In this survey, we’ll attempt to understand what goes on inside our bodies when we feel romantic love. This will get divided into two categories, new love and long-lasting love. A comparison with parental love, the love for one’s child, will be assessed. Hopefully, this will provide us with insight into the differences between what causes us to feel love towards our romantic interest compared to love for our children. We’ll conclude with what goes on in the minds of men and women during physical intimacy.
Parental Love vs. Romantic Love
Scientists have shown with neuroimaging techniques that a strong romantic interest is as powerful as cocaine, as delicious as your favorite food, as refreshing as an irresistibly quenched thirst and as rewarding as a big monetary payday. Interestingly, a study out of London has shown that particular areas of the brain are “inactive,” or turned off when people attune to their romantic interests. People in the study who were “in love” lost the ability to be judgmental and critical of the behaviors and habits of their partner. The part of brain that allows us to evaluate trustworthiness in others was also suppressed. Neurobiologically, indeed it seems, “Love is Blind.” This is why it is often difficult to see faults in our partners or even in our children.
Scientists have found that our love for our romantic partners and children activate different parts of our brains associated with “feeling good.” For example, the area of the brain mediating sexual arousal is only active by our love for our romantic interests. On the other hand, areas associated with facial recognition, the ability to notice changes in facial appearance, are primarily active by images and thoughts of our children. Some suggest this is because the way we relate to our children is through observing how they grow. We shep nachas, derive pleasure, in taking note of their every transformation. This also implies our brains aren’t expecting transformations, facially, in our lovers, lending credence to the monogamy model of relationships. That is, when engaged in romantic love, the brain is expecting a consistent “face of love,” as demonstrated by the deactivation of this facial recognition region. However, love for our children elicits activity in the facial recognition region of the brain, which is active in tandem with our “feel good” associated brain regions, allowing us to derive extreme benefit from merely observing their bodily, facial, and behavioral transformations.
Many believe that even the strongest romantic relationships always hold an element of being conditional, whereas the parental-child relationship remains unconditional. There are regions of the brain that allow us to perceive that our partner understands the loving gestures we make towards them and further, is able to reciprocate that love. These regions are constantly active when engaged in a romantic relationship, suggesting it is important for us to sense that our feelings and romantic intentions be understood by our romantic partner in order for the love to thrive, continue, and last. In relation to our children, the contrast is quite great. These regions of the brain that allow us to perceive that our partner understands our gestures of love and care are suppressed or at best weakly activated. This implies that our love for our children isn’t dependent upon their reciprocation of our feelings or their understanding of our love towards them. When it comes to our children, neurologically, we love them unconditionally, because even though they struggle to grasp our intended emotional actions towards them, it doesn’t stop us from loving them.
The Neurobiology of Attraction
What brings two people together in the first place? Chemicals in the brain, one of which is called serotonin, coined the “pleasure hormone”, was actually found to be at low levels in the initial stages of attraction, while levels of anxiety were found to be high. Serotonin breeds mental calmness and reduces our propensity to feel attraction, albeit, initially. In Italy, a study outlined that the combination of low serotonin levels and high anxiety lead to a “falling in love” feeling, one where the process of “fawning” begins. Anxiety breeds focused attention, obsession, and intense mental focus on a lover, all being key features of attraction. I would like to suggest that this focused attention that lasts on average for two years, blocking out attention and desire from all other potential suitors, lends evidence, at least neurobiologically that we are built to be monogamous.
In Italy, the researchers further showed a strong difference between men and women early on in a relationship versus later in a relationship. Early on, men who are really in love, with strong feelings for their new romantic interests are found to “soften” up, becoming more sensitive, emotionally vulnerable, and empathetic. This is due to a small drop in the masculinizing chemical in their body, testosterone. Women, on the other hand, experience a rise in this same chemical early on in a romantic relationship, which assists in enhancing their sexual drive and sexual attraction for their partner. Later on, males in a long-lasting relationship were found to have higher than baseline levels of testosterone, whereas females returned to baseline. This suggests that if men want to feel like “a man” then one might appropriately recommend a long-lasting committed relationship.
