Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Is love a decision?

I have thought of love as a feeling.  When it is getting started, it is such a rush of emotion.  I can't imagine how anything could be more powerful.  But maybe after all the hormones get roused and then routine sets in, love becomes more of a decision than a feeling.  It's hard to know what love is because it can sometimes be such an intense feeling while at other times, I think that it is a momentous decision.

Dictionaries define love simply as "an intense feeling of deep affection". So that would mean that love is at the level of other feelings like anger, sadness, happiness. But then there is the other concept of love being a conscious decision to care for someone. Obviously, there are going to be times when you don't feel much love, yet you have decided that overall you do love the person in spite of all their warts and other unlovable things.

But maybe there's a third option here that relates more to chemical dependency. There are a lot of chemicals racing around your brain and body when you're in love. Researchers are gradually learning more and more about the roles they play both when we are falling in love and when we're in long-term relationships.

The falling in love part comes with those feelings of giddiness and a racing heart, flushed skin, and pure bliss. These physiological feelings come from the chemicals dopamine, norepinephrine and phenylethylamine that are released into our system. Dopamine is called the "pleasure chemical". Norepinephrine is similar to adrenaline and produces the racing heart and excitement. Together these two chemicals produce elation, intense energy, sleeplessness, craving, loss of appetite and focused attention. So there appears to be a reason for feeling "love sick" and addicted to love. And it is mighty powerful stuff.

MRI's have been used to examine the brains of people who are looking a photo of their romantic interest during the initial crazed stage of attraction. The scans showed increased blood flow in areas of the brain with high concentrations of receptors for dopamine -- associated with euphoria, craving and addiction. High levels of dopamine are also associated with norepinephrine, which heightens focus, short-term memory, hyperactivity, sleeplessness and goal-oriented behavior. What this means is that couples in this stage of love think of little else but each other. Definitely I have done that, so much that I couldn't sleep.

Other research has shown that the intense focus and idealizing view that occurs in the attraction stage may be the result of lower levels of serotonin. These lower serotonin levels are the same as those found in people with obsessive-compulsive disorders, possibly explaining why those in love "obsess" about their partner.  And this is a behavior that I see wasn't healthy at all, but I'm glad that someone has a physiological reason for it.

But these chemicals can't be sustained for a long period of time and gradually the passionate focus-crazed love-attraction phase wanes and is replaced by commitment, if the relationship continues.

Maybe this is where the decision part comes into play. Love at this stage isn't about chemicals as much as it is about choices. And sacrifice and concern for the other person. As one writer put it, love is about stubbornness and the ability to stick with a person through the worst of times.

And that's where I am glad that Al-Anon comes into play. Because if love were just a feeling and not a decision, I don't think that I would still be married. It seems that the longer you're with a person, the more that love becomes a decision.

Maybe after a while there is just too much history between the two people to consider parting.  It is just too much trouble to sort through what's yours and what's mine.  Maybe there is much truth to the fact that keeping a relationship healthy requires immovability.  And once you have lived a combined life for so long, who has the energy to figure out who owns the original Bob Dylan Highway 61 and who owns the Let It Bleed album by the Stones?


  1. The opposite of love is apathy. That's all I know about love, and staying together for the sake of the albums, well...that's not apathetic. Sounds like love to me. :)

  2. agreed. I have decided to stay, and stay I have. It had little to do with emotion, and all to do with deciding to stay and work and love. love is a choice, certainly. had I followed emotions alone I would be in a very different (and lonely) place.

  3. There are times when love IS walking away.

  4. nice post...the research was intriguing but the message all the more so...marriage is not easy...it takes work...i dont know how many realise that when they make their decisions on their initial feelings...but i would not trade it for the world.

  5. good post Syd, the science of Love and a nice Al-Anon wrap up. Love is a commitment, an action and a decision at our house as well.

  6. Wow...it's been a long time since I've delved into this subject. I agree thoroughly that "love is a decision". All the other emotions and bodily changes are exciting but the real test of love is in the longevity...and I don't mean just sticking it out.
    From my lofty age of 77 I can say that (for me) when you trade in one "love" for another you usually end up the same way unless you really put some work in to the relationship. Personally, I love living alone and having "fringe" relationships...works for me.

