Falling in love is like that.
By that I mean, falling in love is something that happens to you, and it can sometimes leave you limping, i.e. not quite functional. Falling in love is not an act of will but more like tripping over one of your shoelaces; any idiot can do it.
Falling in love is different to ‘Real Love’. Real Love is an act of will.
M. Scott Peck described Real Love as:
The will to extend oneself for the purpose of nurturing one’s own or another’s spiritual growth.
I referenced Peck in a previous article about the irony in accepting that life is difficult. The article resonated with many people and generated a lot of great feedback for me. I have to again credit Peck for inspiring many of the ideas in this article. With regard to understanding human nature and spiritual evolution, the man was a genius.
From Peck, I learned about the concept of ego boundaries. To understand the experience of falling in love, it is necessary to know about ego boundaries…
A new born infant does not distinguish itself from the universe. When the infant moves its arms and legs, the world is moving. It cannot distinguish itself from the room, the world, and it’s parents. It and the world are one. Therefore we say the infant has no ego boundaries.
In time the child begins to experience itself as a separate entity. When it is hungry, mother doesn’t always appear to feed it. When the child wants to play, the parent does not always want to play. The child experiences it’s will as something separate from its mother’s (or father’s) behaviour.
Ego boundaries exist by around age one, when the child understands the concept of “my”… my body, my room, my physical limits, etc. This doesn’t stop a two year old clinging to the possibility that its will might be its parents’ command and responding the regal fury when the parents won’t be dictated to (temper tantrum anyone??)
With age, ego boundaries continue to be defined and by adolescence, young people know they are individuals. Some people feel protected by their ego boundaries (e.g. if they believe the world to be an unnurturning place), but for most people, to varying degrees, there is a sense of loneliness associated with the separation.
Until they fall in love…
The essence of falling in love is the sudden collapse of a section of ego boundaries, permitting one to merge with another person. It is an explosive pouring out of oneself into the beloved. Bam! Loneliness is no more!
According to Peck, falling in love, in some respects is an act of regression. We re-experience the sense of omnipotence and feel that the strength of our love will conquer all obstacles, and that all problems will be overcome. But the unreality of these feelings is essentially the same as the 2 year old who feels it is king of the world.
Focusing on biology, Anthropologist Helen Fisher states that romantic love is a basic mating drive. It’s a need like hunger and thirst that feels impossible to stamp out. Romantic love can be like an obsession or addiction. When studying the brain activity of people in love, Fisher found that the parts of the brain activated when feeling romantic love are the same parts reward centres dealing with wanting, motivation and craving. This is also the part of the brain activated when we take big risks.
“Millions of years ago we evolved three basic drives; sex drive, romantic love, and attachment to a long term partner. These circuits are deeply embedded in the human brain. They are going to survive as long as our species survives on what Shakespeare call this mortal coil.”
When reporting on why romantic love evolved, Fisher says ‘We are not an animal that was built to be happy, we were built to reproduce’.
Peck admitted he did not really know the purpose of falling in love but suspected that the sexual specificity of it meant that it is a genetically determined response which increases the probability of sexual pairing, so as to enhance the survival of the species. “A trick our genes pull.”
Does this mean I am a cynic about the notion of falling in love? Absolutely not. Romantic love, and the way it can be created from apparently nothing is like magic. People have lived and died for love. Love makes the heart sing and the soul catch fire. This experience has been translated into songs and poetry and art. Similarly, many great singers and poets have used the anguish of lost love to manifest some of the greatest work of our time. Indeed, singer Adele, wrote the biggest selling album of 2011 while inspired by her relationship breakdown.
That said, I am able to take a step back from my passion for romantic love and realise that it can cause more anguish than it probably needs to in everyday life. With respect to romantic love, confusion, sadness, longing and frustration are just some of the emotions I encounter regularly in people in the work that I do (In severe cases, life can go into paralysis).
This is perhaps not at all surprising when you look at some study results. Fisher reported results that almost 95% of men and women reported having experienced both being dumped by someone that they really loved, and dumping someone who really loved them. Virtually no one gets through life without having been scathed by love.
But then, would you really want to get out scar free?
The experience of having lost love is part of evolving a profound respect for Real Love and the discipline that is require to create it.
When we love someone, the love only becomes real through exertion. Through the decision for ourselves, or for someone else, we take an extra step, or walk an extra mile. Many who desire to love are not in fact loving. The desire to love is not love. Love is as love does. To love is a choice, and while it is a choice that often requires discipline and exertion, choosing Real Love is equivalent to choosing spiritual growth.
While I did start this article by comparing falling in love to the randomness of kicking a toe, the experience of falling in love is part of growth too. Embrace it. Embrace it with a sense of balance between allowing yourself to free fall into love and keeping your eyes open. You are a body, grounded in a human experience and with this comes the biological drives required for species evolution. You are also a soul, capable of spiritual and emotional expansion and that knows no ego boundaries.
According to Peck, Real Love ironically provides an opportunity grow beyond one’s ego boundaries because “Real Love involves an extension of one’s limits. When we extend our limits through love, we reach out to the beloved whose growth we wish to nurture. The result in loving is a gradual enlargement of the self, including a stretching and thinning of ego boundaries.”
So I conclude by saying embrace love. Embrace falling in love! And embrace self-awareness and knowledge about your desires. With a little self-awareness about how the body and brain effect each other, you can also alleviate some of the downside when romantic love inevitably leaves, and even be a little more wiser about the love you choose to embrace – both of which create greater possibility for Real Love.
P.S. When asked if her intricate knowledge of romantic love spoiled the experience for her, Helen Fisher replied, “No I still make the same mistakes. Mostly it has just deepened my understanding and compassion for human life.”