What is Love?

More Than Romance
Valentine’s Day is rapidly approaching. Chocolates and flowers are flying off the shelves like hot cakes, and stores are lined in red, pink, and white. Couples everywhere are planning romantic dates, buying cute gifts, and walking around with cartoon hearts in their eyes. While that’s all well and good, Valentine’s Day can feel like a […]
This image contains different people experiencing different forms of love. Hearts with strings wrap around people and the love they are experiencing. There is a child flying a kite, a woman playing fetch with her dog, two girl friends walking together, and two men back to back on a tree.

Valentine’s Day is rapidly approaching. Chocolates and flowers are flying off the shelves like hot cakes, and stores are lined in red, pink, and white.

Couples everywhere are planning romantic dates, buying cute gifts, and walking around with cartoon hearts in their eyes.

While that’s all well and good, Valentine’s Day can feel like a celebration limited to people in romantic relationships. If you’re not in one, it’s like you’ve lost out on a holiday because you couldn’t find love in time. 

The typical view is that you’re either in a relationship and happy, or you’re single and crying into a tub of ice cream. 

The stereotype begs the question: is being in a romantic relationship actually any better than being single? No relationship is quite the cookie-cutter romance portrayed in many Hollywood movies, after all.

VIU Professor and clinical psychologist Cameron Gordon’s research specializes in the study of romantic relationships as well as positive psychology—the study of human strengths and virtues.

I asked Gordon about the pros and cons of romantic relationships versus being single.

On the side of relationships, Gordon explains, “It’s nice to have a partnership, to share life with and to have somebody that you can confide in. For some people, the essence of life is having that sort of connection … [without] it, you can feel like you are missing something.”

Studies have shown that being in a satisfying, committed romantic relationship can be a protective factor against certain mental health issues, such as depression, and can help your physical health, including better immune functioning

However, research shows that the effectiveness of this support is contingent on a person’s perceived satisfaction with their romantic relationship. If a couple perceives their relationship as dissatisfying, the health benefits that can accompany romantic relationships may be negated, and sometimes even worsened. 

“Relationships are very hard to navigate,” Gordon says. “When I was first getting into this field, a successful relationship was defined as being non-distressed or not divorcing. If you have a degree of intimacy, then the other person has tremendous power to hurt you that they often don’t realize [they have].”

A benefit of being single is that you have the freedom to explore different connections without strong commitments.

There are also mental and physical health benefits from social support outside of romantic relationships, such as familial and community relationships and friendships.

“Another advantage is that you don’t have a default way of filling empty spaces in your life,” Gordon states. “You can sit and be with yourself more, and develop some really tremendous self awareness. Spending time with yourself is incredibly important, whether you are in a relationship or not. But people who are single have an easier time doing that.”

However, Gordon notes that many people who are single report feeling like they’re “missing something.” Not being in a romantic relationship may cause some degree of distress if someone has a high need for connecting deeply with another person. Relationships can also act as a built-in support network. 

Whether or not you’re in a romantic relationship can impact how a person spends their time, and how they define themselves. With so much focus on romantic connection, it can be hard to escape the pressure to find a relationship.

Society is love-obsessed. Our media, movies, and music are filled with notions of love, break-ups, being single, finding someone, romance, and sex. Besides a bopping song by Haddaway—what is love? Why do we love?

Love can be wonderfully ecstatic and blissful. It can also cause great pain and devastating heartbreak.

Love isn’t only passion and sex, though; it’s also your favourite movie, your grandma’s fresh baked cookies, playing fetch with your dog. Poets and philosophers alike grapple with its complexity—love is a feeling, experience, and phenomenon that is hard to put into words. 

Ask any one person what they think love is, and you will likely receive a similar yet unique answer. 

In his philosophical text the Symposium, Socrates described love as “the consciousness of a need for a good not yet acquired or possessed.” Author and inspirational speaker Simon Sinek describes his favourite definition of love as “giving someone the power to destroy you and trusting they won’t use it.” 

Although these answers help describe what love is, they’re still abstract.

The difficulty in defining love makes the study of it challenging. When I asked Gordon how he would define love, his answer surprised me. 

“In my field we talk about communication, support, and processes that keep people feeling satisfied in their relationship or not. [It’s about] relationship success or divorce,” Gordon explains. “But the word ‘love’ comes up seldom in the conversation. I don’t have a scientifically formulated answer.”

Psychology studies topics that can be scientifically measured. Theoretically, it has to be something with a definition that can be agreed upon first. 

Having no scientific answer, Gordon gives his own.

“I think love is a matter of being,” he says. “Love is very dynamic and there’s different ways of experiencing it. Different phases occur within relationships.”

Love seems unwilling to allow itself to be objectively defined or put into a scientific box to be measured. Researchers like Gordon tend to focus on the concept of romantic relationships instead, as they are more concrete to study.

There are many theories and perspectives surrounding the notion of love to consider, however.

One way to look at romantic love is through an economic and biological lens. We love so that we can share resources and provide an economically stable environment so that we can reproduce, help protect our young, provide social support, and take care of our own health as well.

“Why do [government] policy makers care so much about maintaining long-term relationships? Because divorce destabilizes communities by enhancing poverty,” Gordon explains. “It’s easier to survive economically if you have two people working at it together. But that’s not a very romantic view.”

