The trouble with love: head over heels is an uncomfortable position for human beings

Paul Chance


No one sends me valentines anymore, and I’m glad. Celebrating love, the romantic sort of love that poets swear by, is to me rather like celebrating boils, hemorrhoids or gout.

It is no coincidence that we celebrate love on St. Valentine’s Day. St. Valentine was a Christian physician who was beaten and beheaded by the Romans in 269. Who better to be the patron saint of lovers than a man intimately acquainted with pain?

Even those who defend love admit that it involves considerable suffering. Palpitations, sleeplessness, loss of appetite, mood swings, constant sighing and obsessional thinking are common symptoms. Those afflicted are apt to be told, perhaps in the form of a song, “You’re not sick. You’re just in love.” This is meant to comfort them, on the same theory that says a man with severe chest pains should be glad to learn he merely has gallstones.

One of the more bizarre aspects of love is the lover’s compulsion to share its misery with others. Some victims even resort to magic and witchcraft to achieve this end. In 1754 a young woman who suffered mightily from the many-splendored agony determined that the object of her affections should suffer along with her. To accomplish this, she boiled an egg, replaced the yolk with salt and ate the egg and its shell without taking anything to drink, then went to bed. The concoction must have caused considerable internal rebellion, but the next day the object of her obsession came to call, so she was satisfied.

Why people should be afflicted with love is a mystery. An ancient Greek legend said that humans were originally hermaphroditic, and that no one loved anybody, at least not romantically. Then one day an angry god divided humans in two, creating one male half and one female half. Ever since, people have felt incomplete. When they find their other half, or think they have, they experience the ecstatic torture we have come to call love. Their feelings are understandable since they can never really become whole and because their other half often turns out to be less than a perfect match.

A number of behavioral scientists have studied love, but they have come to somewhat different conclusions about its nature. Psychologist John Alan Lee, who has identified nine varieties of love, calls the head-over-heels variety “mania.” He considers it a form of madness. This view is supported by the fact that people in love do crazy things. Mostly love just makes people act silly, but sometimes the afflicted turn violent. Lovers have been known to kill those they love, particularly if the object of their affection is not similarly stricken. This is to make a good impression on them. If it doesn’t work, they either kill themselves or look for another victim.

The madness interpretation of love has a large following, but there are other views. Psychologists Stanton Peele and Archie Brodsky argue that the sort of love we idolize on Valentine’s Day is a form of addiction. People in love, they note, often display the two principal characteristics of drug abuse: tolerance and withdrawal.

At first, lovers are satisfied to be with their partners for short periods, but their tolerance soon builds and they must increase the dosage. They often admit this by saying things such as, “I can’t get enough of you.” They are like heroin junkies talking to their needles.

When dope addicts are unable to get a fix, they begin to sweat, feel nauseous, get the chills and feel like somebody’s laundry being pounded clean on a rock. That’s withdrawal. Lovers experience much the same thing when the joy of their life is torn from their arms as, for example, when he or she has to go to the bathroom. Longer separations create a more intense agony, which the suffering lover feels obliged to describe in microscopic detail to anyone within earshot.

Joseph Wolpe, a psychiatrist with a behavioral bent, says that love is merely a bad habit, like a fear of snakes. “Emotional habits,” he writes, “are resistant to logical arguments or good advice, because something that is learned emotionally cannot be dealt with purely at an intellectual level.” Don’t look for the love habit in the cortex, the thinking part of the brain, he says. You’ll find it in the deeper, more primitive, reptilian brain–the same part of the brain that makes the shark go into a feeding frenzy.

Other experts look to Darwin for an explanation of love. Children require constant care and protection for more than a decade. In the rough caves that were home to our ancestors for millennia, the theory goes, the child whose parents felt no strong emotional attachment for one another was unlikely to reach reproductive age. Thus, love is an evolutionary device, a nasty trick played upon us by nature to keep our species going. This theory is consistent with the common observation that love most often strikes those of childbearing age.

But another theory holds that love is a cultural invention. In an explanation that Freud would have (you should forgive the expression) loved, psychologist Lawrence Casler puts the blame on sex. Or, to be more precise, guilt about sex. In Casler’s view, people have an innate craving for sexual stimulation, but puritanical Western societies like ours make sex taboo. So, while people crave sex, they have to find some way of overcoming their guilt about it. That, says Casler, is where love comes in. People justify taking their pleasures with one another by becoming ga-ga about each other. We pretend that lust is the by-product of love, when in reality love is the by-product of lust.

The sexual revolution of the ’60s and ’70s seems to have made young people feel less guilty about sex than their parents did. If Casler is right, less guilt about sex should mean less need to rationalize lust by falling in love. Are today’s young people less prone to the head-over-heels phenomenon? Hard data are in short supply, but casual observation suggests that the answer is yes. I know people in their 20s who are incredibly rational about their mates. A generation ago they would have been bonkers over each other, but today they are utterly cool-headed. In fact, I haven’t seen anybody who was madly in love in ages.

Which is OK by me. The quicker we are rid of the menace of romantic love, the better. The world will be a saner, less volatile, more sensible place once the lovesickness has been eradicated. Of course, I might feel differently about the whole business if once in awhile somebody, anybody, would send me a valentine.

COPYRIGHT 1988 Sussex Publishers, Inc.

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group

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