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What is Love? (Part 1 of 2)



The Harbus team interviews experts to explore the various faces of ‘love’. 

Why does Cupid so often miss? Despite his god-given gift, Cupid’s arrows fail to find their mark almost half of the time, with divorce rates for US marriages approaching 50 percent in 2022. Perhaps it’s just the nebulous nature of ‘love’ –  a complex emotion which most of us experience, yet so few of us truly understand. So what exactly is love? In this article, the Harbus team interviews a husband-and-wife couple of experts from Harvard Medical School, as well as a philosopher and professor at Harvard College, to explore the notion of love – its scientific, social, and philosophical faces.


THE SCIENCE: Perspectives from from Dr. Jacqueline Olds.


How do we explain the feeling of love – are there specific hormones or chemicals in our bodies that trigger this?


Dr. Olds: At the very beginning, the feelings of lust and attraction probably have to do with sex hormones – those are estrogen and testosterone.


Then, as you start to think you're very interested in a particular person, there is a whole symphony of hormones, including the stress hormones and norepinephrine, the fight or flight hormone, as well as dopamine, the joy hormone.


So if you think about all of those hormones being tossed and turned in the brain, it explains why people feel so crazy at the beginning of love – so obsessed, and so unable to use their usual calm social judgment. There's this obsessive self-questioning and wondering how it's all to work, or if it works at all. That is often true for a period of weeks and months.


Is there typically a change after this initial period?


Dr. Olds: If a relationship comes together, some of our more calming hormones come into play, like oxytocin, which is in a way the hormone that is aroused by touch (as well as music and exercise).


Oxytocin is also there for mothers and children, fathers and children, when there's a lot of snuggling and touching going on, but it's there as you get used to having this object of your desire – this person – as somebody you can count on. All those different hormones are in play during different phases of love. 


How does this process differ between platonic love and romantic love?


Dr. Olds: Well, the platonic love might never get to the oxytocin – and I forgot to mention earlier, vasopressin – stage, which is that calming set of hormones that happen when there is a regular relationship involving a lot of touch.


So a platonic relationship might have the excitement, it might have the attraction, but if there is no touching that goes on, it might not have the wonderfully anxiety-moderating effect that oxytocin and vasopressin have when there's plenty of touching going on.


Why do you think humans ultimately evolved to love?


Dr. Olds: Well, evolutionarily speaking, there needed to be some big system that would allow people to get attached to each other and bring up children together.


It takes a long time to raise children, so you really had to have it be a big system with important hormones involved. From an evolutionary perspective, it makes total sense that so much of our culture is involved in talking about love, and so many of our hormones are involved in the love system, the love apparatus.


THE SOCIAL: Perspectives from Dr. Richard S. Schwartz (MD ’74), and Dr. Olds.


How would you say that romantic relationships differ most from platonic ones?


Dr. Schwartz: Let me introduce another kind of term, if I can. One of the oldest distinctions about types of love that seems to hold up over time goes back to the ancient Greeks – the distinction between “passionate” and “companionate” love.


The difference is just just what it sounds like. Passionate love involves a component of sexual passion and excitement, and companionate love is just the comfort and interest in being together and sharing things, which in some ways is  another word for platonic love.


What people have long described is that early love is passionate, and later love is supposedly companionate.


Is it then fair to say that, over time, a romantic relationship will shift away from passionate love and more towards companionate love – and look more similar to a platonic one?


Dr. Schwartz: While that is a tendency, it isn't invariably true. In fact, while long-standing love drifts in a companionate direction, it nevertheless is possible to maintain a sense of passion and excitement or to step back into it again over the course of a relationship.


There was  an important study done by Dr. Helen Fisher some years ago, where they researched couples who were still … passionately in love with their partner after many years. They did brain scans and found that in fact, it does seem to be true.


It doesn't look exactly like early love, but some of the elements -- including the activation of the dopamine system -- are there in a way that confirms that, no, it doesn't all turn into companionate love.


So what does it take to maintain a successful romantic relationship?


Dr. Schwartz: One important thing is that over the course of a romantic relationship there will be times when you are more and less engaged and focused on each other.


Obviously the beginning of love is one of those phases in which you are so obsessed with the other that there really is nothing else, but for good as well as bad reasons, that doesn't last forever. You turn your attention to other things, and drift a little further apart from each other, or feel less connected.


