The Science of Love
I was recently ruminating on love, how it starts and how it stays. This train of thought was inspired by an article on how love affects the brain and the body, and why it makes us feel the way it does. The article was very clinical, and it was interesting to read how the biochemical machinery within each of us contributes to such an important part of our lives. Mostly, I found it fascinating that an alien-sounding litany of multisyllabic constituents could have brought us together and kept us together for so many years.
“Phenylethylamine causes our bodies to release norepinephrine and dopamine. The first attraction causes us to produce more Phenylethylamine, which results in those dizzying feelings associated with romantic love.”
We met at an open stage night where you were singing songs you had written while accompanying yourself on guitar. I, in turn, was attempting, for the first time in my life, to get up on a stage and share some poetry I’d written. The weekly event took place in a dark and somewhat dilapidated manufacturing building filled with a collection of second-hand chairs. A place that featured lots of extemporaneous, messy, loud art made by some outrageously creative people was a really unlikely place to find someone as staid and timid as I was. I remember how nervous I was getting up on that stage, how time stood still when I spoke, and how lovely the applause sounded. But, more than that, I remember you. You took my breath away. You were lovely and handsome and creative and darkly mysterious, all the things I hungered for. I had no idea who you were but I couldn’t keep my eyes off of you.
“When you meet someone new, dopamine levels surge, creating an intense craving to be around them. A molecule called corticotrophin-releasing factor is released whenever couples are apart, creating an unpleasant feeling.”
We dated several times over the next few months. I barely remember where we went or what we did. I have also forgotten most of what we talked about. I just remember swimming in your eyes. I was hypnotized by the silken surface of the skin at the base of your neck and how it felt against my fingers. I often wondered what your lips would feel like when I kissed them. I liked your smile. I liked holding hands with you. I sometimes wonder how many times we’ve held hands when we’re walking, or as we reach across a table and our fingers curl comfortably into one another when we share a meal. I remember you called to ask for a date on New Year’s Eve and I said yes. Two years and two weeks later, we were married.
“When a person sees a potential mate, it takes as little as a fifth of a second for the brain to launch a complex chain reaction involving multiple areas of the brain.”
It took time to discover one another; it felt sort of like peeling an onion. In some ways, we were very similar; in others, we were polar opposites. We definitely had different approaches to life. I preferred to plan things down to the last detail, leaving nothing to chance, and you were more spontaneous. At times we set one another’s nerves on edge with gently but accurately barbed epithets. I recall being told more than once that Tedious was my middle name. It wasn’t far off, though. Inwardly, I suspected a more likely moniker would be Checklist.
Luckily, over time, we’ve both migrated closer to the middle of the spectrum along which we most diverged. However, this movement didn’t come easily to me. I remember one of the things we did together early on was taking long drives to Vermont or New Hampshire or Connecticut. At first I insisted I needed to make a detailed plan of where we’d go on a given day, how we’d get there, how we’d get back, and exactly how long the trip would take. Later, I’d have a destination in mind, but I’d let you plan the route. I knew I had graduated from your school of migratory whimsy when I got in the car with you one day and asked you where we were going. You simply answered “West!”. Surprisingly, I smiled.
“Sometimes a neural pas-de-deux occurs between two people, where there´s little delay between the brain activity of the person saying something and the activation of mirror neurons in the brain of the person listening. Sometimes brain activity actually anticipates by a few seconds in several cortical areas.”
We moved in together the summer before we wed. Our 800 square foot, 2-bedroom apartment was filled with the flotsam and jetsam of our previous apartments and donations from well-meaning family and friends. It could easily be described as being decorated in “early garage sale”. Our couch had previously been a futon bed, our elderly bureaus were supplemented with a particle board wardrobe that listed ever further to starboard, causing the door on one side to fall open. From your previous apartment we inherited a repugnant and ill-used snot-colored couch, which proved useful for many years despite its dreadful color and eternally failing springs. At your insistence, we would don its tawny antimacassars when eating toast, proclaiming them toast-hats. In this and other ways, you made sure we had our daily dose of whimsy, cooking green eggs and ham for breakfast or inventing horrible songs on the ukulele to urge the children to get on with everyday tasks.
