Mating Matters Podcast “What is Love?”

What is love? It’s the eternal question. Love is an interesting combination of psychology, biology, and sociology. It’s also, our favorite drug. This is Mating Matters.


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Art imitates life, and perhaps nobody knows love better than Hollywood. The science of falling in love involves biological, social, and psychological mechanisms.

Hi, I’m Dr. Wendy Walsh. And on this episode of Mating Matters, let’s break down the underpinnings of everybody’s favorite drug; love, using vibrant examples from our favorite movies.

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That famous scene of Mr. Darcy’s profession of love to Elizabeth Bennet from the movie Pride & Prejudice, is one that makes moviegoers heart swoon. And in this scene, you might think that both Darcy (played by Matthew Macfadyen) and Elizabeth (played by Keira Knightley) are feeling the same deep feelings for each other. Think, again, I guarantee they were having very different experiences of love.

All love affairs, even unrequited ones have a unique recipe made with biological, sociological and psychological ingredients. And no two people experience love the same way. For most people, love feels darn good. For others, love can be terrifying. And still others, love might feel irritating.

No matter how love feels, it’s definitely a bonding mechanism. That’s why according to anthropologists, love evolved in the first place to keep humans together long enough to procreate. And maybe, even long enough to nurture offspring together.

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From William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, written around 1600 and depicted here in the 1968 movie, to far back as Adam and Eve, human stories, art, music, poems, and movies are riddled with the emotion we call love.

The late Robin Williams in the movie Dead Poets Society explains why.

Robin Williams: “We don’t read and write poetry because it’s cute. We read and write poetry because we are members of the human race. And the human race is filled with passion. And medicine, law, business, engineering – these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love – these are what we stay alive for.”

Dr. Wendy Walsh:         No doubt about it. Love is the most effective drug we have. It can control pain, it can make problems disappear. Not to mention, love can enable lovers to stay up all night talking and making love and not feel one bit tired the next day. And I’m not joking. The special cocktail of hormones and neurotransmitters that fire up in the brain when one falls in love is no different from how a drug interacts with the brain.

This biological mechanism of love has three distinct stages. One, lust. Two, romantic attraction. And three, attachment.

During the initial sexual attraction phase, estrogen and testosterone in both men and women’s bodies rule the roost, making people want to lean in close, touch each other and kiss. Oh, and kissing by the way, helps a woman decide if she’ll sleep with a man.

Did you know she can unconsciously taste his immune system in his saliva? People with different immune systems prime to fight off different sets of diseases, tend to make stronger, fitter offspring. And therefore, they tend to have hotter sex. There’s even a DNA test that can predict hot sex. Check it out. It’s instant

And out of this initial surge of estrogen and testosterone can come romance. Romance is marked by a surge of other kinds of hormones like dopamine, which causes craving and desire. It can also make you giddy and euphoric and norepinephrine. Yeah, that’s the chemical release to calm us down after we experience stress. Love can be very stressful.

Finally, during the attachment stage, oxytocin often called the “cuddle hormone” and vasopressin (one sometimes linked to monogamy) jump into the game, big time. And serotonin decreases, which can make people more obsessive.

This party of hormones and firing of neurotransmitters causes a kind of love delusion. One that often leads to commitment. Johnny Depp explains that delusion well in the film Don Juan Demarco.

Johnny Depp:    “Have you never met a woman that inspires you to love until your every sense is filled with her? You inhale her, you taste her. You see your unborn children in her eyes, and know that your heart has at last found a home. Your life begins with her and without her, it must surely end.”

Dr. Wendy Walsh:         This lustful delusion phase can be really important if couples end up staying together for a long time. Because it’s during this phase that couples create mutual memories of say, romantic dates, vacations, jewelry shopping. And all of these memories can be conjured up years later by either partner to help rekindle things in their minds when the going gets tough. Because we all know this stage doesn’t last.

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Remember Dustin Hoffman and Meryl Streep in Kramer vs Kramer? The first big divorce movie. But even though those early hormonal feelings don’t last, it doesn’t mean that love doesn’t last. Love is much more than a biological event. Human beings are complicated people, and we interact within layers of important social systems and we all have individual psychology. Our idea of love and what it is and what it should feel like is different in everybody.

Oh, here’s a fun fact by the way, it takes a person about one to four minutes to decide if they’d like to have sex with someone. Half of that decision is based on body language, about 40% on tone of voice, and less than 7% on what a potential lover actually says. So much for the value of a good pickup line.

Male:               “Hi, I was wondering if you could touch my arm, so I could tell my friends that I’ve been touched by an angel.”

Dr. Wendy Walsh:         When love scientists talk about the sociology of love, they mean the stuff people put in their dating profiles that indicate if their social circles will be compatible. Education, religion, political affiliation, career choice, even food choices. Are you vegan, vegetarian or paleo? If two people are deeply biologically attracted to each other, but their relationship would clash in day-to-day life, their love won’t last.

