Editor’s note: This story was originally published on Feb. 13, 1995 in The Diamondback, the daily newspaper of the University of Maryland, College Park. The opinions, dated cultural references and poor grammar expressed here do not necessarily reflect the writer’s current opinions, knowledge and journalistic skill.
Tomorrow is Valentine’s Day and whether it is your favorite holiday or you loathe its annual return, it remains the one time of the year most appropriate to reflect (and write) on matters of the heart.
This is not a mushy essay about my girlfriend and I or the story of how we met (at the Starlight Inn, if you must know). Instead, this column is really about the conversation Anna and I had one hot sleepless night this summer in which we attempted to come up with a workable definition for love that satisfied all our questions and past experiences.
We asked ourselves, what does it mean to be “in love?” How does that differ from lust? Can you be in love with someone who is not in love with you? How do you fall out of love? Can you love more than one person? What is “true love?”
Three Ingredients of Love
We spent a lot of time deciding on a workable definition for love because it had to encompass a lot of things but also avoid being vague. We finally decided there are three parts of a romantic relationship that are needed for a couple to be in love: mutual sexual attraction, shared experience and selfishlessness.
Sexual Attraction. I’m reminded of something my friend Randy in Alaska said when I told him that the most important thing I look for in a woman is a good personality. ”Yeah,” he said, “but you don’t look for personality in an ugly woman.”
The point is well taken. While most people say good looks are not the most important feature they want in a partner, aesthetic attraction is usually the reason you begin a relationship. Of course, everyone has different standards and criteria for beauty so it’s difficult to argue what is truly beautiful (with Meg Ryan being be obvious exception to the rule), and on the other hand, if you look closely enough, there is something ugly about every one of us (Meg Ryan again being the exception).
Sharing and shared experiences. Having a commonness is equally important to love. Sharing past experiences as well as experiencing new things together, helps couples bond. Telling someone about your past, your secrets and fears creates trust, while doing new things creates memories. Because both trust and memories are valuable, they represent a kind of investment.
Selfishlessness. It’s not a real word but it should be. Selfish means to be concerned only with yourself while selfless is to be concerned only with others. Neither approach is healthy for a stable love relationship because the needs and happiness for both people must be met.
Aristotle wrote that the best form of friendship is one in which the catalyst for the relationship is a mutual desire to improve and help one another. It is this well wishing and progress that improves and satisfies the couple itself.
What is Lust?
“Probably the single hardest thing emotionally is to distinguish between lust [which] has enough personal warmth to feel like love, and love itself,” Norman Mailer wrote in Esquire. ”The two are very close yet different for one’s own karma.”
Indeed, lust is a very powerful emotion and should be properly distinguished from love. Basically lust is the absence of selfishlessness. While such relationships are usually based on sexual attraction and possibly shared experience, lustful desires are inherently selfish, more about pleasing yourself and what you desire than what is best for you both. Marquis de Sade wrote, “There is no more selfish passion then lust.”
Interestingly enough, there is a chemical in the body that triggers the quivering and intoxicating emotions of such infatuations. It is called PEA (phenylethylamine) and it makes you feel euphoric, rejuvenated and energized. It functions similarly to an amphetamine, the biological equivalent of speed. Like speed, PEA is also addicting.
The desire for this love fix cause people to jump into relationships with incompatible partners and when the relationship fails they cure the fix by jumping into another. We all know people who do this.
Besides the lust-inducing PDA, the body also creates other chemicals and feelings associated with love. Oxytocin, also known as the “cuddle chemical,” is a hormone associated with sexual arousal and the desire to touch or be close to your partner. This is also the same chemical that encourages labor contractions and is found in women at significantly higher levels than in men.
Biochemists have found that PEA levels can sustain an infatuation for weeks or even years, but once they subside, the body creates different kinds of chemicals called endorphins. These opiates of long-term relationships function more like morphine and speed and are associated with feelings of intimacy, warmth and empathy.
Falling Out of Love
Describing love in terms of biological uppers and downers does not mean that all common sense is put in check. In fact there are so many factors that could cause a relationship to end that it is a wonder any last at all.
In terms of our three-part definition of love, if any one of the three falter so will the relationship. No longer finding your partner sexually attractive or discovering their motives for wanting you are selfish can make the relationship crumble faster than a co-op cookie.
Slower perhaps, but equally ruinous, is the loss of shared experiences. This is usually the downfall of long distance relationships. When the couple is separated they begin to discover things separately and as it becomes difficult or burdensome to share those things, the couple begins to grow apart.
The Roman poet Sextus Propertius said, “Absence makes the heart grow fonder.” But friend Alex explained, “The only one that benefits from a long-distance relationship is AT&T.”
One -Way Love
Alfred Lord Tennyson wrote, “’Tis better to have loved and lost, than never to have loved at all,” but truly, in the spectrum of emotional experience nothing is more saddening and personally embarrassing than unrequited love. Many of us have been there and no one wants to return.
Is it possible to be in love with someone who doesn’t love you back? The answer is ”no” according to our definition. Attraction, sharing experiences and selfishlessness, must all be mutual. If someone does not love you it could mean they are not attracted, don’t enjoy your company, cannot trust you, or will not commit any time or emotional investment. Unfortunately, love can sometimes lead to very unlovely feelings.
A relationship is not something you can push or force, it is either there or it isn’t. No matter how far one person goes, the other must still meet half way.
Anna and I wrestled with this definition for a while. First we decided that you could be in love with more than one person; nothing in our definition is individually exclusive. However, we later distinguished that “true love” is a good definition for being in love with only one person.
Happy Valentine’s Day, coupled or coupleless, in love or out — tomorrow is for anyone who has ever loved, lost, lusted and longed for, been involved or just infatuated, had a crush or was crushed, desired, admired or otherwise felt the flame.
David G. Allan is a senior journalism major and Anna Drum is a junior theater major. Next week is their one-year anniversary.