Researchers in Berlin and New York wanted to understand: what makes us feel pleasure and bonded to those we love? Two chemicals in the brain, predominantly active at different times during a relationship, are implicated in eliciting bonding with another person, thus appropriately nicknamed “bonding hormones.” Early on in a romantic relationship, levels of stress and anxiety are high and this triggers the release of the first of these hormones, oxytocin. Oxytocin first gives us a rushed “pleasurable” feeling, a feeling of being bonded to the person, and then has a secondary effect of lowering our anxiety, giving us a calm feeling. First we feel bonded, connected, and attached to someone, and then we feel a sense of calm. Experientially, many attribute their closeness to someone in a relationship as being the reason for their calm affect, which eventually sets in. Now we see a neurobiological basis for this phenomenon as well. In long-lasting, strong, secure relationships, a second hormone called vasopressin is predominantly active, allowing us to continue to feel close and bonded to our partner even well after the “fawning” or “falling in love” period. Vasopressin was shown to ensure pair bonding and devotion to one’s partners. Neurobiologically speaking, stress and anxiety below a certain threshold is seen as a good thing in a relationship because it elicits the “bonding hormone.”
If closeness induces good feelings, then distance in a relationship can be very painful. There are times people describe actual pain when in poor relationships. People speak of feeling hurt physically and emotionally when they sense a lack of connection or bonding with their romantic interest. Along these lines, researchers in Sweden found that pain syndromes, such as fibromyalgia, are linked to low levels of oxytocin. Low levels of stress can lead to low levels of oxytocin, and low levels of oxytocin can be indicative of emotional pain, by reduced pair bonding, and physical pain. It appears anxiety is the catalyst for a euphoric feeling experienced in “young love,” as it triggers a “bonding hormone” to keep us bonded with our partners to create lasting love. An associated response to intense stress can be seen in women just after undergoing the labor of ultimate giving, childbirth. A mother appears to fall in love instantly, postpartum, with the baby she bore. Researchers found that there are high levels of oxytocin, the “bonding hormone,” in a mother right after childbirth. All of this is in concert with the incredible stress that was just experienced by the mother through her labor pains. Often within hours after a birth, a calming sensation washes over a mother; oxytocin rushes through the mother’s body attaching her to the experience and her baby, and acts to suppress much of the stress response.
Physical Intimacy in Men and Women
Physical bonding creates as much, if not more, neurological reactions to be examined. The first kiss gathers a wealth of information about a potential partner. The exchange of information happens via one’s olfactory sense, tactility, postural position, and of course, the caressing of the paired lips. Kissing causes one’s blood pressure and pulse to increase, pupils to dilate, breathing to deepen, all the while reducing stress for both sexes. Kissing stimulates oxytocin release in men to excite and stimulate our desire for more. In females, however, oxytocin does not rise and sometimes depreciates during a kiss, suggesting that women need “other things,” such as a more romantic atmosphere. Gender differences evolved about the meaning of a kiss. For most men, a deep kiss is largely a way of advancing to the next level sexually. For women, kissing reveals the extent to which a partner is willing to commit to a good long-term relationship and child rearing.
Physical interaction begs the mention of sex. There are stark differences between the brain activities of a man and a woman experiencing sexual climax, by orgasm. Men experience heightened brain activity; a euphoria and level of pleasure similarly seen in heroin or opiate use while in a state of orgasm. Men start “thinking” a lot after they climax and orgasm. Men attain an expansive mind opening moment, presented with an opportunity to think critically and broadly. Women by contrast have a lot of decreased activity in the brain during a post-orgasmic sexual climax. Much of the brain goes silent for women during an orgasm, especially the parts of the brains responsible for governing moral reasoning and social judgment, as well as the parts responsible for eliciting worry or fear. Women literally shut everything out allowing them to be fully invested in the moment with nothing else to distract. Women intensely feel every sensation throughout their body, while maintaining synchronous motion with their partner. Men, on the whole, have hyperactive brains in a state of orgasm, whereas women experience a quieting of the mind, having all fears subside.
