‘Give me my Romeo; and, when he shall die, Take him and cut him out in little stars, And he will make the face of heaven so fine, That all the world will be in love with night, And pay no worship to the garish sun.’
Juliet, Romeo and Juliet 1595
‘To wake his love with “loves’ first kiss”! And prove that “true love” conquers all!’ Maleficent, Sleeping Beauty 1958
So there it is. Some four hundred and fifty years spans each of these two quotes but nonetheless the message is clear and consistent – ‘true love conquers all’ and we’ll (natch!) simply recognize that one true love from that very first magic kiss. Ah, destiny. We’re instantly awakened and saved (well you are if you’re a princess!) from an eternal slumber. Little birds will tweet gaily while golden sunlight streaks a rainbow-filled sky, orchestral music swells gloriously in the background and all life’s cares and woes pale into insignificance in the face of such unstoppable majesty. Would that this were true.
Look, don’t misunderstand me here. I’m no bah-humbugging misanthrope dumping on the awesomely transformative experience we know as love. Nope. I hand-on-heart believe that love is one of the most extraordinarily mysterious and powerful forces there is. However, there’s a sizable gulf between myth and reality in the domain of love (particularly when it’s romantic!), and in service of clarity, the theme I’m unpacking here is:
‘What is the elusive yet sovereign force we call true love?’
To kick off let’s ensure we’re on the same semantical page. Unlike we Anglophones with our one-size-fits-all approach to the topic, the ancient Greeks famously had seven different words to describe such a vast terrain and all its nuanced emotional territories.
My trusted guide the Oxford Dictionary defines love as a ‘strong feeling of affection’ and the adjective true unsurprisingly as ‘accordance with fact or reality: accurate or exact’ and these two combined lead us inevitably to a notion of true love being …
‘a strong feeling of affection … in accordance with fact or reality’.
I’m drawn to the sheer pragmatism of that simple hybrid, but one of the key facets of love, certainly the one we spontaneously attribute to the notion of true love, is that of romance. That one true love of our destiny. And it’s one that seems to reify intuition over pragmatism, sense over sensibility. Why might that be the case?
Frankly the entire western literary, musical and film traditions are stacked to overflowing with references to the perfect match, the love that conquers all, the only one ever, ever, ever in the entire universe. From Anthony and Cleopatra right through to our contemporary romantic heroes – seen the recent Hollywood blockbuster The Adjustment Bureau’s David and Elise? – we’re unceasingly reminded of the inevitability of destiny’s unerring plan for that perfect fit. Oh, and also the dire consequences of going off piste – there be monsters and eternal unhappiness!
There’s no denying the extraordinary sense of power and ‘rightness’ we experience when we meet another human upon whom we bestow the title of ‘the one’. Sure feels like it at the time, doesn’t it? But what if our own biochemical responses are simply confusing the issue? Under all sorts of circumstances, we humans manufacture a whole array of feel-good opioids, neurotransmitters and hormones. When we do, explains psychologist and sex researcher Jim Pfaus of Concordia University in Montreal, we subconsciously start drawing connections to whomever was present when those positive feelings were created.
“You think someone made you feel good,” Pfaus says, “but really it’s your brain that made you feel good.”
The sheer intensity of the experience is doubtlessly serving an important biological imperative – in order to continue as a species, it’s clearly essential we meet, bond and procreate. And most evolutionary biologists believe that to ensure this happened nature created a cocktail d’amour so powerful that even the most dour of us struggle to resist. Flooded with serotonin, dopamine and oxytocin, we’re seemingly helpless, recklessly sucked headlong into the momentary insanity that is falling in love. Yet apparently not so much by the right alignment of the planets, or some unseen divine machination, but more possibly driven unconsciously onwards by an evolutionary plan encoded eons ago in our DNA. Sounds a little less romantic when I put it like that, doesn’t it? And insanity? I say, sounds a bit strong old bean.
‘When love is not madness, it is not love.’
