Passionate love is as old as humankind. Love poems have been discovered on the outskirts of the Valley of Kings. Written during Egypt’s New Kingdom (1539-‐1075 B.C.E.) but surely composed much earlier, these songs (recorded on cuneiform tablets) speak to lovers today.
The Ancient Egyptians dramatized that in the “rivers” of human passion, love expresses itself as 1) physical desire (ka love); 2) sharing of the soul (ba love); and 3) commitment of the spirit (akh love).
Ontologically, the love portrayed in ancient classical mythologies cannot be boldly signified if not viewed as the spirit that “inspires” the embracing arms of creation and destruction, order and chaos, peace and violence.
Love is, hence, an ancient wave that vibrates, interpenetrates, and interconnects the divine and the human in an eternal cosmic dance that makes life dangerously exciting, poignantly challenging and desperately imminent in its expression of a “longing for itself”.
If there’s one sentiment shared by all great artists, from Shakespeare to Beyoncé (not that we’re comparing the two), it’s this: Love is intense.
Passionate love is a powerful emotional state. It has been defined as: A state of intense longing for union with another. Passionate love is a complex functional whole including appraisals or appreciations, subjective feelings, expressions, patterned physiological processes, action tendencies, and instrumental behaviors.
Passionate love may be a broad and integrative quality, but according to other psychologists, it’s only one-third of the equation in characterizing a long-term relationship.
A dozen brain regions, working together, create feelings of passionate love. Stephanie Ortigue of Syracuse University and her colleagues worldwide compared MRI studies of people who indicated they were either in love or were experiencing maternal or unconditional love. The comparison revealed a “passion network”.
Most of us can attest to the powerful, irrational, and consuming experience of passionate love. It’s been the central theme in drama, poetry, music, art, and daytime soap operas for hundreds of years (the length of time that One Life To Live seemed to be on the air). But only in the last century have psychological scientists begun to regard passionate love as a viable research topic.
Poets delve into the mystery of love with beautiful sonnets, musicians seek to capture its subtle essence in song, and many others feel that their love is divinely inspired.
Just image: you get to be with someone who, despite how you may feel about yourself, fully accepts you the way you are. That person feels so great about you that they cannot help but think about you regarding everything they do. They celebrate your victories without being intimidated or threatened; they sit with you throughout your low moments offering you whatever you need to get through in the absence of gloating or lecturing; they find you attractive beyond the “flaws” that you see; they crave to make your life special in every way.
You enjoy sharing everything with them. They want to hear what’s going on in your life and they are emotionally and spiritually able to. This kind of love could be romantic or platonic. Just imagine…
Now imagine being able to love someone like that in the same way. It is a unity, a bond, a connection that rivals none. You both look out for each other, you try to give each other the best of you and decide, collectively, which footprints you will leave behind on this planet with every step you take.
In fairy tales, marriages last happily ever after. Science, however, tells us that wedded bliss has but a limited shelf life. And, according to Robert Sternberg’s Triangular Theory of Love (2004), love consists of three components, intimacy (emotional closeness), passion (sexual and romantic attraction), and commitment.
The ideal form of love for a romantic couple (Consummate love) involves all three components, but it is not easy to maintain, as the passionate spark tends to fade over time.
Passionate love, for the time that it lasts, makes us obsessive. It makes us less logical. It can turn us into neurotic addicts, waiting to get our fix so that we can function properly again. And yet it is a state many of us wait our whole lives to be in–because despite the pain that comes with it, it can also be very fulfilling.
The realization that your marriage no longer supplies the charge it formerly did is then an invitation. “A relationship,” Woody Allen proclaimed in his film “Annie Hall,” “is like a shark. It has to constantly move forward or it dies.” A marriage is likely to change shape multiple times over the course of its lifetime; it must be continually rebuilt if it is to thrive.
Why, then, is the natural shift from passionate to companionate love often such a letdown? Because, although we may not realize it, we are biologically hard-wired to crave variety.
Variety and novelty affect the brain in much the same way that drugs do — that is, they trigger activity that involves the neurotransmitter dopamine, as do pharmacological highs.
It doesn’t take a scientist to observe that because the sex in a long-term committed monogamous relationship involves the same partner day after day after day, no one who is truly human (or mammalian) can maintain the same level of lust and ardor that he or she experienced when that love was uncharted and new.
We may love our partners deeply, idolize them, and even be willing to die for them, but these feelings rarely translate into long-term passion. And studies show that in long-term relationships, women are more likely than men to lose interest in sex, and to lose it sooner.
