Making Sense of Love

In her Ted Talk ‘Why we love’ (September 2006) Helen Fisher describes the Darwinian purpose of love. Love ensures the survival of the species! It ‘pulls two people together strongly enough to begin to rear babies as a team’.

She suggests the ‘pull’ of love combines three biological drives.

Firstly, there is the sex-drive – which ‘evolved to get you out there, looking for a range of partners’. It comes with the excitement of the physical attraction, the flirtation, the lust, the urge for erotic physical gratification and orgasm. Satisfaction releases a spike of the hormone dopamine and we feel GOOD.

Secondly, there is romantic love – the most powerful of the drives – which comes with compelling biological rewards. The area of the brain most activated by falling in love is the same one that is activated by cocaine. There is a craving to be with this person and, when we are, we experience a rush from constantly elevated levels of dopamine. We feel GREAT.

It is not just about the body. It is about minds and hearts. We feel valued, appreciated, understood and accepted – and feel flooded with love in return. We revel in the similarities and dismiss the differences. Love is blind!

We are elated and excited and feel we can take on the world together and, as Ted Hughes says,
‘I think we were built to be/We’re like two feet/We need each other to get ahead’

The emotional bonds deepen and strengthen. We feel caring and protective and concerned for the wellbeing of this other person. The closeness and connection creates such a sense of emotional security that a rush of oxytocin is released. We feel EVEN BETTER.

Fisher thinks that attachment is the third drive. It evolves to enable us to remain together as long-term partners and deal with the challenge of ‘tolerating this other human being’ over time. Differences need acknowledging and negotiating. Compromise needs generosity. As trust grows, and we can picture sharing a future together, we can decide to make the commitment to have a family.

However, unfortunately, these drives can operate separately from one another and we can suddenly find ourselves walking to different rhythms!
Fisher says, ‘You can feel deep attachment to a long-term partner at the same time that you feel intense romantic love for somebody else, and at the same time feel sexually attracted to someone else again’.

The counsellors in Coupleworks work with couples who struggle with the conflict caused by the pulls of these different drives. Understanding how the brain works allows us to consider and manage our unconscious impulses. We can then make choices consciously and clearly – and deal honestly and openly with the consequences.

Kathy Rees

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