  7. i beleive love is both, a feeling and a decision. funny those chemecals you described sounded a lot like the reactions to getting high.

    it also makes sense why i could never tell when i was high or really had feelings for another person.

    this is the first clean relationship i have had and it is a decision, everyday, to sort through the chaos in my brain and keep it in reality. just yesterday i was concerned about my relationship and how he behaved with my children that were not his blood.

    thankfully i had therapy yesterday and today i can sort through some of the past baggage and see him today, not as my father or some past abuser.

    the feelings i get today are so mixed up that i need help sorting out the past from the present. the same is true with feelings and decisions. i need to decide what is real and what is a feeling from my past.

    it also brings up why people stay in unhealthy relationships. when those chemicals you speak of are aroused there is a hightened sense of drama. like a dope fiend chasing the dragon. and one person in the relaitonship finding love outside of the relationship(chasing the dragon) and why the other half stays with them also chasing that feeling of euphoria, it is just like addiction. and neither of them looking at the reality.

    today i am grateful for my fellowship and both my very good therapists, and my willingness to try to maintain a healthy balanced relationship. great post.

  8. Syd, May I recommend Rollo May's classic, Love and Will? I read it some twenty years ago in grad school and it validated so much of my hunches about love. Today I experience love as "both" an act of will (a decision) and an emotion. Timeless and poetic, this small book is powerful.

  9. In the words of Neil Young, "what you love in the beginning will kill you in the end". Before the program I attracted my opposite it was exciting and they were fun loving until the drinking started. After the program I took a different route and I think we were bored out of our minds. Maybe life was too easy and we got into a routine that ended in the death of our relationship. So for me I am looking for the middle. Someone that likes things calm but can be flexible and enjoy life. But truthfully I am still attracting alcoholics but luckily this time in recovery. We are the same in our disfunction.

  10. Excellent post. Just completely excellent.

  11. Nice and helpful post, Syd. I do think longterm relationships are a decision and require both dedication and commitment.

  12. The Rolling Stones album is mine. LOL!

    Syd - I always love the wisdom and insight you pour into your prose. My daughter did a paper on love as a chemical reaction long before we started seeing books about it. I'll never forget that very well thought out paper of hers. At that time, though, I pointed out to her that the flush of chemicals inevitably fades. What you're left with is, as you say, a decision to stay or not. And often that is a very hard decision. When the person you love is spiraling down, it's hard to hang in there. I hung in my marriage for 27 years, mostly because we were such good friends. We still are. We just want different things now.

    Peace - D

  13. I just watched a documentary on ETV regarding this.

    I think my scientific/intellectual type brain works to examine details too closely without the greater perspective of how in the world (heaven) we were built with such excruciating attention to every single 'neuronic' (I think I might have coined a fun new term - LOL) detail.

    I believe love is life-giving.

  14. Very interesting post Syd.
    Funny that when you've not had it in a long time, and then find it again, it becomes almost like a drug. You keep on wanting more of it and don't want to let it go.
    Thanks for your post. Enjoyed reading the comments.
    : )

  15. Agape love is a decision. But oh, that romantic Eros stuff - that is all hormones.

    Nice analysis of it Syd.

  16. This was a super interesting read for me tonight,Syd.I believe love is indeed a decision-but it's in conjunction with the numerous other feelings that inspire love.Each couple is unique.Longevity in couples is too.I never doubt that one person can be in love several times in a lifetime,nor do I question two people can be content together,forever.Really interesting read..as always......thank you...xo

  17. I'm new here. Came over from Nikki Rosen's blog (Writing).

    You write of deep things from your heart.

    I am in a ministry to help heal emotional wounding. Appreciate the healing journey you are on.

    Just wanted to leave this comment rather than being an anonymous reader.


  18. A couple of years ago I would have said that after the romance wanes, then love is a decision. But a couple of years ago my husband left the bar with a woman he'd met a few weeks earlier and moved in with her. Three days later he came home to tell me. In these past two years I've learned that love is something that is in your entire body. Your heart certainly, also your mind as in the decision that you refer to, but also in your body. And I've learned, as I'm sure you know, that despite what you may know about someone, you can love them, and I'm not sure that's a decision. I'm asking "what is love" myself, and have been for a long time. I really don't know. But I know it lasts.


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