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What Is Love? Baby, Don’t Hurt Yourself no More

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11 min

What Is Love? Baby, Don’t Hurt Yourself no More

You feel it in your fingers, you feel it in your toes… But although love is all around us, many of us are never explicitly taught how to love someone or what healthy love is.

Frequently, before we experience it first-hand, we learn what love means from fairytales, songs, and television, with storylines that often describe love that’s toxic and unhealthy.

So, we grow up not knowing answers to questions like “How do you know if you love someone for real?” or “How can I recognize the red flags that signal unhealthy love?”

Understanding love, romantic emotions, and what being in a healthy relationship means is crucial for our well-being. Because the statistics from the US are grim:

  • 43% of college women who are dating report violent and abusive intimate partner behavior
  • Approximately 25% of women will experience violence from intimate partners over their lifetimes
  • Women aged between 18 and 24 have the highest chance of experiencing abuse by an intimate partner

None of this is healthy love, even if these relationships start with feelings of love. That’s why we need to educate ourselves and others about the deep meaning of love and what it means to be in a functional, loving relationship.

The definition of love

The American Psychological Association (APA) defines love as a complex emotion that involves affection and tenderness toward your love interest, pleasurable sensations when you’re around them, and caring about their well-being.

This explanation of love means you feel comfortable in the person’s presence and want them to be happy, whether it’s romantic, platonic, or parental love. Incidentally, this also applies to self-love.

This description of love is what we should feel. But love means different things to different people. What is love to you? Is it a struggle, a mess, a burden? Does it involve obsession, recklessness, conflict? If you answered “yes” to any of these, keep reading to see how a healthy love differs from an unhealthy one. 

But before that, let’s dig deeper into the understanding of love, how it originates, and the biological and psychological factors that give us butterflies in the stomach.

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The physiology of love

Have you ever wondered if love is hardwired into our biology? Or whether it’s a divine human emotion that we’ve developed on top of our mating instinct? Is it magic, or is it biology? Neuroscientists agree that being in love is a necessity, just like quenching thirst or hunger.

In nature, there are two main ways to spread genes: play the field to plant as many seeds as possible, not caring if the offspring even make it, or mate with a single partner over a long period of time and ensure that the offspring grow up to be independent. We humans fall into the second category and strive to find a special person with whom to share our lives. And we do this through human love.

Pairing monogamously is a hallmark of the human species,” says Dr. Helen Fisher, a famous biological anthropologist. “From the evolution of pair bonding came the evolution of human brain systems for sex drive, romantic love, and feelings of deep attachment.

There’s not much research on how we fall in love. Scientists have begun exploring the process of love in a relationship much later than poets and philosophers.

But their results are nonetheless impressive. In one experiment, scientists asked people undergoing an MRI scan to think about their romantic partners and others, such as their parents. 

The results showed that diverse areas of the brain lit up. 

Which is important,” says Dr. Gail Saltz, a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst, “because different areas are responsible for the release of different neurotransmitters.” 

So, this is proof that we have distinct feelings of love for the special people in our lives.

People in the early stage of emotional love (the “infatuation” stage) show activity in the ventral tegmental area (VTA). This is the small but primal part of the brain responsible for arousal, reward, and motivation. It also triggers our feelings of thirst, hunger, and basic reflexes like swallowing.

At the same time, the prefrontal cortex, the brain region responsible for critical thinking and sensible decision-making, takes a siesta. And that’s why we can’t find any faults in our new love interest. Your cognitive center is simply wearing rose-colored glasses.

The neurotransmitters affect

The activation of the VTA releases dopamine, the neurotransmitter of reward, sending it out to different brain regions. We get a euphoric rush of dopamine when we do something new (get a new, rewarding experience, especially if it was hard and we failed at the beginning) or addictive (like gambling or drugs).

Dopamine tells us something (like love emotions) that feels amazing, and we want to repeat that action. Or, in the case of love, repeat interactions with an intimate partner.

Interesting fact: The neurotransmitters dopamine and serotonin, which are involved in romantic love, can increase the risk of developing an obsession or addiction to one’s romantic partner. 

In fact, being deeply interested in someone and seeing the best in everything about them is often a red flag of obsessive love, a sign of an unhealthy toxic relationship that might not work well.

And here’s a less fun fact: dopamine and serotonin are neurotransmitters that are related to depression. That’s why you ruminate a lot when you have feelings of love, constantly thinking about your loved one. 

And, if your partner is separated from you,” says Dr. Saltz, “you’re going to have this longing, kind of like you’d want to be with a drug if it was taken away from you and you were already addicted to it.”

