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  • Brittany Montes, Psy. D.

What is Love?

Valentines Hearts and Love

It’s February, which means that Valentine’s Day is on most people's minds.  Naturally, when the topic of Valentine’s Day is brought up, the concept of love closely follows.  But, what exactly is love?  How have we, as a society, come to define and view love?  Mirriam-Webster (n.d.) provides us with several definitions of love, including:


- “Strong affection for another arising out of kinship or personal ties”
-  “Attraction based on sexual desire: affection and tenderness felt by lovers”
-  “Affection based on admiration, benevolence, or common interests”
-  “Warm attachment, enthusiasm, or devotion”

Notably, these definitions are broad and varied in nature.  As such, it is reasonable to infer that the definition of love is broad and, oftentimes, subjective.


Conversely, research has found evidence of definite changes in the brain associated with being in love.  Specifically, research has found that individuals experience activation in the midbrain’s ventral segmental area (VTA).  The VTA is tasked with ensuring that basic needs, such as eating and drinking, are being met.  The fact that this area of the brain is activated likely indicates that love is a biological need (Novotney, 2023).  Evidence also suggests that the reward circuit of the brain is sensitive to pleasure-inducing behaviors and often becomes more visible on imaging scans when individuals talk about a loved one.  Finally, Novotney (2023) noted that long-term love has been found to “boost activation in more cognitive areas of the brain.”  This activation is likely responsible for the ability to anticipate the behaviors/actions of a loved one (i.e. the phenomena of completing your partner’s symptoms).


Moving past the biological aspects of love, Dr. John Gottman provides us with a social framework for love in his model describing 3 phases of love.  The first phase of love is characterized by excitement, fantasy, fears of rejection, sexual intimacy, and physical symptoms (Gottman, 2021).  Often, this phase is viewed as the honeymoon stage of the relationship.


Gottman (2021) describes the second phase of love as one of building trust and attachment with your partner.  This phase is often characterized by a variety of emotions, including frustration, disappointment, and sadness.  Finally, the third phase of love focuses on building commitment and loyalty (Gottman, 2021).  At this point in the relationship, partners are focused depending their love to establish a relationship that will last a lifetime (Gottman, 2021).


While research has found evidence suggesting changes in the brain associated with love as well as dependable social patterns, love in and of itself remains subjective.  How and why one falls in love is often a mystery.



About the Author

Dr. Montes is a licensed clinical psychologist and co-owner of Cognitive Behavior Therapy Center in Chesapeake, VA.



References

Gottman, J. (2021, February 3). The 3 phases of Love. The Gottman Institute. https://www.gottman.com/blog/the-3-phases-of-love/


Merriam-Webster. (n.d.). Love. In Merriam-Webster.com dictionary. Retrieved January 18, 2024, from https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/love


Novotney, A. (2023, February 10). What happens in Your brain when you’re in love? American Psychological Association. https://www.apa.org/topics/marriage-relationships/brain-on-love 

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