As Valentine’s Day approaches, our thoughts turn to romance. Unfortunately, many of our cultural myths about love, from fairy tales to rom coms, paint a very distorted picture. In stories, love is a static reward — you go out and find your prince or princess, overcome whatever obstacles the world throws in your way, and achieve a state of romantic happiness. But love is not the pot of gold waiting at the end of our quest, incarnated in a single perfect partner. Instead it’s something we need with us every step of the way — it energizes us, gives us courage, and guides us. But we are just beginning to understand how it works.
It turns out that all kinds of love — for friends, family, and lovers — are induced by similar neurochemical circuits in our brains. As Dr. Larry Young and Brian Alexander explain in The Chemistry Between Us, when these are activated, we’re flooded with elation and the whole world seems brighter. Dr. Young suggests that over millennia, we evolved to be social animals. For that to happen, social attachments had to become immensely rewarding, to compensate for the difficulties such relationships also entail. Our bodies and brains evolved not just to find pleasure in being together long enough to reproduce, but to derive deep pleasure from being intensely engaged with each other over the long term. We are built to be filled with the well-being, exuberance, and joy that are derived from being in love — and to suffer misery when love is absent.
Falling in love, or failing to do so, can literally transform us. It is, perhaps, the most powerful drug we know. I spoke with Dr. Young about patients of mine who had been invalids, largely confined to their homes, who overcame serious physical and mental anguish sufficiently to live full lives once they fell in love. He pointed out that some people who are repulsed by small children, infants, and their body products are similarly transformed by the surge of hormones that ensue upon the birth of a child; they fall in love and are energized, despite physical pain and exhaustion, and enjoy the very things that formerly disgusted them.
A more intense version of the neurochemical cascade that floods us during sexual orgasm usually floods parents when their child is born. But sometimes things go tragically awry. Postpartum depression (in both sexes) is a clear example. When the neurochemistry that induces falling in love with our infant fails to occur, things go badly for the whole family. Failure to bond can occur on the baby’s side as well, due to inborn biological predispositions. Early deficits of parental love bonds can lead to lifelong epigenetic and neurochemical changes, as shown in animal studies and also in the horrifying natural experiment that occurred in the orphanages of Romania not so long ago, demonstrating that in the absence of reciprocated love there is rage or a void — an emptiness and inability to value, connect with, or understand either themselves or others.
For most of us, fortunately, life’s trials are more moderate, but we all thrive best when buoyed by loving connections and flounder when we lack them. While this may be obvious, what hasn’t been discussed since Freud is the use of this natural miracle “drug cocktail” to alleviate mental and physical suffering. Being in love makes the vicissitudes of daily life, if not joyous, at least more bearable. But falling in love has not been systematically thought of or studied as a treatment to alleviate suffering, despite new evidence that stress, anxiety and physical pain are all substantially reduced by love.
Neither love, nor pharmacologic agents (which are essential to soothe our pains and cure diseases) alone, is enough. We need to integrate the analgesic, energizing, healing and transformative powers of love into our therapeutic efforts, and our daily lives. Before widespread use of antibiotics, doctors relied largely on the healing and comforting powers of tender loving care. Today, however, they are neither taught nor paid to dispense TLC. Worse, the intensity of contemporary life, with ever-increasing work hours and constant demands on our attention, leaves little time and energy for us to nurture our loved ones. That may be one reason the use of mental health professionals is increasing. They are the only people in our society who receive training in the administration of TLC.
Taking good care of ourselves is not just about exercise, nutrition, and an annual checkup. It requires that we meet our emotional needs by giving and getting a healthy amount of TLC. So next time your loved one has a cold, don’t forget to give her warm soup and a warmer hug along with the aspirin — it’ll do more good than flowers on Valentine’s Day.