If you get a feeling of love toward someone you’ve just had incredible sex with, that’s understandable, too. Oxytocin, the “cuddling” neurotransmitter responsible for the feeling of bonding and attachment, skyrockets after successful physical intimacy (if you know what I mean).

The good news is, that this rave party of neurotransmitters settles down in about one to two years, making way for a calmer, more companionate love (thanks to oxytocin and vasopressin). 

How to explain why you love someone

The heart is the part of our body usually associated with love. However, it’s the brain that’s responsible for love in a relationship.

Dr. Helen Fisher knows a thing or two about our brains and love because, together with colleagues, she seems to have found the answer to the mysterious question: why do you love someone in particular?

Dr. Fisher has immersed herself in literature for two years, uncovering four biological systems linked to our personality traits: dopamine, serotonin, testosterone, and estrogen. She then created a questionnaire, aiming to pinpoint the magic behind who’s naturally drawn to whom.

Over 15 million people across 40 countries took the questionnaire, proving her hypothesis. She even validated the results twice using MRI scans. And, so, here is love explained.

People high on the dopamine scale showed activity in the dopamine pathways of their brains. They are:

  • Curious
  • Creative
  • Spontaneous
  • Energetic
  • Mentally flexible
  • Risk-takers 

If your traits are linked with the dopamine system, you’ll have love feelings for someone like yourself.

People who scored high on her serotonin scale had increased activity in the brain areas linked to social norms conformity. If you express specific genes in the serotonin system, you are:

  • Traditional
  • Rule-following
  • Value-driven
  • Conventional
  • Not keen on exploration
  • Respectful toward authority
  • Detail-oriented

Someone high on the traits of the serotonin system usually experiences emotional love toward people like themselves

People with high testosterone scores had the highest points in areas related to visual and mathematical perception, says Dr. Fisher. They are: 

  • Analytical
  • Decisive
  • Assertive
  • Logical
  • Tough-minded
  • Direct
  • Skeptical
What is love in the relationships?

These people (both men and women) are good with rule-based systems (engineering, math, music) and have romantic emotions for their opposites.

People who scored high on the estrogen scale showed more activity in the mirror neurons linked with empathy. They are:

  • Expressive
  • Intuitive
  • Trusting
  • Imaginative
  • Great at reading people

These people tend to see the big picture, think long-term, and have love feelings toward their opposites.

These are the “natural” reasons we fall for one person and not another, meaning this biochemistry is what we’re born with. But there are also cultural reasons we pick up from our environment.

These include the same ethnic and socioeconomic background, the same level of education, similar values, and, of course, proximity. 

But generally, you have to be ready and willing to accept love emotions. Dr. Fisher says we have three distinctly different brain systems: sex drive (linked with testosterone), romantic love (linked with dopamine), and attachment (linked with oxytocin and vasopressin). And if someone is experiencing the sex drive system, they are not ready to fall in love.

Healthy love explained

Social scientists and psychologists have been debating over what love is for the last 40 years, coming up with theories and scales and categorizing feelings and love emotions. If this interests you, here’s a good read: “A brief history of social scientists’ attempts to measure passionate love.”

I personally don’t care much for the musings of sociology professors on the types of love. What’s most important to me is that love is healthy. With a feeling so inexplicable and powerful, it’s easy to mistake love for something it is not.

But before we get to that, allow me to show you the traits of healthy, functional love

  • Understanding: An emotional love connection fosters a deep understanding of each other. Embracing the real you without judgment builds a foundation of acceptance.
  • Respect: Treat each other as equals, value opinions, and trust your judgment without seeking control.
  • Support: Look out for each other, offering encouragement. Be each other’s cheerleader, celebrating successes without jealousy or rivalry.
  • Aligned goals: Support each other in your goals and rejoice in your successes. A healthy love in a relationship thrives on shared happiness, not competition.
  • Patience and kindness: Accept flaws, talk openly about problems, and invest time and effort in nurturing the relationship.
  • Willingness to compromise: A healthy conflict is based on honesty and open communication.
  • Loyalty and faithfulness: Remain faithful to each other. Cherish the unique connection you have and avoid the temptation to find something new elsewhere.
  • Positive influence: Inspire each other to make positive changes. Encourage personal growth and bring out the best qualities in each other. Foster self-love, support, and belief in one another.
  • Autonomy: You don’t dissolve in one another, lose your individuality, and don’t evolve enmeshment trauma. An example of healthy love is two complete individuals who choose each other every day.
  • Honesty and trust: Build the pillars of honesty, trust, and respect. Maintain openness and emotional intimacy to strengthen the connection.
  • Nurture: Be respectful, mindful, and work as a team to ensure physical and emotional safety.
  • Vulnerability: Allow vulnerability to deepen emotional intimacy. Support each other’s individuality and address conflicts openly.