The apartment was blessed with what amounted, in that neighborhood at least, to a sizable yard. There was an easily-scaled Japanese maple tree that blazed a lovely flaming red every fall. There was even a strip of grass behind the house just big enough for a small metal swingset which the girls, as girls do, outgrew in a few short years. We found residue of previous tenants’ children everywhere. Of course, given a life steeped in the ridiculous, these leftovers brought us much humor over time. Clearly several previous families had boys, as we found pieces of action figures. One gained a theme song: “Armless Dog Robot Warrior Man!”. Another, whose tale does not bear further exploration, was simply named “Commander Leg”.
“Completely outside your awareness, your vagus nerve stimulates tiny facial muscles that better enable you to make eye contact and synchronize your facial expressions with one another. It even adjusts the minuscule muscles of your middle ear so you can better track another´s voice against background noise.”
We stayed in that tiny apartment for ten years. I’d never lived in the same place so long in my life. Initially, it was the two of us during the week, with the girls joining us on the weekends. Later we had the girls on weekdays, followed by the addition of a full-time boy. It rapidly became clear, especially with the girls nearing the foreboding shore of their teenage years, that a 2-bedroom, 800 square foot space just wasn’t enough room for our expanding family. We set out forthwith to find a house. After searching local listings, I remember driving around for hours and looking at houses. There were lovely Victorians, elegant and dignified, raised cottages, and even a bungalow or two. We drove by rambling extended ranches and dreamily eyed churches remade as single family homes. I think we were more surprised than anyone when we wound up buying a mid-century modern contemporary, complete with a cantilevered carport, a pool, a basketball-hooped blacktop, and, of all things, a putting green. We’d never played golf in our life. But it did offer everyone their own bedroom, which was its saving grace.
“One scientist used functional magnetic resonance imaging to observe the brain activity of people who said they were still intensely in love after having been married an average of twenty-one years. When looking at photos of their loved ones, the study participants’ ventral tegmental area, located in the midbrain, was activated. This area is associated with calmness, attachment, and pain management.”
We’ve had our times of peace and pleasure, but we’ve also had our challenges. Over time we’ve supported each other when we’ve lost our patience, our jobs, our house, and our parents. We’ve had our share of wonder and our share of weeping. During the greatest trials I could easily see places where we chose to turn toward each other instead of turning away. And we’ve celebrated every year the organism we’ve become, the amalgamation of ourselves that we’ve built together. I can’t possibly describe what we are, but I know its value and treasure it in the everyday of us.
“When you fall in love, a neurotrophin called nerve growth factor works to increase your emotional dependency. Oxytocin is a neuropeptide that acts within both your body and your brain, creating a long-lasting urge to remain together, preferably side by side.”
I sometimes see cards or posters with beautiful romantic sentiments and see the truth in them, but being in love is so much more than that. It’s excitement and joy and chaos and calamity. It’s chemistry and biology and physics and monotony. If you take the prettiest rose and say that’s love you’re only hinting at the truth. Love is the roots and the thorns and the petals and the tenacity that sustains its life through winter after winter. If love is a sunset it’s the clouds and the colors and the way you sigh as the stars come out overhead. If love is a promise it’s also reminding yourself, again and again, of why that promise is important, why you made that promise, why you must wake up every morning and keep it.
Your heart is the altar where I lay my gifts and my weaknesses, and the hearth where I come to warm myself when I’ve run out of everything. It’s the mirror I come to when I need to see myself through someone else’s eyes, eyes that can be kinder and more patient than my own, but also truer and, at times, more painfully honest.
As I finished the article I was reading I reflected on what love means to me. My grandfather’s girlfriend said the secret to life-long love was always bringing the milk to the table in a pitcher rather than the carton. Love is an endless and effortless service, not doing things because you have to, but because not thinking of the other person is as alien as forgetting how to breathe.
In the end, I think we most often express our love in the thousand inside jokes that form the litany of our lifetime, and I continue to be grateful that you´re the one who knows all of their punchlines.