In summary, attraction in a romantic relationship is catalyzed early on by a degree of anxiety, which causes an individual to be focused on his/her lover. The focused attention eliminates other distracting suitors and a bonding begins to form. This bonding brings with it a sense of calm. The calmness seduces us into feeling utterly secure about the relationship. Sexually, in a state of orgasm, men experience an expansiveness of the mind, with increased thinking. Women during orgasm, conversely, experience a quieting of the mind, facilitating intense sensitivity for their body’s feelings in the moment with suppression of fear, anxiety and social judgment. It is my hope that you now better understand the neurobiological associations of love and sex.
Dating for the Least Problematic
We are constantly bombarded with airbrushed images of stunningly attractive superstars, with physical imperfections nowhere to be found. When we watch their love stories on the screen, we cannot help but buy into the absolutely false and irresponsible idea of love-at-first-sight. Additionally, we are led to believe that their made-up relationships are actually filled with marital bliss and that most relationships actually live “happily ever after”. Is it any surprise that when making our list of top priorities, we find it replete with unrealistic and achievable demands of perfection?
To add to our sorrow, we have entered an era where, in its desire to make things faster, more comfortable and more efficient, we have become a self-absorbed society that worships effortless instant gratification. This world that we now live in frustrates us when it takes more than one minute to perfectly heat up our food, or more than one second to load a Google search listing over a million pages that discuss the exact topic we are interested in finding.
With these realities combined we have a recipe for a dating disaster, fueling a dating scene that leaves many feeling unfulfilled. Consciously or subconsciously, many believe that not only will they find their perfect match, but life will also be effortlessly perfect once they’re married.
When we take a practical look at reality, we all know that no one is actually perfect. With this recognition, we have two ways of approaching our search for a marriage partner.
The first possibility is to constantly focus on finding someone as close to perfect as possible. Unfortunately, as any marriage will attest, we quickly find that our spouse is not as close to perfect as we thought, and strong feeling of resentment and disillusionment usually sets into the relationship. In an effort to keep the marriage intact we are forced to compromise that feeling of perfection that we foolishly first sought after.
The second, and suggested, approach is to actively engage in the relationship on a realistic and practical level by constantly reminding ourselves of the cliché, “Nobody’s Perfect” and approach it with an expectation of potential issues. Whether we are currently dating or in a relationship, this reality shift is one that expects tension and struggle, and sees both as potentials for growth. I understand that this is not what we are accustomed to when searching for a match. I also understand this might take the fun romanticism out of the ideal relationships our society falsely portrays. To be very frank, with a ~50% divorce rate, and dismal 60% marital satisfaction rate of those that stay married, our society does not seem to have a positive record on what makes a successful marriage.
Theologically speaking, God does not make mistakes; He obviously made us imperfect for a reason. Traditionally explained, imperfection provides us with opportunities to grow through our differences and make sacrifices in relationships, ultimately strengthening our marriage and elevating us into better human beings. This does not mean that we are to irresponsibly go after the spouse that will cause the most problems; that would be idiotic. All I am advocating is to make the dating and marriage process less difficult and less agonizing, which can be done by changing focus.
Instead of obsessively focusing on finding a match with the best qualities, we should be concentrating on getting the spouse that will cause the least problems. If you think about it, the person with best traits is inherently the one with the least worst traits; in the end you will get the same person. The only question is how will you react and what will you feel when the problems inevitably start to surface.
If we take the first self-centered focus (i.e., going after the most perfect person), when we inevitably realize our spouse’s flaws, we force ourselves to grudgingly make unwanted concessions to what we ultimately desired. Additionally, as time sets in, our partner will start to seem just average, or even below it, compared to the original goals set.
The second mindset (i.e., wanting the spouse with the least problems) allows the partner to expect the harder times inevitably ahead, and be steadfast in dealing with them. Furthermore, when things do go right, it will be viewed as a blessing rather than an expected outcome.
Although I drafted the ideas in this article almost a decade ago, the relationship I have with my own wife has only confirmed the benefits of this approach. Looking back, when I approached an issue with an expectation of bumpiness, it allowed me to deal with my wife in a more calm and collected way. Without the unexpected frustrations of an argument, I was able to focus on how we could work through the issue and better understand my other half. With every potential pitfall behind us, I found our love and affection growing that much stronger. I suggest you try it too!
