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What Is Love?

By Jeremy Ireland, Psychotherapist on May 8, 2018 in Other

Love is only a feeling, by Justin Hawkins.

A friend of mine introduced me to his new girlfriend at a recent social engagement. He was nervous and, due to the short period of time this new relationship had been deemed a romantic one, I suspect he felt a little uncomfortable in actually referring to her as his ‘girlfriend’.
In an effort to ease the tension somewhat, he attempted to make the introduction comical: “Hey Jeremy, this is my girlfriend and future ex-wife, Sophia.”
Sophia and I shook hands, grappling the awkwardness of the moment. I decided to let the attempted humour go through to the keeper, but the “future ex-wife” comment got me thinking.
It turns out that half of all marriages in Australia end in divorce. That’s right, one in two, or 50 per cent! No matter which way you look at the numbers, they’re high. But not as high as some others, with Belgium topping the list at a whopping 70 per cent failure rate!
So what is it that makes couples who were once loved up decide to pull the plug? It would be fair to say that no one deliberately sets out to fall in love. It is an involuntary state that is hard to control and, although it’s not technically an emotion, love has the ability to effect other emotions in both good and bad ways. New love is fuelled by all sorts of good things, especially the familiar hormones of oestrogen and testosterone, as well as neurochemicals such as dopamine and oxytocin. Love gives you a natural high that leaves you wanting more; it completely hooks you.
From an evolutionary standpoint, being in love makes sense and can be a powerful motivator. After all, the need to replicate and keep our species going is hardwired into the brain. When couples are fully loved up and in this heightened condition, it is known as ‘limerence’ and lasts anywhere from six months to two years (you can also read Matty Silver’s article on page 66 for more information on this topic). Sadly, this limerence wanes and couples find themselves moving out of this passionate love phase into what is known as ‘companionate’ love, like the love we see in our grandparents. This develops slowly as two lives mesh with a mutual responsiveness to needs and an attachment that builds over time.
Unfortunately, the stability and happiness that people crave for in a relationship can often land wide of the mark. A study published by the American Psychological Association back in 1999 looked at marital satisfaction over a ten-year period. Although all marriages are different and can’t be easily categorised, a certain pattern did emerge. Both partners reported a steady decline in marital quality, with the steepest fall happening just after one year when the ‘honeymoon’ period has ended. The second big fall occurs at the seven-year mark, commonly known as the ‘seven-year itch’. This pattern of decline is still very relevant today.
There are various reasons why this happens, but one particular theory posed over 200 years ago by the English philosopher Schopenhauerian suggests that the partner we see as highly suitable to have a child with is almost never really very suitable for us – the blindfold of love keeping the planet populated. Speaking of children, the steep decline on the marriage quality study at the one-year mark correlates spectacularly with having them! Raising kids, although rewarding, can be one of the most difficult things you’ll ever do and can test even the most loved up couples.
But kids aside, the big one is communication and conflict. Disagreement can lead to friction and, if it’s not addressed, can slowly erode a relationship beyond repair. This pattern is known as ‘negative affect reciprocity’, or a tit-for-tat exchange of negative emotions and feelings. This kind of negative affect tends to snowball for couples who are not happy, leaving them in a constant state of duelling and an inability to break the vicious cycle.
So, what is love? Yes, it’s a great song title, but in reality it requires hard work, compromise, a willingness to forgive, and the ability to manage distress, to name just a few. If in doubt, here are some tips. First, for the man: take the garbage out, put the toilet seat down, drink less and massage her feet. For the lady: don’t ask him to take the garbage out, don’t flip out if the toilet seat is up, have a glass of wine and let him massage your feet. Above all, communicate with each other and never assume your partner knows how you feel. Oh, and don’t forget to use the ‘L’ word occasionally!