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Why Love Fails and How to Master Relationships
Why Love Fails Part I: Falling in Love
My friends, I want to take you on a journey to understand one of the most powerful forces known to humans - romantic love. I want to explore three questions with you during our voyage:
1) First, what does it mean to "fall in love"?
2) Second, why does love fail?
3) And third, how to sustain a supportive and loving relationship based on trust and commitment?
Let's start our journey with our first question: What does it mean to fall in love? I want to start with this question because in popular culture love is often equated with the feelings of "falling in love." I will get back to the potential danger of equating being "in love" with what we think of as love. But first, let's explore what happens when we are in love.Take a moment and consider a time when you have been "in love" or have known somebody who has been "in love." All we want to do is be with the other person, and nothing else seems as important.
It reminds me of the star trek episode, "This Side of Paradise" from the original series. Spock is half Vulcan, so he was trained from a child not to have any emotions and to rely strictly on logic. Throughout the series, we get to know Spock as somebody who prides himself on these two attributes.One day he is sent to evacuate settlers on a planet. Within days everybody will be dead if they do not leave. But, then Spock gets hit with cupid's arrow, or more specifically he inhales some alien spores and falls in love. We then learn what is on the other side of logic [dramatic music].We see another side of Spock. A more carefree side. Spock is not afraid to take a day off from his duties as science officer on the Starship Enterprise to enjoy a beautiful day in the park with his beloved. We see him laying his head on his beloved's lap and looking at all the different cloud shapes. Captain Kirk is hailing him because the planet needs to be evacuated or they are all doomed, but Spock has more important things to do like kissing his new companion. Spock's friends are not sure what to make of this sudden change in his deposition. Why is this man of logic acting so goofy? Well, my friends, Spock is in love, and even the impending doom of the planet he must evacuate does not seem as important to him as being with his new love. It is only when Captain Kirk discovers a way to rid Spock of the alien spores does he return to his logical ways. At the end of the episode, Spock comments on his experience and without emotions says, "for once in my life I was happy."
Excerpt from Star Trek Episode "This Side of Paradise"
Every year countless millions of couples fall in love. These love sick couples have their world's turned inside out. We even have the imagery of being hit by Cupid's arrow that we inherited from the mythology of the Greeks and Romans. According to the story, Cupid's - or Eros in Greek -power is with his bow and arrow. Anybody who is struck with his arrow is filled with an uncontrollable desire for the person they are with at the time. No one is immune to the power of his weapons, not even Cupid. In one story, Venus becomes jealous of the beauty of Psyche, her daughter from an unseemly affair she had with a mortal. She sends Cupid to make Psyche fall in love with a hideous dragon-like creature. Instead, he accidently scratches himself with his arrow and falls in love with Psyche and disobeys Venus. After much turmoil and drama, Cupid and Psyche marry and have their child Hedone (pleasure).
While we may consider this story quaint or mildly entertaining, there may be more truth to it than we initially imagine. During the last decades, neuroscience has revealed what happens to our brains when we fall in love. It turns out our brains get a shot of some very potent chemicals. First, the hypothalamus releases dopamine into the body causing feelings of ecstasy and excitement. As dopamine level increases, serotonin decreases. The lower levels of serotonin are equivalent to those found in people with obsessive-compulsive disorder. The hypothalamus also produces oxytocin and vasopressin. These chemicals can help to shut off the parts of the brain that regulate fear and stress. The overall combination of these chemicals can lead to feelings of unity, euphoria, obsession, as well as increased risk taking and impaired judgment. We can imagine that this is the chemical cocktail that Cupid is shooting into people - straight into their brains.
With such powerful chemicals at play, it is easy to see how even Spock or Cupid are not immune to its power. We can think of it as nature's incentive to ensure the survival of our species. Much stronger than mere sexual attraction, the state of being in love leads us to feel unity and euphoria with our beloved, we become obsessed with them and are willing to take huge risks to be with them, even sometimes against our better judgment. For many of us, we consider that we have found our soulmates and the person we want to marry and commit our lives to. We are willing to make that huge commitment to that one person we consider our soulmate and put up with all the obstacles and challenges that may arise. And if we have kids we pass our genes on to them so the process can repeat itself again when they become adults.
Understanding the biology of falling in love has its limitations. It fails to capture the magic and poetry of being in love. When I fell in love with my wife Stephanie, it was a transformational experience for me. It awakened a pleasure or joy in me that I had just about given up on when I met her in my 40s. Within a month of dating, we were practically inseparable from each other - like two peas in a pod. With Stephanie, I felt like I could be truly myself and we just got each other in ways that I never experienced before. I remember how explosive it was to kiss Stephanie for the first time. It was like time stood still and then exploded into a supernova. Within a year we were married, and as of this writing, we are expecting our first child. Being in love with her, and experiencing her love back, is like touching heaven. I treasure the whole experience and consider it a blessing.
While falling in love is a blessing, it can also be a curse. As I alluded to above, certain dangers or misunderstandings often arise with how we conceptualize love. To go back to the wisdom of the Greeks, they created a typology or classification system for love of which eros, or what we associate with "being in love," is just one kind. They also had distinct names for other types of love including:
1) "philia" - what we would consider the love between friends,
2) "pragma" - the mature or enduring love based on compromise and mutuality,
3) and "agape" or selfless/unconditional love.
If all we know and expect from a committed relationship is the love of eros, then we are missing a bigger picture that can leave us ill-prepared and ill-equipped to manage the challenges that we will inevitably encounter. Even if you and your partner are kind, well-adjusted, and loving people, eventually challenges will arise because we are not "perfect" and we live in an "imperfect" world. Even so, I remember the first time Stephanie said something that hurt my feelings. It was jarring, how could my beautiful and loving darling say such a thing? Just as painful, if not more, is realizing when you have done or said something that has hurt your beloved.
If we believe that as long as we fall in love with Mr. Right or Ms. Right, then everything will be okay, what will we do when they hurt our feelings or when we have a disagreement. More times than not we will fall back into our habitual patterns for how we cope with these challenges in the past. The same goes for our partner. If we are lucky, our usual response will be skillful and so will our partners. Over time other types of loves will build upon what the Greeks called eros including philia (friendship), pragma (enduring love based on compromise), and agape (selfless love). The combinations of these different types of love will lead to a supportive relationship that will sustain joy and happiness in our lives. Indeed, repeated research studies have shown that being in a fully supportive relationship is one of the most powerful predictors of health, happiness, and longevity.
Unfortunately, the odds are not in our favor. In the US, half of all marriages fail, and many marriages that stay together are in ambivalent or unhappy relationships. Why does love so often fail? Scientists have been able to predict relationship failure with over 90% accuracy from a handful of powerful predictors. Next, we will explore the question, "Why does love fail?"