When it comes to relationships, we Americans are finding that we have been tutored for years in the wrong art. In a dazzling display of form over substance, our culture fawns over the fleeting ephemeral madness of being in love while discounting the importance of loving.
Every pop-culture medium portrays the height of adult intimacy as the moment when two attractive people who don’t know a thing about each other tumble into bed and have passionate sex. All the waking moments of our love lives should tend, we are told, toward that throbbing amorphous apotheosis.
But in love merely brings the players together. And the end of that prelude is as inevitable as it is desirable.
True relatedness only has a chance to blossom with the waning of its predecessor.
Loving is limbically distinct from in love. Loving is mutuality; loving is synchronous attunement and modulation. As such, adult love depends critically upon knowing the other.
In love demands only the brief acquaintance necessary to establish an emotional penchant or genre, but does not demand that the book of the beloved’s soul be perused from preface to epilogue.
Loving derives from intimacy—the prolonged and detailed surveillance of a foreign soul.
The physiology of love is no barter. Love is simultaneous mutual regulation, wherein each person meets the needs of the other, because neither can provide for his or her own completely. Such a relationship is not 50-50—it’s 100-100. Each person takes perpetual care of the other, and, within the concurrent reciprocity, both thrive.
For those who attain it, the benefits of deep attachment and loyalty are powerful—regulated people feel whole, centered, alive, nourished. Within their physiology that is stabilized from a proper source, they are resilient to the stresses of daily life, or even to those of extraordinary circumstances.
Because loving is reciprocal physiologic influence, it entails a deeper and more literal connection than most realize. Limbic regulation affords lovers the ability to modulate each other’s emotions, neurophysiology, hormonal status, immune function, sleep rhythms, and overall stability. If one leaves on a trip, the other may suffer insomnia, a delayed menstrual cycle, a cold that would have been fought off in a fortified state.
And when somebody loses his partner and says a part of him is gone, he is more right than he thinks. A portion of his neural activity depends on the presence of that other living brain and body. without it, the electric interplay that makes up him has changed.
Lovers hold the key to each other’s identities, and they write neurostructural alterations in each other’s networks. Their limbic tie allows each to influence who the other is and becomes. Who we are and who we become depends in large part on whom we love.
Because relationships are mutual, partners share a single fate: no action that benefits one harms the other. The hard bargainer, who thinks she can win by convincing her partner to meet her needs while circumventing his, is doomed. Withholding reciprocation cripples a healthy partner’s ability to nourish her; it poisons the well from which she draws the very sustenance she means to give.
A couple shares in one process, one dance, one story. Whatever improves that one benefits both; whatever detracts hurts and weakens both lives.
A culture wise in love’s ways would understand a relationship’s demand for time. it would teach the difference between in love and loving; it would impart to it’s members the value of the mutuality on which their lives and happiness and stability depend.
A culture versed in the workings of the limbic system and emotional life would encourage and promote activities that sustain mental health—togetherness with one’s partner and children; homes, families, communities of real connectedness. Such a society would guide its inhabitants to the joy that can be found at the heart of attachment—what Bertrand Russell has described as “a mystic miniature and prefiguring vision of the heaven that saints and poets have imagined.”
The contrast between that culture and our own couldn’t be more evident.
Limbic pursuits slowly and steadily sink lower on America’s list of collective priorities. Top-ranking items remain the pursuit of wealth, financial security, physical beauty, youthful appearance, and the shifting elusive markers of status and prestige.
And there are brief fleeting spurts and spasms of pleasure to be had at the end of those pursuits—but no contentment.
Happiness is within range only for those adroit people who give the slip to that version of the American dream. These rebels will necessarily forgo titles, superficial and glamorous friends, thrilling vacations, washboard abs, designer everything, and all the proud indicators of upward mobility—and in exchange, they just may get a chance at a decent life.
(from “A General Theory of Love,” pp. 206-210)