenage years at a friend and almost been overwhelmed with yearning. You see ‘deep-lust’ can form incredibly quickly and seemingly deeply. It can last years, bring joy and grief, and form scars which never seem to heal. But it is NOT LOVE. Society is selling two products in the same packaging. Two people who meet on a boat CANNOT be in love after just a couple of days and a run-in with a big floating piece of ice.
But they can be in intensely felt ‘deep-lust’. The distinction between ‘love’ and ‘deep-lust’ I suspect is to do with foundational strength. Deep-lust can be built very high, very quickly, but it only takes a small shake of the structure for it to come tumbling down. Think of those people you dated for a couple of weeks and still get sad thinking about, but deep down you know that if you’d stayed together it would never have worked; I think that’s because part of you knows that the deep connection is an illusion. It was a rapid rise and fall, a rollercoaster ride, often ending just as quickly as it started when the realities of life and the other person start to kick in and the initial shock of deep-lust starts to wear off. I also suspect that you can be in deep-lust without the other person feeling the same way, but not so with love. Love requires two people in shared commitment, and its foundations are far stronger, but take far longer to form. ‘Love’ is shared experience over time. It is a novel rather than a short story, with many chapters, twists and turns.
Adding all of this together I think I’ve figured this whole love thing out. You CANNOT fall in love. There is NO love at first sight. ‘Fall’ is an incorrect describer because love is not instantaneous; despite what the Amazon-Prime 24-hour delivery society would have you believe. It is not to fall in love, but rather to grow in love. It’s not so strange then to consider the fact that one day you’ll turn around and see a friend in a surprising new light. You’ve put in the hours, and your shared experiences mean that you’ve basically done all the hard work, maybe the sudden realisation that you’re in love with them isn’t so crazy after all, in fact, maybe it’s the perfect way of doing it.
If you’re lucky enough to fall into deep-lust with someone and still want to stay together after the dust of excitement settles, or you wake up one day and realise you have feelings for your friend and that they might feel the same, then congratulations, because you could well be on the road to love. I have no idea how long the road is, or how long it will last, but if you give it a chance you might just find that elusive moment when everything comes together and you can confidently say that this is real, this is heartfelt… this is love.