Extreme Monogamy: Jewish Marriage Ingredient #1
Let me be clear, I am not a Marriage Family Therapist, nor am I a Rabbi. However, I cannot help but feel the benefits of certain Jewish practices and beliefs on my marriage and the marriages of my acquaintances.
The proposition is simple- perhaps even elementary: the more monogamous your relationship, the better. With cheating and jealousy so rampant in our society, the question is obvious: why would people spend many years looking for a spouse, spend exorbitant amounts of money on a wedding, and publicly make vows to be faithful only to end up being intimate with someone else?
You may be thinking, “But wait a minute! What is so bad about multiple partners? Didn’t the Torah promote polygamy? After all, didn’t our forefathers Abraham and Jacob have multiple wives?” Although technically true, a closer look into the lives of our forefathers shows that while the Torah might tolerate polygamy, in no way does it promote it. Abraham only took his second wife when Sarah was desperate to bear a child. Jacob took a second wife because he was tricked into his first marriage, and he also accepted 3rd and 4th wives because, like Sarah, Leah and Rachel stopped having children and they wanted to bring more children under the Abrahamic dynasty. Interestingly enough, the ideal prototypical marriage which we recall under the chuppah, whose matchmaker was none other than God Himself, was a monogamous one, Adam and Eve. Let us also not forget that it was the villain Esav who took multiple wives simultaneously for no apparent reason.
One need not expend much energy to get a feel for the Torah’s approach towards marriage and the focus that must be paid to each partner. Already in the 2nd chapter, the Torah beautifully says, “A man leaves his father and mother and clings to his wife, so that they become one flesh.” It seems that not wholly leaving his parents might lessen the potential to fully cling to his new wife and become “one flesh”. More explicitly, Jewish law forbids partners to even think about someone else during intercourse. Even more extreme, if done with an affectionate intention, simply smelling the perfume, shaking the hand, or gazing at the beauty of another person’s spouse can be considered adulterous.
This is a far cry from the society today, where the promotion of adultery has literally become a multi-million dollar industry, with websites dedicated to facilitating these immoral rendezvous. A recent MSNBC poll found that, “About one in five adults in monogamous relationships, or 22 percent, have cheated on their current partner. “ On a more local level, one hears stories of married shop owners sleeping with their workers by day and ‘happily’ coming home for Shabbat family dinner in the evening, seemingly unphased by their actions. Likely speaking, these interactions in our community are not the norm and hopefully still on the fringe. What is not so obvious is the effect of these behaviors on our collective cultural consciousness. With the constant barrage of news about unfaithful movie stars, political leaders, and unfortunately, our own community members, is it possible to remain psychologically unaffected? I don’t think it would be far-fetched to say that extra-marital attention is becoming more tolerable.
How can our relationships succeed if our attention is diverted in so many ways towards others? Of course, there may be multiple reasons for couples drifting apart. But one thing is for sure, we must do everything in our power to keep our sexual attention inside the marriage rather than outside. Like anything important to us, we need to have proper boundaries to help us not even come close to such feelings, boundaries I would like call ‘Extremely Monogamous’. Even if our relationships are not drifting apart, perhaps some well measured boundaries will even enhance our marriages by constantly reminding us of who we should be spending our focus and attention on.
Although every relationship is different, I propose some open ended, perhaps uncomfortable, questions to ask oneself:
What are we actively doing to make our marriage more special and exciting?
Would we be speaking so friendly with that person’s spouse if they were not as attractive?
What are we watching when our spouses are not around?
Are we comparing our spouse to others?
There is no doubt that some might discount the points and feeling mentioned as being outdated, prude and unattainable. Although not easy, such devotion is attainable. Our marriages should be our priority, and our sexual attention should solely be focused on our spouses. Think it is impossible in today’s society? We have such devotion during the wedding night, why can’t we have it ‘till death do us part’? Our marriage’s are deserving of it. Let’s move towards truly cleaving to our spouses other and becoming one flesh, a charge that our Holy Torah demands of our marriages.
True Love: Do You Have What It Takes To Get There?
