The Anatomy of Love

Perhaps stranger still is that partners can start to feel their senses of self merging. Think of a person you love closely. Look at the following pairs of circles, and pick the pair that represents the overlap between who you are, and who that person is.

Psychologists have shown that the longer a couple have been together, and the closer they are, the more overlapping the circles they tend to pick (Aron, Aron & Smollan, 1992). They refer to this as “inclusion of self in the other.” As people grow together, the other becomes a part of who we are, like a tree growing to partly swallow a bolt that has been placed through it. This is part of why breakups of long relationships hurt so much - even if all parties agrees that splitting is for the best and that they are better off apart, each is losing a piece of them selves. That’s not something one can cure with a few happy thoughts. It usually takes time to restore oneself back to being completely whole, and there aren’t a whole lot of shortcuts around this. Such is the price that must sometimes be paid. Few great things are completely free.


Bob: What think you, my lord, of... love? 
Edmund: You mean rumpy pumpy? 
- Blackadder II

Cast your mind back, oh, 300,000 years to a village of early hominids living on the Steppes of Africa. Zoom in on one roaming band, and still further to one man, Ug. He’s a nice guy, good looking, but just never really hit it off with any of the women he knew. Og is dull, Ig is paranoid, Ag is great as a friend, and he just never really understood Francis5. In short, nobody inspires him in any of the directions that lead to babies being born. Ug is not, by definition, your ancestor.

This sort of thing happens all the time, but if it happened to a whole village at once then the local cave-estate would start getting a lot cheaper, if you follow my meaning. This is the type of situation up with which nature does not put. If people don’t produce kids fast enough, then nature will do as it always does in these situations: It cheats. Outrageously. Either it gives families the itch to start arranging marriages (which is common in much of the world), or, if there is just no sane reason to marry any of the local bachelor(ette)s, it goes the direct route and simply suspends our sanity for a while. We are so used to this happening that we don’t even think it’s weird. In fact, we came up with a name for it: “falling in love.” This is the passion part of Sternberg’s triarchy.

If you think I’m exaggerating, then consider this: evidence indicates that passion (unlike intimacy and commitment) tends to fade after two to five years, at least in non-arranged western love marriages (Gupta & Singh, 1982). Guess what you can do in two to five years?

Still not convinced? How about this: new brain research shows that love deactivates the brain regions associated with negative emotions, with social judgment and with judging other people's intentions and emotions (Bartels & Zeki, 2004). In other words, when nature decides it’s time for you to get with someone, it shuts down the punishment areas of your brain, turns a dimmer switch on the parts responsible for making critical judgments, and gives you a strong sense of longing. Of the various aspects of love’s anatomy, passion is the part most bound up with… well let’s face it, anatomy. Sexual attraction is one of its hallmark features. Just four words in, we already have a pretty shrewd idea what type of love “I want to hold your hand,” is singing about. It’s not exactly a subtle thing.

The good news for couples worried that their passion might fade is that romantic love tends to bounce back after the kids leave home. The bad news is that this can take 20 plus years (Hatfield & Sprecher, 1986).

Please realize that I’m not suggesting that passionate love is ONLY about having children, or that not having children in any way invalidates a person’s passionate love. It’s an intense and dramatic state that anyone can experience, and enjoy. Just because something evolved to select for a certain outcome doesn’t mean we have to always use it for that reason. For example, we probably have the large range of arm motion that we do because it helped us throw rocks and spears, but nobody thinks that a non-spear throwing life is any less a meaningful one.

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