Sunday, March 16, 2008

The components of love

This is a light topic. I often hear people (especially women) said: now I love that person, or I don’t love him any more. This sounds like to love, or not love is an on or off event, it is a clear cut emotional status. You either love her, or not love her. Our culture also imposes such proposition onto us. But to me, love or not love is a spectrum, with a wide emotional range. To analyze such spectrum will be an interesting endeavor, because it is such an important issue in our everyday life.

My approach is to break down the love into its components. Here, by love I mean the love between man and woman. Why break into components? Well, that is just the standard way of western civilization, analysis means breaking down into components, and study the dynamics of each components. It is much easier to study each individual component than to study the whole. Well, I have not objection to the holistic view of eastern culture. But as the Taosim said: “The Tao is the way, but it cannot be said”. If it really cannot be said, then it is definitely not my business to write about it.

After some careful inspection, it is not difficult to arrive at the following conclusion: the love between man and woman can be broken down into the following three components: (1) the emotional attachment; (2) the emotional affection; (3) sexual attraction. Now, let’s explain and discuss these three components separately.

Emotional attachment means emotionally you depend on someone. You feel safe and calm when you are close to her (or him, from now on, let’s just use her). On the other hand, you feel nervous and lost when she is not around. Basically, she is your care taker. When you are attached to someone, and when you are with this person, your brain releases some hormone to make you feel calm. We learn such emotional attachment when we were young. We were emotionally attached to our mother (or father, grand parents, who ever is your primary care taker). A child might play happily as long as he knows his mother is nearby. But as soon as he realized that her mother is no longer there, he will start to cry. During our evolutionary history, such emotional attachment makes a lot of sense. To survive the wild, you better be close to your mother. It is also what the most of the animal do. However, after we reach juvenile, there will be a painful period of rebellion. The purpose is to break away from your parents, so you can find new emotional attachment from your mate. It will be unlikely that if you still have strong emotional attachment to your parents, you can devote yourself full heartly to your lover. So, it is likely that you will need only one, or can only have one person to be emotionally attached to. If a child is attached to his mother, he is unlikely that he is also very attached to his father, or grand parents. Vise versa. Although the person you feel attached to can change with time, but usually within a given period, that person is fixed. Such feature of attachment will have some implication to the love relationship we discuss here. To be madly in love, you need this emotional attachment. This need for attachment is one of your basic emotional needs. A strong loving relationship should already satisfy this need. As a result, it is difficult to be simultaneously in love with more than one person, as you cannot be attached to more than one person.

As a spectrum, the opposite of emotional attachment is emotional estrange, distance and even hatred.

Affection is just the other side of the emotional attachment. If A is attached to B, then B has the emotional affection (fondness) to A. We feel this emotional affection towards children. We are their care taker, we defend them, do whatever we can for their well being. Children are cute for a reason. In evolution, they become cute just to win our affection, and to win our care. A forever ugly child is probably in big trouble. Affection is what we feel toward other people, is a reaching out action. We like her, want to hold her, and kiss her on the cheek. Unlike the emotional attachment, where only one care taker is enough, here we can be fond of many children, and many people. We are certainly able to like many people, and find them all very cute, and lovely. Since we usually have more than one child, this ability is essential. As a result, we can also “love” more than one person in this sense. Feel fond of each other is the essential first step towards a sexual love between a man and a woman. We feel fond of someone mostly because of physical appearance, or some innocent (“lovely”) behavior, much like a parent towards a child, which makes you feel you can help her, and she is worthy of your help. The affection is often related to cute, or beauty. The beauty is an indicator of a person’s health and intelligence. An average face (very important scoring point in a person’s attractiveness) indicates there is nothing wrong with her gene. A smooth skin indicates she doesn’t carry any disease and the related bacteria. Sharp and clear eyes indicate she is smart. All these beautiful features tell you that (through biological hard wire via evolution) she is worthy of your love. Your loving investment will not be wasted.

The opposite of affection and fondness is disgust. If you feel disgust towards one person, then forget about any loving relationship.

Now, sexual attraction is of course the central part of a man/woman love relationship. Evolutionally, sexual relationship is for the reproduction. We feel someone is sexually attractive, because all the “attractive” features indicate she is very productive. For a woman, the relative small waist, the large hip, and the round breasts, all show that she is biologically productive, a potentially good mate. In a sense, sexual attraction doesn’t even need to be beautiful. The smell of the body scent, the blink of a seductive eye, the moaning of sexual climax, the imaginary of sexual intimacy, all these have more to do with the sexual attraction than an innocent but a beautiful face. In some sense, just to the opposite of emotional attachment and affection, sometime sexual attraction even needs a little bit of strangeness in the feeling. For the male, a bit sense of conquest can be helpful. For the female, a sense of successful seduction can be a component. All these are because, in the ancient time, stealing other people’s mate (“extramarital” sexual relationship) is an important strategy for reproduction, and to be successful in evolutionary competition. Thus, strangeness is a plus, as long as she is productive (meaning attractive). Because of these reasons, a male can certainly have sexual relationship with multiple female, and can also have sex with an attractive stranger. A female can also have multiple sexual relationships. But certainly she is more choosy since she can only bear a child in one year, and it involve a lot of investment. Thus, instead of having many partners, she will be more interested in finding the best one. But overall, a sexual attraction and a sexual relationship doesn’t need to be one by one. This is especially true for man. Also, a component of freshness/strangeness might be necessary in order to have strong sexual attraction. That is why, many studies indicate that the strong sexual attraction wanes down after about one year between partners living together. Biologically that also makes sense. It doesn’t need that much hard work to produce one child, why bother. Besides, after one year, your job is probably done.

Thus, in my opinion, love involves the above three components. Each component has a range. Mathematically, this means love can be described by a vector of length 3. So, it is difficult to say, when exactly you are in love, when you are not in love. It is a gradual process, and the reality can be more complicated than what a simple statement of love or not love can describe (which is a single binary!). For example, the attachment can have some exclusion principle (e.g., you only feel attached to one person), but for the affection and sexual attraction you can feel from multiple objects. Some time, you might loose the sexual attraction to some one (maybe too familiar, so lose the freshness/strangeness component), but you are still emotionally attached to her/him. Or, more strangely, you might not like that person any more, but you can still have occasional good sex. Your mind can turn on from one stage to another, depending on the action.

In the above discussion, I have mainly focused on the biological and evolutional parts. Our culture has certainly made the equation more complicated. For example, a woman might find herself attracted to (which means both attached and with affection to) a man because of his social status and achievement. With time and hard work on her mind, such feeling can even be channeled into sexual attraction. We also make conscious decision to love or not love someone due to social considerations. Such conscious decision can influence our feeling. But still, I believe our biological natures are the strongest factors and all the social factors work only through those biological factors. Our biology and human nature are the hard wires, they are the results of million year evolution, which cannot be changed easily, not even by our culture.

No comments: