Shaping love on Valentine’s

It was Valentine’s day on Sunday and with everything so grim at the moment, we thought we’d focus in on love and explore how psychologists view it…

On the whole, psychologists tend take an evolutionary view of people. We study animals a lot because they teach us so much about human nature and why we do what we tend to do. Often, we find that when addressing complex and painful struggles, if we think about them in evolutionary/biological terms, it can remove some of the shame because it explains that what we do, or the way we feel, has actually been shaped, in large, by evolution.

Within that, love seems to be a basic need for humans. We know that we are born primed to connect and love. From the moment a baby is born, they have an innate preference for faces because this is the best way to connect to someone. They seek out their mother’s eyes and connect with their parent. Evolutionary, this makes sense. Humans are born immature. We cannot survive without a dedicated adult caring for us. A baby smiling and babbling keeps their caregiver close, a necessity for survival. This is because it triggers positive feelings in the parent so they want to remain close and care for the child. Even as adults, we cannot operate in silos. We need each other and we need to know we are supported. This is a biological need – to be loved and to love. I know it seems like a rather reductionist view but it captures quite nicely, the reasoning behind one of the most basic human needs.

There seems to be four stages of love:

  1. Attraction: this is a purely physical stage.
  2. Dating: this is very rewarding and exciting.
  3. Falling in love: this can often mimic how a person suffering with anxiety presents. Judgment is impaired as the front part of the brain doesn’t function quite properly which means you don’t see the person’s flaws.
  4. True love: this is the deeper bond that you develop with your child or long-term partner.

Falling in love romantically can be pretty similar to falling in love with your baby, surprisingly. When a baby is born, parents will often have this intense physical reaction, a guttural feeling, almost as if they want to eat them. And when a child begins to smile, a connection is cultivated that makes parenting very rewarding. Parents will also experience anxiety. We know a lot of new mums or dads worry constantly about being a good parent and this can be quite distressing.

There was a study completed a few years ago that suggested when we fall in love, different parts of our brain work in sync to fire off all sorts of chemicals which create these physical reactions. These include sweaty palms, a dry mouth and heart palpitations. All these symptoms mirror symptoms of anxiety. Thoughts can become quite obsessive and we don’t think about anything else other than the person of our affections. Indeed it seems the brain patterns of someone falling in love and someone suffering with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) are relatively similar. Mood too can be incredibly euphoric, like that of hypermania, where a person feels abnormally upbeat with high energy levels and racing thoughts. There is a release of dopamine, the feel-good chemical in the brain, that is analogous of recreational drugs such as Cocaine. Later, when the love develops into a deeper feeling, oxytocin is released. This hormone plays a really important role in social bonding and can help parent and child, or two partners, develop a deeper connection by allowing both parties to fire off the same neurons together which fosters that powerful connection.

Teenage love can be equally intense, especially in their first romantic and sexual relationship. It comes at a really important time, as they’re figuring out who they are and how they want others to perceive them. This can, of course, come with some risks. The teenage brain is still a work in progress with their bodies and brains growing at different rates. This means, a teenager who may be physically mature, may struggle to make wise decisions because their cognitive brain hasn’t quite caught up. This precipitates some risky situations, made even worse if the teenager has retreated from the adults around them, which usually acts as a buffer, helping them navigate these scenarios.

Developing further into realm of adult romantic relationships, we see an interesting pattern in which attachment styles in childhood are played out in adult relationships. The attachment style developed as a child becomes the blueprint for how you see yourself, how you should behave in relationships, the expectations that you have others, and how you need to behave to have your needs met. It offers a template for how we deal with communication, conflict and sex. Often, we subconsciously seek to replicate these early attachment relationships with our romantic partner.

Attachment styles can fall into 3 categories:

  1. Secure attachment: We expect others to meet our needs and we believe we are worth being looked after.
  2. Anxious attachment: We crave intimacy. We are desperate for our needs to be met but we worry whether someone will be available to look after us constantly because we have been let down in the past.
  3. Avoidant attachment: We have made an assumption that intimacy is too dangerous because people will not meet our needs. We minimise intimacy and we push people away.

If you’re interested in finding our what your attachment style is, here is a link to take a survey.

Although attachment styles are not set-in stone, we tend to see them as stable but plastic. You can do things to change them, particularly if you have a reparative relationship, or if you’re aware of how things were before and consider ways to shift this, but it can take some work.

Overall though, love is incredibly important. It is part of our most primal need, and we both seek to be loved and to love.

Love in lockdown can be a challenge. We have been stretched in so many competing ways. In normal life (if we can even remember that!), we don’t rely on just one person to meet all of our needs. But in lockdown, as we have been separated from other special people in our lives, it has put a huge amount of pressure on the couple relationship as it has had to grow and morph into this all-encompassing power house to meet our every need.

And so we hope, this Valentine period, you are able to do something special together and bring the romance back between you and your partner. Equally as important, and this applies to singletons too, to nurture your own self-love and do something for you. With life so crazy at the moment, it is even more crucial to find these quiet moments to be just you and do something you enjoy.

We’ll be enjoying lots of chocolates!

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"Dr Andrea Shortland’s session for MediaCom on a children’s mental health was incredibly informative"

“Dr Andrea Shortland’s session for MediaCom on a children’s mental health was incredibly informative. During the second period of lockdown and home-schooling; parents and children found themselves again in a period of upheaval and transition. Many parents and carers were extremely worried about their children’s mental health and their own ability to be present and engaged whilst also playing the role of teacher and care giver. Dr Shortland gave attendees an insight into how many parents were feeling; tips on supporting children and helping them cope whilst studying from home and also managing their mental health. She also helped us realise the importance of taking care of ourselves in order to effectively support our children. It was such a useful session that we realise it was also pertinent for not only children’s mental health but also adults! We will be holding another session with Dr Andrea and MediaCom soon.”

Avelon Thompson, MediaCom (following a parenting workshop)