The Anatomy of Love

Viola: “Tell me how you love her, Will.”
Will: “Like a sickness and its cure together.”
-Shakespeare in Love

When certain types of virus (‘retroviruses’ if you must know) get into our body, they wrangle themselves into our cells, split our DNA open, and write copies of themselves into the blueprint of our being, so that our own cells will later make copies of them. The parallel to passionate love is shocking enough that had Shakespeare known some molecular biology you can bet he would have spent many a dreary London evening dreaming up rhymes for “irus.” Though possibly the world is better off that he didn’t – as analogies go it lacks a certain amount of… romance.

If Shakespeare can’t borrow from science, maybe science can borrow from the bard, if only for the odd snappy name. In what is sometimes termed the ‘Romeo & Juliet effect,’ opposition from parents can sometimes increase feelings of passionate love. In fact, pretty much anything that boosts physical arousal can cause people to temporarily think that they’re more in love (Hatfield, 1988), up to, and including, walking across a scary wobbling suspension bridge (Dutton & Aron, 1974), and running in place (White, 1981). Passionate love is a heart pounding rush of emotion, so anything that gets the heart pounding tends to help people feel that emotion more strongly. While this sort of boost doesn’t make relationships actually LAST any longer, it does give them a wonderfully tumultuous quality for a while. If you are writing a play and want maximum drama out of the passion between your characters, it might be best to end it before they have a chance to calm down (for a good example see Shakespeare, 1597).


“Love is a many splendored thing.”
-John Lennon.

And so we can take off our white lab coats as our inspection draws to a close. I hope you loved what you read. Maybe you are worried that your relationship with this article won’t stand the test of time, though? Perhaps this will help: John Gottman has observed many relationships, and has consistently found a single feature which predicts which ones that last; they feature a lot of positive interactions -- smiling, touching, complimenting each other, laughing, and so on. Negative actions happen in them too, of course, but the positive outnumber the negative by a 6 to 1 margin in the couples that stick it out (Gottman, 1994). This ratio seems to be a critical marker. So let me tell you that this article, personally, thinks you are kind, nice, smart, and devastatingly good looking. There. If you can think of two nice things about it then you’ll get along famously. Don’t be shy now; just remember that while “all you need is love” has a nice ring, it becomes even more accurate if you switch the first two words. We all need love.

“Passion is the quickest to develop, and the quickest to fade.
Intimacy develops more slowly, and commitment more gradually still.” 
-Robert Sternberg

“Play the game
Play the game
Play the game
Of love.” 

Final score: victory psychologists.

(really there are some things that should never be given a score, and love is one of them. But psychologists are my guys, I have to show some love).

Dedicated to Karen, the girl I’m lucky enough to love.


1The wave of ersatz love wasn’t fatal – the computers were all fixed - but it did leave in its wake (as real love can also do) a messy wash of bellyaching.

 2Actually they call it “autonomy” rather than “authenticity.” Sadly this often confuses people who think autonomy means “doing any stupid thing I want whenever I want, no matter what anyone says,” while what they ACTUALLY mean is the feeling that you are freely choosing actions that are consistent with your deeper values.

3Of course they do, you’re a lovely person.

4In the strictly PG 13 sense of the word.

5Oh but it was fine to call a caveman ‘Ug’?


Altman, L. (1973). Reciprocity of interpersonal exchange. Journal for Theory of Social Behavior, 3, 249-261.

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