Insisted Pedro Calderon de la Barca the renowned 17th century Spanish dramatist and there can’t be many of us that aren’t familiar with tales (many first-hand) of logic defying incredulity and generalized nuttiness performed by those of us under Cupids hypnotic spell.
So is it all so hopeless?
The noted anthropologist Dr Helen Fischer of Rutgers University, New Jersey in her book Why We Love: The Chemistry of Romantic Love identifies three discrete categories for romantic love: lust, attraction and attachment, each of which come with their own set of powerful biomarkers and drivers and each engage distinct neurological pathways and brain systems.
Notably it’s in the first and second phases (good old lust and attraction) where Dr. Fischer’s research has demonstrated that the madness takes hold. As we get prepped for some good old you-know-what, our body floods with adrenaline, dopamine and serotonin. Those latter two neurotransmitters are respectively associated with reward and desire (dopamine) while validating the looney credentials, serotonin levels appear to mimic those suffering obsessive-compulsive disorders. What’s equally apparent is that regions of our brains which deal with social judgement and negative emotions are concurrently switched off, so that old saying that ‘love is blind’ (as well as dumb yet happier it seems) is both biological as well as literary reality.
It’s when we hit the third phase of attachment that the lurve hormone oxytocin really kicks in and it’s this surge, largely stimulated by activities such as close physical contact (hugging, hand holding, making love), that initiates the journey beyond the loss-of-self phase and cements the deeper level of affection that bonds us together in the longer term. Our system is further flooded with another hormone, vasopressin, which research published in 2008 in the Journal of the National Academy of Sciences suggests is associated with pair bonding and specifically with monogamy.
Further research by Dr Robin Dunbar of Oxford University points to the importance of endorphins in generating the sense of deeper lasting calm, happiness and security that creates the space for a longer term relationship to develop and mature.
Clearly there is a large body of scientific research peering into this fascinating area of human behavior, but is it full and conclusive? It appears far from it. There’s much to uncover but what appears pretty conclusive is that the infatuated mind is one that is incapable of perceiving any level of objective reality to the point of being likened to a state of temporary insanity!
So in harking back to our definition of true love as being ‘in accordance with fact or reality’, that first-flush state of romantic love, of idealized and often sexualized infatuation, self-evidently appears a pretty ill fit here.
I don’t know about you but my attention was definitely caught by the third state of attachment described above. One where we begin to expand from the blinkered tunnel vision of infatuation toward a wider horizon of lasting attachment. From both personal experience and that of research psychologists, this is the stage at which emotional balance, true clear-seeing and mature choice finally begins to return to the good ship You.
The renowned author and psychotherapist M Scott Peck in his seminal book ‘The Road Less Traveled’ envisions this part of the amatory journey richly and beautifully as …
‘Love is the will to extend one’s self for the purpose of nurturing one’s own or another’s spiritual growth… Love is as love does. Love is an act of will — namely, both an intention and an action. Will also implies choice. We do not have to love. We choose to love.’
Here Peck defines love as both intention and action: as both internal and external acts of will. Salient to me is that this is about a clear act of volition – we choose to love. In this simple ennobling and empowering statement, I begin at last to get a sense of love as that singular powerful feeling of affection being truly connected to truth and reality – qualities which when actively cultivated in a spirit of growth and development simply must be experienced in a state that’s grounded, awake and aware and not in the blinded condition of intoxication described in phase one and two above.
For me we at last begin to connect to love in a context that seems truly grounded in reality. This love is defined more by its process of self-forgetting and urge to actively ‘extend oneself’ in the quest for growth than simple procreative force.
There’s also a shift here from the passive to the active. Love as noun and love as verb. It’s choice, intention AND action. We don’t just feel love but we do love. And we do love by demonstrating that in each moment by moment action. How we show up, how we listen, how we talk, what we do. It’s all too easy to speak the magic words ‘I love you’, but what do our actions say?
Another important aspect of love as action (or love in action), is to consider that love is a quality we cultivate as much as we demonstrate. All of the great spiritual traditions have enshrined practices of forgiveness, kindness and love. Direct practical ways of developing and sustaining these qualities essential to primary relationships as they are to all healthy relationships.