The first thing you need to sustain a romantic relationship is a recognition that this is not the same thing as falling out of love, but it does require you to do something to get each other's attention again. I think the biggest risk toward long term relationships is not doing that, or mistaking the natural waning of engagement as the end of romance.


Another element of sustaining a romantic relationship over time is maintaining curiosity and a sense of not fully knowing the other person. One of the things that happens when you've been together over a long period of time is that you inevitably start to think you already know the other person and don't have to listen or pay attention.


There is a wonderful little study that a friend of ours did many years ago, where they found that if you have a couple have a conversation and then interview them separately about what they think the other was thinking or feeling, the longer they were together the more likely they were to be wrong.


So one of the things you can do to sustain a feeling of romance is to recognize that you still have to do a little work in maintaining curiosity about the other person. To continue to have that sense of discovery about the other person that is part of what is so exciting about that first phase.


Drawing on both of your experiences as couples therapists, what are some effective practical strategies for doing this?


Dr. Olds: One of the things we talk about a lot is having a ‘distance alarm.’ In a relationship you've got to have at least one person – and preferably both – to have essentially a little mental alarm that says ‘hey we're drifting too far apart, we have to re-engage.’ There has to be somebody who is ready to throw some kind of fit to say ‘we're drifting too far apart; we have to reverse the direction.’


Dr. Schwartz: Another much cited and obvious one is that you have to build in regular time to be with and pay attention to each other. It’s important that you're actually there during that period of time – there’s a kind of attentive listening that plenty of people forget how to do. You really have to combine that listening and being curious, with being welcoming and kindly.


Are there specific conversations or activities that you would recommend, or are you just advocating for spending more quality time together in general?


Dr. Olds: It really depends on the couple. Some couples might say ‘we're wonderful at hiking together, and making love, but are so-so in terms of conversation.’


For those couples, you might not say ‘well you have to learn conversation’, you might say ‘fantastic, go on more hikes and make plenty of time for making love; don't feel obligated to have a conversation. However, check in with each other to make sure there's not something the other person wants to say.’


There are different ways of expressing and experiencing engagement and we don't all have to do it the same way – it can be different across various couples.


What are some of the signs that a relationship may not be going so well?


Dr. Olds: There's a famous couples therapist named Gottman, who I think does a good job of explaining this, and he talks about the ‘Four Horsemen’ which predict relationship failure.


For example, if you’re interviewing a couple, and whenever one person talks the other person rolls their eyes, that is a very bad sign. Otherwise, if people are constantly expressing contempt and ridicule, or being sarcastic and nasty to each other, those are also bad signs.


What would be your advice to young couples?


Dr. Olds: Don’t forget that your relationship is the bedrock of your happiness, so you want to give it the time of day. At least once a week there ought to be a few hours for just that other person – it's very easy in the modern world filled with distractions to assume that it'll just maintain itself because it's ‘true love,’ and that you don't have to give it much attention, but really that’s not how it works.


Dr. Schwartz, would you add anything to that?


Dr. Schwartz: Oh no, one of the things I’ve learned is that when your partner says something just right, you shouldn't have the feeling that you have to say something more!


(To be continued…)

Dr. Jacqueline Olds attended Tufts Medical School, graduating in 1971. She then did an adult psychiatry residency at Massachusetts Mental Health Center, followed by a child psychiatry residency at McLean Hospital. She finished her psychoanalytic training in 1983 at the Psychoanalytic Institute of New England, Inc. She has worked at McLean Hospital , MGH and the Beth Israel Hospital as a teacher and clinician in both child and adult psychiatry. She has written three books with her husband, Dr. Richard Schwartz, also a psychiatrist at McLean and MGH. She serves as an associate professor of psychiatry, part-time, at Harvard Medical School.


Dr. Richard S. Schwartz, focuses on the education of psychiatric residents as teacher, supervisor and mentor and senior consultant for the MGH/McLean Adult Psychiatry Residency Training Program. He is co-director of the Program in Psychodynamics, offering more intensive and advanced training in psychotherapy to residents. He serves as an associate professor of psychiatry, part-time, at Harvard Medical School and on the faculty of the Boston Psychoanalytic Society and Institute and the Psychodynamic Couple and Family Institute of New England.


Edouard Lyndt (MBA ’25) is from Australia. An example of someone who took the ‘jack-of-all-trades’ thing too far, he has explored a range of career paths spanning M&A, strategy, product management, and even (very briefly) professional fighting. Outside of work, he enjoys reading, cooking, and exercise.

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