Because women’s idea of passionate sex depends far more centrally on novelty than does men’s.
For more than 4,000 years, poets and storytellers have sung of the delights and sufferings of love and lust. Anthropologists and evolutionary psychologists have assumed that passionate love is a cultural universal.
Cultural researchers, historians, and social psychologists have emphasized the stunning diversity in the way passionate love and sexual desire have been viewed and experienced. Culture, ethnicity and the rules passed down by political and religious authorities have a profound impact on the way people think about and act out love and sex.
“Scientists studying the physical nature of hate have found that some of the nervous circuits in the brain responsible for it are the same as those that are used during the feeling of romantic love – although love and hate appear to be polar opposites … the ‘hate circuit’ shares something in common with the love circuit.”
Americans are preoccupied with love—or so cross-‐cultural observers once claimed. In a famous quip, Linton (1936) mocked Americans for their naïve idealization of romantic love and their assumption that romantic love is a prerequisite for marriage.
Throughout the world, a spate of commentators once echoed Linton’s claim that the idealization of passionate love is a peculiarly Western institution.
All societies recognize that there are occasional violent, emotional attachments between persons of opposite sex, but our present American culture is practically the only one which has attempted to capitalize these, and make them the basis for marriage. . . . The hero of the modern American movie is always a romantic lover, just as the hero of the old Arab epic is always an epileptic.
The Sufi poet Jelaluddin Rumi, who was born in Afghanistan in 1207 A.D., contended, “whoever has been taught the secrets of love is sworn to silence with lips sealed.”
Nonetheless, Rumi penned ecstatic missives celebrating the glories of love. In this snippet, he rhapsodizes:
With love, bitter turns into sweetness. With love, drugs turn into honey. . .
With love, thorns become flowers. With love, vinegar becomes wine. . . .
With love, misery turns into happiness.
Human beings are social animals, and both sexes need friendship, companionship and love.
Marriage for love and sex for pleasure have always been deeply threatening to political and religious leaders who have feared the individualistic implications of permissive approaches to romance and passion.
Individualism and personal choice are seen as the enemies of order and authority; such freedom are deemed heretical, sinful, dangerous, and an invitation to chaos, selfishness, and anarchy. The fight over the rules governing love, marriage, divorce, and sex stands as one of history’s central and most powerful themes.
Today, however, in the era of widespread travel, global capitalism, and the World Wide Web, many of these traditional cross-cultural differences seem to be disappearing. Authority is giving way nearly everywhere to increased freedom, particularly in the personal realm, in the world of passion. Is the erosion of traditional authority and strict personal rules really happening—and if so what does that portend for personal and societal futures?
In all cultures, men and women feel the stirrings of passionate love and sexual desire. Yet despite its universality, culture has been found to have a profound impact on people’s definitions of passionate love and on the way they think, feel, and behave when faced with appropriate partners in settings designed to spark such feelings.
Cross-‐cultural studies provide a glimpse into the complex world of passionate love and increase our understanding of the extent to which people’s emotional lives are written in their cultural and personal histories, as well as “writ in their genes.”
One impact of globalization (and the ubiquitous MTV, Hollywood and Bollywood movies, chat rooms, and foreign travel) may be to ensure that when people throughout the world speak of “passionate love,” they may well be talking about much the same thing.
We could argue that culture and historical pressures produce visions of passionate love that are variations on a theme. Shading, melody, and tempo may vary with culture, but the underlying architecture of the mind may remain the same. Cultural traditions and values may affect romantic visions, how one describes one’s feelings when in love, how demonstrative people are in displaying their love, but the fact of passionate love may indeed be a cultural universal based on similarities in the architecture of the mind and a common neural substrate (Aron, et al., 2008; Xu, et al., 2008).
Naturally, cultural differences still exert a profound influence on young people’s attitudes, emotions, and behavior, and such differences are not likely to disappear in our lifetime.
Many have observed that, today, two powerful forces—globalization and cultural pride/identification with one’s country (what historians call “nationalism”)—are contending for men’s and women’s souls.
However, it may well be that even there, the winds of Westernization, individualism, and social change are blowing. In spite of the censure of their elders, in a variety of traditional cultures, young people are increasingly adopting “Western” patterns—placing a high value on falling in love, pressing for gender equality in love and sex, and insisting on marrying for love.
The good news is that taking the long view on marriage and putting in the hard work has calculable benefits. Research shows that marital happiness reaches one of its highest peaks during the period after offspring have moved out of the family home.
The nest may be empty, but it’s also full of possibility for partners to rediscover — and surprise — each other again.
Live and Learn. We All Do.
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