Widely acclaimed clinical psychologist, author, and relationship expert Dr. Sue Johnson has stated that humans are “created for connection.” This appears very evident when reading papers on the biochemistry of love.

In Carter and Porge’s 2013 paper “The Biochemistry of Love: An Oxytocin Hypothesis,” they state that love is a “phenomenon [of] social behaviors, emotional attachment to others and long-lasting reciprocal relationships [that] are plastic and adaptive and so is the biology on which they are based.”

The paper describes research using voles finding that, similar to humans, love stimulates three neurotransmitters in the brain: oxytocin, dopamine, and vasopressin. Oxytocin in particular is important for love, as it plays a major role in social interactions and parental behavior.

Together, these neurotransmitters participate in the activation of oxytocin, pleasure, the ability to bond, and more. 

Carter and Porges also mention an important nerve that transmits many sensations in our bodies that we often experience as emotion—the vagus nerve.

This nerve plays a large part in the regulation of internal organs, like our respiration and digestion. It is also part of the reason we experience butterflies in our stomach.

Love stimulates cognitive and physiological processes, both of which can impact mental and emotional states.

“The body seeks love and responds,” the study says.

There are also many psychological theories aimed at helping to explain love. Hazan and Shaver’s Adult Attachment Theory proposes that the type of bonds we forge with our parents as children impacts how we bond with romantic partners. 

The Five Love Languages suggests that each of us show love in different ways, including praise, physical touch, and quality time. John Lee’s Colour Wheel Model of Love, explains love as similar to the colour wheel, with three primary styles of love associated with the primary colours.

Sternburg’s Triangular Theory of Love is one of the more complex and comprehensive theories I have stumbled upon in my quest for answers. Sternburg proposes eight different types of love that are based on different combinations of three different scales: intimacy, passion, and commitment. 

For example, consummate love is a mix of all three scales, fatuous love is passion and commitment, and empty love is commitment only. No couple tends to remain within one of these types of love for the entire duration of their relationship as, once again, love is dynamic.

The intriguing part to me about all of this is that I feel as though, like many, I primarily associate “true” love as a committed romantic relationship. But it’s so much more than that.

“Romantic love certainly isn’t the only type of love,” Gordon states. “I love my partner; I love my parents; I love my kids; I love myself; I love my natural surroundings, but I also really love my work … I think love is at the foundation of everything that we invest our time in.”

I began this article with a sort of “romantic relationship” versus “single” perspective in regards to Valentine’s Day, with those in relationships having this elite power to enjoy it more than those who are single. 

Though, if Valentine’s Day is a day devoted to the celebration of love, perhaps I’ve been thinking about both this article and the holiday all wrong. 

Many of these psychological theories on love I mentioned extend to relations with family and friends, too. Being single doesn’t mean that you’re lacking love.

Love is all around us; it’s where empathy, social bonds, and altruism originate from. 

It’s your best friend, the memory of a family member who has passed away, your goals, your favourite food, your lover. 

When asked if love is important, Gordon responded, “I’m hard-pressed to think about ways love doesn’t enter into the equation of most of what I do, in one way or another. If you take love out of the equation, it’s kind of like, what do you have left?”

I agreed with this statement and went to ask two of the most important people in my life their perspectives on love: my sister Sadie Mudryk, and childhood best friend Marissa Wright-LaGreca.

They each had their own sentiments.

“Love is where you go in your hardest times,” Mudryk says. “When I lived in Vancouver, it would always be to the ocean … I felt so alive and free, like a kid again. It brings that feeling back, like who I am at my core. Love is a reminder of who you truly are at your root.”

When asked what love was, Wright-LaGreca laughed, then sighed. “Love is complicated. I would describe it as something that is outside of yourself. It’s like life in colour-vision. Without love, everything just feels muted. Like, when I’m with someone I love, or when I’m going for a beautiful walk … the world feels a little brighter, you know?”

If love is all around us, then I think that Valentine’s Day needs to be reframed to be less focused on the celebration of couples who have found romantic love, and instead focus on the fact that love—this incredibly complicated, dynamic, hard-to-explain thing—exists.

If you’re in a romantic relationship with someone this Valentine’s Day, that’s great. Gordon recommends that couples strengthen communication skills and remember that there’s always “a speaker and a listener,” and that it’s harder than it seems to be good at the listener’s role.

If you’re alone this Valentine’s Day, that’s also great. Gordon explains that feeling lonely is a normal part of the human experience and suggests trying to make peace with that feeling. Focus on self-love, and do something you feel passionate about.

“[Or] get together with friends,” he recommends. “Enjoy the other types of loving relationships we have in our lives.” 

As February 14 rapidly approaches, I hope you have a Valentine’s Day that is filled with love—regardless of your relationship status.

Sabrina is a fifth-year Psychology and Creative Writing student. Her poem "They Are Waiting" won last year's Portent Prize and was featured in Portal's 2021 Magazine. She loves exploring Vancouver Island, telling people about the UFO Landing Pad in her hometown, and is a wannabe free diver. In her last year of schooling she has realized just how much potential there is in being a student at VIU.

"Love can be wonderfully ecstatic and blissful. It can also cause great pain and devastating heartbreak."
"If love is all around us, then I think that Valentine's Day needs to be reframed to be less focused on the celebration of couples who have found romantic love, and instead focus on the fact that love exists."

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