By Sean Tseng
Anxiety twists your nerves into knots. Blood rushes to your cheeks, and your knees nearly buckle under your weight. The pounding of your heart is so barely contained by your chest that you’re sure the entire world can hear it. It’s not a heart attack—it’s love.
Or is it?
Love is everywhere. Artists, both contemporary and traditional, have constantly delved into the ever-enthralling subject of love. But what is love? For all the centuries of attempting to immortalize the elusive, confounding, praiseworthy, and yet often cursed emotion, it is hardly ever described as more than a vague feeling of “rightness.” Is it the dreamy and nerve-wracking infatuation of adolescence? Is it the endless fiery passion of novels and movies? Or is it the quiet, consistent commitment of the old married couple next door?
Science says it’s all of the above. In a study conducted by Dr. Helen Fisher of Rutgers University, Fisher suggests that people fall in love in three stages: lust, attraction, and attachment.
Lust primarily involves estrogen and testosterone, which amp up desire and pleasure. However, beyond the initial physical reaction of the body, lust offers little to no lasting emotional connection. What most teenagers experience as “crushes” is largely rooted in the next stage, the stage of attraction.
Often dubbed the “honeymoon phase,” attraction may also be described as the stage of infatuation. It’s marked by lack of appetite, loss of sleep, emotional highs and occupied thoughts. Such a response in the body stems from three neurotransmitters: adrenaline, dopamine, and serotonin.
The final stage in Dr. Fisher’s scientific model of love is attachment. This stage introduces the chemicals which lead to long-term relationships: oxytocin and vasopressin. Oxytocin builds a strong bond between people through intimacy, and vasopressin is closely linked to interpersonal behavior.
Knowing Fisher’s findings, one can assume that, at least chemically speaking, the various portrayals of love around us are all valid examples of the emotion. However, love takes on many forms even after going through the same stages. The clinical science behind love is one thing. Beyond brain chemistry lies the psychology of love.
In a 1985 study, psychologist Robert Sternberg of Yale University asserted that love is composed of three primary characteristics—passion, intimacy and commitment—which are notably similar to Fisher’s stages of love. The passion presents a physical stimulus, the intimacy forges a bond through emotional closeness and the commitment is a conscious decision to maintain the relationship. Instead of exploring the chemical reactions behind these factors, however, Sternberg examined the multiple types of love that manifest from different combinations of these components.
Sternberg’s theory produced eight forms of love: non-love, liking, infatuation, empty, romantic, companionate, fatuous and consummate love. Non-love, as its name implies, is the absence of all three factors. Liking involves only intimacy and is used in this theory to characterize friendships. Infatuation is marked by passion alone, and empty love contains the single component of commitment.
On the other hand, romantic love has passion and intimacy but lacks commitment. Companionate love can be compared to the platonic bond shared between family members or close friends, with intimacy and commitment as the key factors. A lack of intimacy and presence of passion and commitment indicate fatuous love, and finally, consummate love is the existence of all three components. As theorized by Sternberg, this is the ideal relationship that couples should strive for.
But what about all the singles out there? Not everyone is so lucky as to find romance around every coffee shop corner. Some people have even wondered whether love can be manufactured.
Dr. Arthur Aron is one of those people. In 1997, Aron and a team of psychologists set out to discover whether they could make two strangers fall in love. This produced the 36-question test that claims to lead to love. Since then, multiple articles have reported experiments testing the questionnaire with varying levels of success. However, even with relationships that sprouted and eventually sputtered out, the verdict seems to be that the questionnaire does indeed provide a solid basis of trust and intimacy between two individuals.
Aron structured the questionnaire specifically to gradually become more personal. At the end, the two participants must hold eye contact for four minutes before the test is fully over. These elements all serve to ease two relative strangers into a space of intimacy, and thus, possibly, love.
Still, for all the conjectures about love, nothing beats the reality. As Sternberg says of his theory, and by extension, all theories of love, “Without expression, even the greatest of loves can die.” The emotion is much more than findings in a paper—it takes action. So express your love this Valentine’s Day, whatever type or stage it may be, and explore the emotion yourself.