To me this hints that our lens might still be a little narrow. Love is so easily appropriated by romance yet we’re all aware that it’s not it’s only form. Love of others – family, friends, mentors and on – is a quality both valued and experienced daily by most of us and as research has demonstrated we humans are not islands for very practical survival reasons and prosocial emotions (see Robin Dunbar again!) such as empathy and altruism all fit cosily into the broader experience of love and caring for others outside of a primary partner. When the French Jesuit philosopher Pierre Teilhard de Chardin so elegantly penned,
‘Love alone can unite living beings so as to complete and fulfil them… for it alone joins them by what is deepest in themselves.’
This might be read as yet another paean to Cupid, but my interpretation is de Chardin points to an important truth – the uniting force of love as one that connects us all and when we engage with the intention of growth, selflessness and action that Scott Peck describes, it is only then we truly get a sense of being complete and fulfilled.
This broader concept of true love we’re unpicking then potentiates to not just a template for our own personal enrichment and development, but also one of much larger societal growth, connection and fulfilment. What we do affects those around us and then onwards to those around them. This places each one of us as key players in a far grander scheme of conscious human evolution.
In the apt ancient words of the Buddhist Metta (or Loving-Kindness) sutta, itself the foundation stone of one of the great love and forgiveness cultivation practices, we see this shift to true open-hearted caring exemplified …
So with a boundless heart should one cherish all living beings, radiating kindness over the entire world, upwards towards the sky, downwards towards the depths, omitting none. May you be happy. May you be at ease. May you be free from danger. May you be loved.
As this piece emerges I have a sense it could easily be read as a damning view of love in the infatuated or even romantic context. This is not so. I love love in all its shapes. Falling in love is a wonderfully, intoxicating and exquisitely, tormented experience and one that I whole-heartedly embrace … with one caveat and a suggestion:
This is to consciously engage in the sure knowledge that in the blissful state of ‘falling in love’ we will be temporarily rendered nuts. To weathering the inevitable hormonal storm, the rescue plan is: make oneself accountable to a few select and trusted friends. That way when the inner compass spins like a top they have permission to be brutally (if needed) frank. Like Hercules amongst the sirens, they become the mast to which we lash until that emotional tempest abates and we see reality once again.
So where does this leave us? In answering the question of ‘What is True love?’ what has emerged is that it is far more than a purely hedonistic primal whirl of our instinctive procreative square dance, but a quality rooted in reality and authenticity, in intention and action and one which is also a co-arising factor of our deeper yearning need for meaning and purpose in life. Where the initial romantic mayhem is more defined by ownership and possession (my love, my darling), true love in this wider context becomes a springboard into the selfless and a portal into a truly connected and conscious way of being in the world; a way of being that supports and wholeheartedly ‘nurtures our own (and) another’s spiritual growth’.
In the words of Ghandi
‘Where there is love there is life.’
Though we could possibly equally decry ‘Where there is life there is love’ or at least the possibility of this true, conscious, awakened sense of love. Peck outlined it as an act of volition, of choice and perhaps this is where the line becomes clear: in the romantic state we most easily define as true love we usually describe this as something into which we fall, as if helpless and without choice whereas Peck’s (and undoubtedly mine too!) notion is defined by choice and considered, kind action. A conscious, intentional and awakened act of will and selflessness.
So to the bard for some final thoughts.
Let me not to the marriage of true minds
Admit impediments. Love is not love
Which alters when it alteration finds,
Or bends with the remover to remove:
O no! it is an ever-fixed mark
That looks on tempests and is never shaken;
It is the star to every wandering bark,
Whose worth’s unknown, although his height be taken.
Love’s not Time’s fool, though rosy lips and cheeks
Within his bending sickle’s compass come:
Love alters not with his brief hours and weeks,
But bears it out even to the edge of doom.
If this be error and upon me proved,
I never writ, nor no man ever loved.
William Shakespeare (1564 – 1616)