Think of it this way. I’ll bet that if you put any two humans alone on a desert island or in a Vegas hotel room, they would eventually fall in love. But if you tried to take that relationship out into the real world, it probably wouldn’t make it.

Remember when Robin Wright, as Jenny rejected Tom Hanks as the lovable Forrest Gump because their lives didn’t match in adulthood?

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You should know that there are some couples who match entirely on sociology, arranged marriages. And then they let the hormones rise later. That’s still love, and it often lasts a long time.

As if biology and sociology aren’t messy enough, the feeling of love is further complicated by an individual’s psychological attachment style. You see, we all come into the world with a predisposition to attach in certain ways. And then during the first year of life when our brain triples in size, that genetic predisposition is either enlivened or suppressed by how our care givers treat us.

For instance, let’s say a baby was born with a lot of anxiety. If a parent holds, rocks and sooths the baby on demand, that gene might be suppressed. And the baby might grow to believe that the world and lovers can meet their needs. On the other hand, if caregivers were told to let that baby cry it out, that baby might grow up to imagine love as an eternal state of longing.

Our early life attachments become a blueprint for love. Attachment theory is a well-researched psychological area founded by the late British psychoanalyst John Bowlby. He believes that we go out into our adult romantic lives and recreate the feeling of mommy love, even if it was filled with pain.

John Bowlby:    No one wants to think that our mother never wanted and always really rejected them. It’s a very painful, very, very painful situation for anyone to find themselves in. Yet, if it’s true, it’s true. And they are going to be better off in the future if they recognize that that is what did happen.

Dr. Wendy Walsh:         That was John Bowlby himself. You can actually purchase the full talk where Dr. Bowlby explains attachment theory at

There are many kinds of attachment styles. Some people fear caregiving and become attracted to people who can’t give care. Others become addicted to longing and become attracted to those who will abandon them. Others smother a lover as a bid to try to keep them near. Still, others, avoid emotional intimacy because it’s just too painful.

In our adult romantic lives, we unconsciously go back to the scene of the crime and try to solve our early life conflicts. Like I said, love is darn complicated. Remember, Cher in Moonstruck? The morning after she slept with her fiancé’s brother.

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Perhaps my favorite psychological theory of love next to John Bowlby’s attachment theory, of course, is the triangular theory of love proposed by Cornell University’s Robert Sternberg. If you’ve ever studied any psychology, you probably know Sternberg for his world renowned theories on human intelligence. But he’s also turned his scientific lens to love. Coming up with the idea that love has three components. And one, two or all three can be present for people to interpret it as love.

The first he calls intimacy. He doesn’t mean physical intimacy here. He’s talking about emotional connection, vulnerability, intense feelings, honesty. The second component of love according to Sternberg is passion. Now, here’s where physical attraction steps in. Passion is connected to sex drive, lust, and that crazy cocktail of hormones that will make someone do just about anything to be in each other’s presence. The third kind of love in the Sternberg triangle is commitment. This is the intellectual choice to love someone, to make a decision to stay with them and make future long-term plans.

Now, here’s where Sternberg’s theory of love gets really interesting. You can experience various combinations of these three components and still call it love. And your partner, well, he or she might be experiencing a different combination. And this is where things can get prickly. So, here are Sternberg’s six combinations of his triangular theory of love.

The first is infatuation. Passion alone. In this kind of love, there’s no real emotional intimacy and no commitment. If you’ve ever had a serious crush on a celebrity or fallen in love with someone online, you’ve experienced Sternberg’s infatuated love. Likewise, if you have a stand-alone sexual relationship where no one’s talking about their feelings or problems and commitment isn’t present, you’re in infatuated love. This kind of love doesn’t tend to last very long.

The second kind of love that Sternberg describes is empty love. Unhappy marriages fall into this category. What you’ve got is commitment, but not much else. No emotional intimacy, no sexual passion. Couples who stay together for the sake of the children, which according to research on child development isn’t such a bad idea, but these couples fall into empty love.

The third kind of love, oh, it’s a fun one. If you’ve ever been lucky enough to experience sexual passion along with emotional intimacy, you know of Sternberg’s version of romantic love. These kinds of lovers are drawn to each other emotionally and physically, but they may not have a commitment to each other. So, a big time marital affair might fall into this category. This kind of relationship can feel kind of scary and unstable, filled with closeness, excitement, and fear of loss.

But romantic love is often a stepping stone to married life, or in the case of an affair, a divorce. Single partners don’t want to lose this amazing feeling, so they get engaged. A married person in an empty marriage ain’t the emotional support in a romantic love affair needed to leave their union.