“Love” is a term that gets used very casually in our day-to-day lives. It’s utilized to convey a strong liking towards something and an explicit desire to associate with it. For instance, we say, “I love what you said,” “I love your idea,” and “I love the blue one!” In all these examples, we are expressing our passion for a subject, and announcing that we derive pleasure from it. While it might seem here that the subjects in these cases are praiseworthy, the reality is that what we are really doing in these scenarios is we are making statements about ourselves. When we verbally express love for something, we are actually describing how something makes us feel.
The verbal expression of love typically has another function as well. Often it is used to get a reaction from the person to whom we direct it. When someone tells someone, “I love you,” he or she could be communicating that they enjoy the other person. The point that is often overlooked here is that the speaker is usually also trying to get the other person’s attention, especially if it is repeated over and over again. At that point, one might ask: if you love the person so much, why do you keep repeating it? While many might think that the more “I love you” is said the more love there is in a relationship, the truth is that sometimes the habitual repetition of “I love you” could actually be indicative of something else – namely, a marked need for external validation, approval, or acknowledgement. Of course, there is nothing inherently wrong with telling those we care about that we love them, or even wanting acknowledgement, but the key here is to be mindful of what we are saying and why we are really saying it. Such thoughtfulness can help differentiate between loving, and Loving.
Truly loving someone goes beyond just expressing how something makes us feel, or trying to get someone’s attention. It’s about respecting the other person in such a way whereby we act with kindness, sensitivity, and understanding, and preserve his or her integrity. It’s about meeting the other person where he or she is, and being there for them in the way they want us to be there for them. It’s about giving them what they need, and not simply what we want to give them. It’s about focusing more on them, not us.
It takes a lot of work to be able to truly love another. It first involves understanding the person for who he or she is. That’s essential. If you don’t know who the person actually is, it is impossible to truly love him or her. Maybe you like who you think the person is, or how he or she makes you feel, but you cannot actually love the person because you don’t really know who he or she is. But that doesn’t mean you will never know him or her. Indeed, it is very possible that you can get to know the person, but that’s where the works lies. At the core, understanding others starts with understanding ourselves. We can only understand others as much as we understand ourselves. After all, the relationship we have with others is a direct reflection of the relationship we have with ourselves. From here it follows that the more we are attuned to ourselves, the more we understand ourselves, and love ourselves, the more we can project such love in our relationships with others and give them what they really need.
A general litmus test of true love is the following. Imagine you got a gift for a loved one — for a spouse, a partner, a child, or a friend. You have spent a lot of time and effort carefully picking out the gift, wanting to see that it’s going to be something your loved one is going to like. So you get it, and excitedly bring it to him or her because you know it is going to be something they really like. In the meantime, unbeknownst to you, your loved one is having a really bad day. So you give them the gift as planned, but are surprised when they get really angry and throw the gift back at you, exclaiming, “I don’t care about this stupid ____.” How do you feel? What do you think? What do you do? If this reaction makes you feel angry, disappointed, and possibly even regretful for having gone through all that work to pick out such a gift, it seems the primary motivation here was to get acknowledgment or validation from your loved one for having done something nice for them. After all, your discomfort stems from not getting the warm reception you were seeking. However, if your loved one’s reaction conjures a sense of concern within you for them, a desire to truly understand why they are upset, and you meanwhile do not take their comment about the gift very personally, then you are likely operating from a higher level of love. A more real kind of love. You got the gift for them because you really care about them. In spite of their reaction, you don’t regret all the effort you put into getting the gift, you don’t feel sad that they did not acknowledge the gift; instead, you feel compassion for them knowing that they are going through a tough time and you are invested in being there for them in the way they want – sensitively, compassionately, with understanding. Needless to say, this requires a certain level of self-understanding and clarity, to be able to appreciate that what they are upset at probably has little, if anything, to do with you personally.
Truly loving another assumes that we have a certain amount of knowledge, understanding, and love for ourselves. We can only know others as much as we know ourselves. We can only understand others as much as we understand ourselves. We can only love others as much as we love ourselves. So the more we actually know, understand, and love ourselves for who we are, the better equipped we are to really know, understand, and, ultimately, love others for who they really are.
And at that point, we won’t even need to tell them we love them. They’ll know.
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