February, being the month of love, I took a look at the difference between the chemistry and process of the acts of “falling in love” vs “loving”.  I used the writings of M. Scott Peck, psychiatrist and author of “The Road Less Travelled: A New Psychology of Love, Traditional Values and Spiritual Growth , and called my talk, Love Along “The Road Less Travelled”.

He talks about life, love and taking responsibility; and starts his classic book by saying,

“Life is difficult. This is a great truth, one of the greatest truths. It is a great truth because once we truly see this truth, we transcend it. Once we truly know that life is difficult – once we truly understand and accept it – then life is no longer difficult. Because once it is accepted, the fact that life is difficult no longer matters.”

Love, and particularly, lost love make life in difficult at times for all of us.

We began by reading this extract from the book…

“Of all the misconceptions about love, the most powerful and pervasive is the belief that “falling in love” is love, or at least one of the manifestations of love. It is a potent misconception, because falling in love is subjectively experienced in a very powerful fashion as an experience of love. When a person falls in love, what s/he certainly feels is “I love him” or “I love her”, but two problems are immediately apparent.

The first is that the experience of falling in love is specifically a sex-linked erotic experience. We do not fall in love with our children, even though we may love them very deeply.

We do not fall in love with our friends of the same-sex – unless we are homosexuality oriented – even though we may care greatly for them.

We fall in love only when we are consciously or unconsciously sexually motivated.

The second problem is that the experience of falling in love is invariably temporary.

No matter who we fall in love with, we sooner or later fall out of love if the relationship continues long enough. This is not to say that we invariably cease loving the person with whom we fell in love. But it is to say that the feelings of ecstatic lovingness that characterize the experience of falling in love always passes.

However, by stating that it is when a couple falls out of love, they may begin to really love, I am also implying that real love does not have its roots in a feeling of love. To the contrary, real love often occurs in a context in which the feeling of love is lacking, when we act lovingly despite the fact that we don’t feel loving. Assuming the reality of the definition of love with which we started, the experience of “falling in love” is not real love for the several reasons that follow.

Falling in love is not an act of will. It is not a conscious choice. No matter how open to or eager for it we may be, the experience may still elude us. We can choose how to respond to the experience of falling in love, but we cannot choose the experience itself.

Falling in love is not an extension of one’s limits or boundaries; it is a partial and temporary collapse of them. The extension of one’s limits requires effort; falling in love is effortless.  Once the precious moment of falling in love has passed and the boundaries have snapped back into place, the individual may be disillusioned, but it is usually none the larger for the experience. When limits are extended or stretched, however, they tend to stay stretched. Real love is a permanently self-enlarging experience. Falling in love is not.

Falling in love has little to do with purposely nurturing one’s spiritual development. If we have any purpose in mind when we fall in love, it is to terminate our own loneliness and perhaps ensure this result through marriage. Certainly we are not thinking of spiritual development. Indeed, after we have fallen in love and before we have fallen out of love again, we feel that we have arrived, that the heights have been attained and that there is both no need and no possibility of going higher. We do not feel ourselves to be in any need of development; we are totally content to be where we are. Our spirit is at peace. Nor do we perceive our beloved as being in need of spiritual development. To the contrary, we perceive him/her as perfect, as having been perfected. If we see any faults in our beloved, we perceive them as insignificant – little quirks or darling eccentricities that only add colour and charm…” p 89-90.

Humans have the profound ability to see what they want to see, rather than what is really there. Only later, when our boundaries are back in place, do those faults begin to annoy us, often to the point of separation.

What Neuroscience tells us, is that no matter what we learn about love, it will continue to be one of the most meaningful and powerful forces on the planet, as it should be. Albert Einstein said, “How on earth are you ever going to explain in terms of chemistry and physics so important a biological phenomenon as first love?”

According to “Psychology today”, thinking about one’s new beloved triggers activity in the VTA area of the brain, which releases a flood of the neurotransmitter dopamine, the “pleasure chemical”, into the brain’s pleasure or reward centres.

This gives the lover a high similar to that of the effect of narcotics, and it’s very addictive.  The brain also experiences an increase in the stress hormone norepinephrine, which increases the heart rate and blood pressure.  This gives similar effects to those using potent addictive stimulants, such as methamphetamines.

The brain in love experiences a drop in the neurotransmitter serotonin, which usually gives a sense of being in control, guarding against the anxiety of uncertainty. When it drops, our sense of control decreases and we become obsessively fixated on things that that test our sense of stability. Since love is by definition unpredictable, it’s a prime target for obsession. The term “crazy in love” isn’t too far off the truth.

The prefrontal cortex—our brain’s reasoning, command, and control centre—drops into low gear when we’re in love. At the same time, the amygdala, which is a key component in the threat-response system, reduces its effectiveness. So, we have a willingness to take more risks, and even be reckless in normal terms.

Although not common, the effects of romantic love can last a lifetime. The brain views long-term romantic love as goal-oriented behaviour, which has the rewards of reduction of stress and anxiety, security, calmness and union with another.

The male brain can fall in love as hard and fast as the female brain, except a male is more visually and sexually stimulated; while a woman’s brain is more motivated by reward, emotion and attention.

Being able to maintain a loving relationship all starts with self-love, which means one has the constant desire for self-improvement. If you don’t love yourself, or if you don’t consider yourself valuable, you won’t spend the time and energy to improve yourself. “Love and self-love must go hand in hand and ultimately, they‘re indistinguishable.”

Love is about volition, a choice. Peck says, “Love is the will to extend one’s self for the purpose of nurturing one’s own or another’s spiritual growth”.  This means commitment and personal investment in both your futures. “True love is not a feeling by which we are overwhelmed. It is a committed, thoughtful decision.”  It is effortful; it requires giving attention to our partner, spending time together and the sincerity with which we try to help them overcome their problems and, ultimately, the unbreakable desire to see them happy and fulfilled, not in our way, but in their own very special and unique way.”

“Love is as love does,” Scott continues. “Love is a verb, not a feeling”.  Love is what you pour into your relationship.  We can only genuinely love a very limited number of people – our spouse, children and parents. Of course we have other meaningful relationships, where the person means a lot to us.

He warns that love is not to be confused with dependency, which is unhealthy. “Two people love each other only when they are quite capable of living without each other, but choose to live with each other.”

He uses the metaphor: “Love is like a base camp that enables us to climb solitary peaks.”

“If you expect another person to make you happy, you’ll be endlessly disappointed.”

To end off, a quote to remember is: “Love is not giving, it is judicious giving. “

Compiled by Melanie Hall RScP.