What is love? DePaul’s experts weigh in

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Screen Shot 2016-02-05 at 6.40.00 PMWhat is love?

Kendra Knight: There are people who talk about love styles – pragmatic lovers, manic lovers. I think of love from a triangular perspective. There’s the hot feelings of passion, the warm feelings of affection and those deep feelings of commitment.

Eric Selinger: There are two long traditions in literature about what love is. One has to do with love as a way that I feel about somebody else. It’s about what goes on inside my head.

The other tradition thinks about love as the way people treat one another. It has to do with a mixture of affection, respect, intimacy and care. The question is: can you love somebody that you haven’t met or haven’t spent a lot of time with? Can you love somebody that doesn’t reciprocate? Poets will give you a rousing yes to that.

Tim Cole: Not everybody experiences love the same way. There’s romantic, passionate love, which is what we idealize in our culture. That is that head over heels infatuation, obsessional, delusional, needy, it feels fantastic. That’s often referred to as “hot” love. Then there’s “warm” love, which is companion love. It is the love you develop for someone because you truly appreciate them. Then there’s compassionate love which is a true appreciation, a genuine concern for the person, but it’s also a concern for taking care of them and making sure their needs are met.

Karen Larimer: In partnership and in relationships, love can help people live longer. People tend to be healthier when they’re in a supportive relationships. Whether that’s love or a friend or family member, we know they’d be better than people living by themselves or who are divorced. We think that’s because of the social support the other person provides.

What is infatuation?

Selinger: It’s a term that mostly signifies a warning. Don’t assume that what you’re feeling now is this thing called love that poets write about, novelists write about. Enjoy it for what it is, but don’t be fooled into thinking it’s something that it isn’t.

Cole: Infatuation is being obsessive and idealizing someone without really getting to know them at all. This infatuation, this puppy love, you can also call it unrequited love. It’s like ‘I love you so much I really don’t know you. I idealize you, I worship you.’

Larimer: What happens is we take that information into our senses and it triggers something in our brain that tells us we’re attracted to that person. That releases dopamine and other hormones and that causes our heart rate to go up a little bit, causes our blood vessels to dilate. So that’s why we might blush or get a fluttery heart.

Why do people fall in love?

Larimer: Nobody really knows the answer to that. Initially, it’s the dopamine that is actually released that makes us feel good about that person. Dopamine is the same chemical we get when we exercise a lot, when we do cocaine, when we’re feeling happy. I don’t know why one person would cause me to release dopamine versus another person. It’s all in our personal taste and our personal feelings toward one another.

Knight: There’s a lot that’s hormonal and pheromonal, our bodies perceiving that this person is someone we might have a good immuno-compatibility with, if you believe in pheromones. My philosophical view is that when I experience falling in love, I experience it as a blowing up of opportunity. I’ve heard someone say that we get crushes because they remind us of our potential best selves. I think that’s what falling in love has felt like to me: a blowing up of what’s possible in the world.

Cole: Typically what happens is that it starts with a lust attraction. You find someone physically attractive and there’s a lot of cues we use to determine who we’re attracted to.  All those positive and intense feelings through sexual behavior, it just makes you needy, estatic, it’s one of the best feelings in the world.

But one of the key things about love is that it doesn’t last. Love is a very powerful emotion, but it has a lot of ploys it uses. It’s really designed to get people together and change how you live your life.

What makes for a successful relationship?

Knight: It’s so boring, but so hard to put into practice: putting the relationship over your individual needs — if you want the relationship to be long-term. If you’ve chosen someone, and you want to commit to them, you’re committing to the relationship.

Selinger: I don’t think there’s a whole lot of mystery to this. Affection, caring, treating the other person well, friendship, decency, kindness. None of these are very surprising. I don’t think it’s true, as Tolstoy said, that every happy marriage is the same. I think that couples and other arrangements find their way to negotiate the claims of individuality and intimacy. Not every happy couple comes from the same ratio or balance.

Cole: A successful relationship is when two people have companion love. That romantic love fades and passionate love fades, and they’re like, ‘ah, I married my best friend. This is someone whose company I truly, deeply enjoy. If I had to pick someone to spend the day with, it would be my spouse. We know our relationship isn’t perfect, we know each other isn’t perfect, there are all sorts of problems,  but when problems emerge in our relationship we don’t take it personally.’

Why do people cheat?

Cole: If opportunities arise for you to have a child with someone else, behind your partner’s back, that would be sometimes in your best interest, your advantage, because again you get to have extra offspring. We want monogamy, we want our partners to be monogamous, but then we have feelings for other people. You just have to look no further than a multi-billion dollar porn industry, why?

Larimer: That initial feeling people get around people we have a crush on — that dopamine surge — is very powerful. That’s why people become addicted to drugs, running or overeating. It’s so powerful, in fact, it can be a part of people having poor judgement or making mistakes.

Knight: I recently read about someone who was giving advice to a man who was interested in contacting a former flame. Based on what he said about his relationship, it was not a good time to contact his former flame. She said, ‘think of it like starting a fire in a dry year.’ In a wet year, when the fire risk is low, you can pursue these things. But if your own relationship is in a ‘dry year,’ that’s not a good time to go lighting sparks in different ways.

Is there any validity to horoscopes?

Cole: There is no legitimacy whatsoever. We have huge decades and decades of research on how relationships work, and we have decades and decades of research on individual differences. That explains so much of what goes on in a relationship. There’s no empirical support for zodiac signs.

Knight: I don’t put a lot of stock into it. But plenty of people do, and it gives them the confidence to believe this Leo or this Scorpio is the one for them. I think self-reflection and introspection is good. If people look at horoscopes and it brings about something that rings true, any chance for identification or openness about the self is probably good.

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