Okay, love type number four. What if you have a great emotional connection and are committed to each other but have no sexual passion? Sternberg calls this companionate love. It’s much stronger than a friendship and can be very affectionate. It’s often what long-term marriages become as people age. Companionate love can also be felt by long-term roommates or close family members who live together. For obvious reasons, there is no sexual relationship, but the bond is strong and the two are primary attachment figures.

I had two great aunties who lived together – Rita and Gadelha. One had a daughter. Family folklore said that the baby’s father died in World War II. The two sisters lived together on a farm for 50 years. No one can even remember which sister actually gave birth to the daughter. These two had a strong companionate love.

Love style number five according to Robert Sternberg – pray you never have this one. It’s costly. You can have hot sexual passion and commitment, but no emotional intimacy. Sternberg calls this one fatuous love. It happens to couples who have great sex at the very beginning of their relationship, and then they run to the altar to try to keep those feelings forever. Remember the brief marriage of Kim Kardashian to Kris Humphries? Big wedding. 72 days later, big breakup. And how about the crazy Las Vegas wedding in 2004 of Britney Spears and her childhood friend Jason Alexander. That one lasted a whopping 55 hours. I like to call Sternberg’s fatuous love, “love drunk”.

There is a sixth kind of love that Robert Sternberg talks about in his theory of love, but I’m going to save it for the very end of this podcast, because it’s the one we all dream about.

Besides biology, sociology, and psychology, there’s one other ingredient in the recipe for love; timing. You two could be a perfect physical match, you could look great on paper, and you might both have a secure attachment style. But if one of you hasn’t hit their state of readiness, love will be kind of one sided. Remember, women have the pressure of a fertility window and tend to fall in love faster and desire a commitment.

For instance, you might think that on paper (that is sociologically) a movie star and a humble bookstore owner wouldn’t be a good fit. But if the timing was right for both of them as played by Julia Roberts and Hugh Grant in Notting Hill, love can still blossom.

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Men like to have all their ducks in order; education, career, and their social circle has to be coupling up. Weddings like divorces are highly contagious within social circles. And there’s no such thing as a groom’s magazine. They wait till their buddies do it. So, is it worth it to wait it out until your sexual partner hits his or her state of readiness? Usually not. Sadly, because after some time together, all those love hormones start to decline and people are less likely to make a commitment. That may be why couples who’ve lived together instead of getting married are less likely to marry that person. And if they do, they’re more likely to divorce them. Well, that could also be because people with an insecure attachment style, those who don’t have a healthy blueprint for love are more attracted to cohabitation than marriage.

Tom Cruise in Jerry Maguire found his moment of readiness with Renee Zellweger when his career fell apart, and he needed a partner.

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Okay. I promised you I would save the best kind of love for last. Remember Robert Sternberg and his triangular theory of love? Well, the sixth combination of love is the one we all dream about.

Consummate love. Sternberg thought of consummate love as the perfect love because it has all three of his components; emotional intimacy, physical passion and commitment. These unicorn couples somehow continue to have a great sex life decades into their relationship. They often say they can’t imagine themselves happier with anyone else. They have good conflict resolution skills and they just continue to love and respect each other. But Sternberg also warns that maintaining this kind of love is a whole lot harder than finding it. Consummate love involves constant communication, emotional regulation skills, and yes, it involves love.

My favorite definition of the word love, it is a verb. It’s the verb to give. And according to Robert Sternberg, without love, even the greatest love and die.

Many people live their entire lives and never get to experience Sternberg’s idea of consummate love, and that’s okay. It’s a goal, it’s an ideal. And every relationship we have is a lesson in learning. Every single relationship, if it’s a little bit better than the one before, is a successful relationship. I never judge the success of love on duration. I think all relationships are gymnasiums for our minds. We can’t grow alone, we must play out our psychology interacting with others. And that interaction can be kind of prickly sometimes. In fact, the road to intimacy is paved with a series of ruptures followed by repairs. It is in those moments of conflict, of loss, of hurt feelings, when we can be authentic, when we can say, “I’m sorry.” And this is what love is. We’re always learning and growing through love.

Thanks for listening to this episode of Mating Matters. Up next, Sexy Money. How earning money for men is really about earning sex, and why it works the opposite for women. I’m Dr. Wendy Walsh.

Mating Matters is produced in partnership with iHeart media. It is researched, interviewed and written by me, Dr. Wendy Walsh. And it is edited and produced by Brooke Peterson. You know, people don’t learn about podcasts usually by just searching around. They learn about a podcast because somebody who loved that podcast told them about it. So, I encourage you to please subscribe, write a review, and more than anything, hit that share button now. Think of somebody who would like to hear this information as much as you enjoyed it. Thanks for listening. I’m Dr. Wendy Walsh.

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