Who else wants to know what the point of love is? cover image

Who else wants to know what the point of love is?

Dorian Minors • April 11, 2014

This is an archived article from our predecessor website, The Dirt Psychology. The idea there was to take psychological scholarship and turn it into wisdom. The Armchair Collective tries to go a little further than just psychology. As such, these articles live here in archive form, until they're updated.

I've told you why we love some people more than others before. And we've talked about the definition of love; how we can visualise it and the different types (you should definitely read that before we go on, if you haven't already). Basically love comes down to three interacting things; commitment (a sense of wanting the relationship to continue); intimacy (a sense of wanting to be close to the other person); and passion (wanting to bone 'em). They combine in different ways to create most of the different ways we love. But we never talked about why. Why do we love? What's the point? It's such a prolific and poignant emotion. It's something most people seek in their lives. I'm sure you can guess part of it, the passion is related to sex. So obviously it motivates baby-making. Useful, sure. But what about those other two aspects? Where do commitment and intimacy come in?

Love is what holds us on the long road of child rearing until our kids can start it all again. Photo courtesy of Armando G. Alonso (Flickr).  Love is what holds us on the long road of child rearing until our kids can start it all again. Photo courtesy of Armando G. Alonso (Flickr).

Well, some psychologists theorise that that companionate love, that love made of intimacy and commitment is all about keeping us together for our safety. But also long enough to raise our helpless children and to love it too. We've talked before about attachment, and these questions led to that theory. Babies are utterly helpless and dependent for several years. They need the unconditional support of a caregiver to support them and keep them safe for a number of reasons (one of them is attachment, for those in the know). This is where some say love comes in. Unfortunately (or maybe fortunately) this particular theory doesn't allow us to test it, Psychology ethics boards aren't too keen on letting psychologists mess with babies, for some reason. The only really strong evidence we have was done by a man named Harlow in the 1950s.

Harlow  put together two monkey like figures. One made of wire and the other made of soft material with a hot water bottle inside. He strung up food and water on the wire one. They then got some baby monkeys and said "if babies need that security everyone keeps talking about, they'll go for the more comfortable 'mother', otherwise, they'll just want food and water and stick with the wire one". Predictably, the baby monkeys got the food and water from the wire mothers and went straight back to the soft, warm ones. So, we have some support for this idea.

We also know that babies elicit a bunch of fuzzy-feeling chemicals from us. Oxytocin for the mothers and prolactin for the fathers (although Oxytocin ain't all it's cracked up to be). These chemicals make us extremely affectionate towards the babies and keep us feeling good about our partners too. We also have 'separation distress' as evidence. Ever seen a woman leave her baby alone for a while? It can get loud. Or very, very quiet. Babies don't like that at all. These feelings stay with us as we are older, when our partners are away (or are lost to us), we feel deep, emotional pain. On the flip side, theorists think that caregivers get massive bonuses from giving and receiving affection, as well as security into old age.

Humans without society are a lonely and effectively useless thing. Not many people would survive social isolation.  (Photo courtesy of Far Enough (Flickr)  Humans without society are a lonely and effectively useless thing. Not many people would survive social isolation.  (Photo courtesy of Far Enough (Flickr)

But what about romantic love; intimacy and passion? If passion is about baby making and commitment is about baby keeping, where does intimacy fall? Well, there are many similarities between the attachment bond between caregiver and child and that of a loving couple. We spoke before about separation distress, but also think about things like mutual feeding and grooming, the baby talk and touching. We also know that our attachment styles stay with us too, influencing our relationships as we get older. This is because intimacy is the element of relationships that is crucial for our health and our happiness. Humans are social creatures, it's inherent in us. Without this element, we suffer. So love has a primarily evolutionary function. It is important distally. Babies, basically. But it is so important in the present. Sex (passion) feels pretty awesome, intimacy is absolutely imperative for our happiness and health and commitment not only keeps our babies safe, but it also keeps us safe. Love is one of the great glues that holds us all together. But mostly; babies. Of course, it's hard to really know what's more important to our species - babies or socialising or another factor we haven't come across yet. I just like to stir the pot - I enjoy the emails. Anyway, if you liked this article, you might be interested in learning why we have sex outside of babymaking. Or maybe, if you're interested in how important socialising is, you'll be keen on knowing why small talk is so awkwardGiving you the dirt on your search for understanding, psychological freedom and 'the good life' at The Dirt Psychology. Thumbnail image courtesy of abbotsford5 (Flickr).

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Dorian Minors

I mostly do brain science. Sometimes I train honeybees. I promise they're related. I made this site because there's no reason why scholars should be the only ones to own knowledge. My special interests are interpersonal relationships, the science of community, spirituality and the brain, and the neural basis of complex behaviour. I hope this stuff is as interesting to you as it is to me. You can find out more about me here.