Love is our most confusing emotion. We use the word “love” in many different ways. Most of the time when we say “Let’s make love” we mean “Let’s have sex.” We “love” many things: baseball, symphonies, mothers and fathers, children, partners, movie stars, peanut butter, and on and on.
Most, but not all, of us say we want to be loved. When we encounter being loved many of us feel good, even wonderful. But it’s not uncommon for others to feel embarrassed, anxious, pained – some are brought to tears – and there are valid reasons for those feelings.
Before I begin to describe the complexity of love, I want to call your attention to the fact that there is a huge psychological difference between the names we give physical things like tables and houses and the names we give to psychological processes like feelings, dreams, and love. The names of things are based on the ways we experience them with our senses, like sight, hearing, and touch.
The names of psychological processes are experienced very differently, without sensory help.
They are experienced through the “eyes” of our personality systems and, therefore, we each experience our feelings differently from any other person, because each of us has a different personality. Emotions are like fingerprints: we all have them, but our fingerprints are uniquely different from any other person’s prints in the entire history of humanity.
Personalities grow from birth until we pass on. The ways we are loved and treated as very young children become embedded in our personalities. With repeated use they become strong, enduring, stable systems which we rarely even question. Therefore, each person experiences feelings and emotions differently from every other person.
That means how we react to loving and being loved is determined, in largely hidden ways, by how we were loved from infancy to early childhood. If our parents and caretakers were delighted with us as infants and young children, then we entered adolescence well prepared to be delighted and happily comforted with being loved as emerging adolescents. But if we were abused in our early years, our loving experience carried with it the pains, anger, avoidances, and confusion of that critical period in our development. In extreme cases of abuse, loving tenderness can be experienced as a challenge to fight.
All loving relationships reside within the extremes outlined above. They are all unique and complex, and necessary for the survival of human existence. People need people. Without emotional human contact, we deteriorate into pain and madness.
Despite this complexity, there are four essential psychological processes that exist in the various kinds of love in our lives. Even though they operate differently in each particular type of love, they exist in all kinds of loving.
These processes are called attachment, contact, growth and beauty.
Another word for attachment is bonding. It’s not just a kind of psychological kinship; it’s a neurological process born of repeated, validating nourishment between a person, a skill, an art, a form of play, or a sport. It’s contact between the therapist and the person seeking help is of central importance. When contact is lost, nothing much psychotherapeutically occurs. However, if the therapist asks her about how contact got lost, baseline dialogue in the therapeutic dyad is usually resumed. This kind of dialogue is, for the most part, therapeutically illuminating.
Contact in its most common form is touching. From birth on, touching is a form of psychological and neurological nourishment. As we grow older, we become able to experience this kind of validating reinforcement in a variety of ways beyond physical contact. For instance, it’s not unusual for a person to say “I was touched” by the movie, the music, the great play by Tom Brady of football fame, and so on. The various forms of contact engaged in by humans with one another keeps love between them fresh and alive. When a couple loses contact with one another in their youth and adult years, their relationship may lose its sexual component, because sex is a powerful form of attachment-reinforcing contact.
Growth is another powerful dimension of loving relationships. The old saying “grow or die” exemplifies this vital aspect of durable love. In our lives, we are constantly changing, in part because change is necessary to accommodate the enormous amounts of information we require to live efficiently. This is especially true when we’re in the midst of great changes, such as the Technological Revolution we’re in now. Human behavior is being altered by technology even more dramatically than it was altered by the Industrial Revolution, which saw us evolve from an agrarian economy spread throughout pocket communities to a goods-and-services-based economy centered in major population centers.
Beauty is the experience of emotional enrichment. It occurs in all aspects of life where a person experiences anything that inspires a sense of growth, enrichment, and/or pleasure. Beautiful men and women are experienced as being sexually attractive, because in its intense form (for those who can tolerate it), sexuality is an experience of beauty. And in the loving relationship that endures, lovers find their loved ones to be beautiful, regardless of the assessment of others outside the relationship.
It may not make the world go ‘round, but love – in all its messy complexity – is at the heart of much human behavior.