So, what does it mean to love someone in a healthy way? In a nutshell, functional love is built on trust, respect, open communication, and mutual support.

It thrives on positive influence, patience, and the willingness to compromise, creating a safe and nurturing space for both individuals to flourish. Most importantly, healthy love feels physically and emotionally safe.

You can find some great love examples in TV series, like Pam and Jim from The Office or Beth and Randall from This Is Us. But my favorite pair are Leslie Knope and Ben Wyatt from Parks and Recreation.

The way they support and respect each other without overshadowing each other despite working in the same field is amazing.

They positively influence one another, and each of them loves the partner’s quirks. They’re kind, they compromise, and they allow their partner to be vulnerable. And their “I like you, and I love you” wedding vows will forever live in my heart rent-free. 

Hannah Schlueter, Licensed Associate Counselor (LAC) added some comments on understanding what love is How we begin to understand feelings of love starts from the moment we are born. While expressions of love exist in every type of relationship, we know that not all expressions of love are healthy or sustainable. The neurotransmitters involved can be powerful signals, but may not always guide you in the right direction. Knowing the signs of both healthy and unhealthy relationships can help you seek and maintain authentic relationships that support feelings of safety, connection, and love.

What is not love

Now that we’ve seen a description of healthy love, we can finally discuss the most important topic: Is it love or something else?

Love takes you up on a rollercoaster of emotions in rose-colored glasses. With your head dizzy and your stomach full of butterflies, it’s easy to mistake fixation, codependency, or a childhood trauma bond for pure love.

Dysfunctional patterns and toxic traits may creep up on us when we least expect it. And before you know it, you’re sitting on your friend’s couch in tears, struggling to answer the question, “Why do you love someone who treats you so poorly?

Signs of unhealthy love

Unhealthy love is one step away from abuse. What starts with a lack of communication, disrespect, dishonesty, and attempts to take control of the other partner can turn into threats, mistreatment, isolation, and jealousy.

Over one in three women (35.6%) and one in four men (28.5%) in the US have experienced abuse by an intimate partner in their lifetime.

Katie Hood, the former CEO of the One Love Foundation, speaks across America to educate young people on the healthy and unhealthy types of love. And here are the signs of toxic relationships that she recommends keeping an eye out for:

  • Isolation: Recognize the difference between a healthy desire to spend time together and isolation from important people in your life. Unhealthy love pulls you away from friends and family, undermining your support system and tethering you solely to your partner.
  • Intensity: Be cautious of relationships that start with intense excitement but evolve into overwhelming suffocation over time. Watch out for love-bombing, where feelings of love and affection turn into control and impatience.
  • Belittling: Take note if your partner is practicing emotional abuse, mocks you hurtfully, laughs at your expense, or accuses you of overreacting. In a healthy relationship, your partner should uplift and support you, not tear you down or diminish your confidence.
  • Extreme jealousy: Be wary if your partner needs to know your every move, starts following you, financially abuses you, or exhibits possessiveness and mistrust. Healthy love means that your partner respects your independence and trusts you without the need for constant surveillance.
  • Volatility: Watch out for frequent breakups and makeups, extreme emotional highs and lows, or hateful comments followed by passionate apologies. A rollercoaster relationship often lacks stability and can be emotionally draining.

Remember, healthy love in a relationship is built on open communication, mutual respect, kindness, and patience. Nobody is perfect, but consistent effort is essential.

However, not every unhealthy relationship can be transformed into a healthy one; sometimes, leaving is the best option for your well-being. Prioritize your mental and emotional health, and don’t hesitate to step away from toxic dynamics.

In summary

The portrayal of love emotions in fairytales and the media often blurs the line between healthy and toxic dynamics. Also, if patterns of unhealthy love were modeled for you growing up, it can be harder to recognize the signs. So, understanding love is crucial, especially in light of the alarming statistics on relationship abuse we’ve covered.

And if I can leave you with one piece of advice, it’s this: know your worth and refuse to settle for less. You are worthy of a healthy love and a partner who respects and inspires you to become the best version of yourself. Neurotransmitters will do the rest.

Hannah Schlueter, MA, LAC photo

Reviewed by Hannah Schlueter, MA, LAC

Hannah is a Licensed Professional Counselor with a Master's in Clinical Mental Health Counseling. She sees kids, teens, and adults...