Love - what is it exactly?
Some clients come to therapy saying that they "have fallen out of love", or that the person they love doesn’t return that love. But what actually do they mean?
The word ‘love’ can have many different meanings. For example, one might ‘love’ pasta or one’s grandchildren, or the blonde guy who gets on the same train as you every day. For this article we are specifically looking at what two people feel towards each other or ‘to be in love’.
There is no doubt that the initial feelings or emotions towards someone can be very powerful. This first stage is ‘attraction’, which is sometimes called ‘lust’. It is driven by the human need to reproduce; physical intimacy and sex tend to be the focus, a desperate need to be together, touching each other and pairing off. This is a period when levels of testosterone and oestrogen increase and drive physical desires. This stage usually lasts weeks or maybe months. However, during this period the couple can develop a deeper attraction and move to the second stage - ‘attachment’.
In this stage, the body produces other compounds such as pheromones, serotonins and other pleasure chemicals which increase excitement and heart rate. The couple learn more about each other and like what they learn. In general terms this stage lasts around two to three years.
The next and final stage is ‘agreement’ or commitment. By now the couple will have agreed to be solely with each other. In this stage the physical becomes less important (but still enjoyable) and trust, respect, shared beliefs and values become even more important. Intimacy and the full exposure of the partner’s being (such as weaknesses) are shared to an even greater extent than they were in the second stage. Trust is a key element and an agreement on the way forward for the couple. Children may be born and become part of the couple’s focus.
But why can love go wrong? A lot depends on the stage the couple are in. In the first stage (attraction) the powerful physical drives may end and the pair lose interest in each other. This can also result in one of the pair starting a relationship with another person and being discovered.
If the second stage (attachment) is reached, as the physical side becomes less driven the couple may discover they have some things in common, but in the end it is not enough to continue. In this case one partner may feel more strongly for the other and doesn’t want to give up. Although it can hurt, the couple need to talk openly with each other and decide the best way forward.
When the couple have been together for years (agreement) it is usual that a breakdown in trust, or the discovery that shared values are not quite the same, or one partner taking the other for granted are the main elements for separating. For example, one partner may have an affair (or maybe a night of sex), or disagreements over how money is spent or how the children are brought up may rear their heads.
If the couple are strong they may be able to re-strengthen their relationship; but the rebuilding of trust can take time. Sometimes it can be difficult to talk to someone about your feelings and hopes, especially if you have been together some time; this is where working as a couple with a therapist may help. Counselling can provide a neutral ground where thoughts and feelings can be shared and discussed.
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