Love: What is it and how do we nurture it?


Helen Fisher, in her book Anatomy of Love, describes love as having three component parts. According to Fisher,love is comprised of lust, romantic love, and attachment. First, lust is the physiological reaction that the body has to sexual stimulation of any kind. This can be through smell, taste, visual, sensory, or auditory sensations. It can involve all or any mixture of these senses. It results in body sensations which we call desire or the tingles. This is a typical reaction among men and leads to arousal where these bodily sensations are heightened. Then, there is an increase in desire resulting in the man reaching the plateau where he may remain in a high state of arousal anywhere from seconds to many minutes. The next step is an orgasm, which in men is almost always accompanied by an ejaculation. The final stage is the refractory period. This period can last from minutes to days before the man is ready to go again. In men, sex has been described as linear.


As you might anticipate, women are different than men. In women, sex has been described as circular. The reason for this is that women are in the middle of a circle and on the circle are all kinds of things that please women. For example, she might want to be held. She might want to be kissed. She might want to perform oral sex on her husband or boyfriend. Rosemary Bassum at the University of British Columbia and Vancouver, Canada found that only 10- 20% of women have sexual desire before arousal. Theremainder of women want or agree to sex depending on how they feel toward their mate. If you want to have sex with your wife, don’t squeeze her butt; go in the kitchen and wash the dishes. Once the woman agrees to have sex she gets aroused and then usually moves toward desire and then toward orgasm. A woman in contrast to a man can stop anywhere and get off the train. Unlike a man, she does not have to go unrelentingly toward an endpoint called orgasm.


If this physiological reaction is called lust, what is romantic love?


Dorothy Tennov (1979)refers toromantic love as limerence. For some reason this label has not stuck for most people. I like it and use it all the time. Limerence is that mystical feeling people have when the person they fell in love with is perfect. Touching him sends electricity through your body. She is obsessed with him and can’t wait to talk to him and see him. Sex with him feels like rockets are going off and nothing could be more perfect. We don’t know exactly where this feeling comes from. Many of the new neuroscientists and attachment theorists believe it is the result of the unqualified love that we received during the first year of life. There are only three times in our life that we receive unqualified love. The first is during the first year of life. The second is when we are in limerence before marriage or when we have a love affair. The third is when a loved one is dying.


In the movie “Love Story,”Jenny and Oliver fall in love. At first glance they are not socio-culturally suited for each other. They climb the hurdles and get married. Mary developed leukemia and dies and while she is dying their limerent state increases and their limerence knows no boundaries; it is over the top.


The important question here is why this person and not the other one. There is no answer to this question. What we do know is that in contrast to lust that fades in a relationship and in the person over a lifetime, romantic love can appear on the scene at anytime. Unfortunately,it fades in two to four years and if we are lucky it transitions into love.


So what is love? You would think that something that has been around as long as man would be easy to define. It is not. The best and simplest way to define love is that it is a joining of two people through a process of bonding where these two people form a bond. This relationship has certain characteristics. Love is putting another person’s feelings above your own. Love is being a best friend to another person. Love is enjoying another person and wanting to be with that person. Love is being comfortable in a relationship. Love is respecting another person. These and many other characteristics define the state of love. Love does not require reciprocity but that really helps it to grow and evolve. Love, in contrast to lust, can begin quietly and gently but increases in strength and duration as the years go by. Helen Fisher says that the third component part of love is attachment. I think what she really is referring to is love. Love does not require lust or even romantic love although these are frequently found in permanent relationships like marriage.


There are different kinds of love. There is the love of a mother for a child. There is the love of a wife for a husband and a husband for a wife. There is the love we can have for a car, a dog, and a friend. What all love has in common is that warm, wonderful feeling that is hard to define but is familiar to all of us. If nurtured it will grow. When you think of love, do not think of the grass being greener on the other side; think of the grass being greener where you water it. The way to water love is through the Dialogue of Intimacy. Pay attention to who the other person is, understand him, accept him with all of his pimples and warts and try to be responsive to his needs. In the world of loving and being loved it is truly better to give than to receive.