Paul Zak Talks to Hug the Monkey
Why Do I Feel Stoned After Sex?

Is It Love or Is It Limerence?

We humans should move toward emotional and physical intimacy -- of all kinds, not just sex -- as simply and naturally as a flower turns toward the sun. So, if our brains are made for love, why do we need online dating and divorce courts? Why is it so hard to find and keep love? Why do we feel so alone?

We can't answer these questions because we don't know love. We're grasping for a prize we can't get our heads around, let alone our hearts. We've been sold a bill of goods about what love is, and our pitifully warped and anemic definition keeps us from taking the steps we need to get it.

You know the story of the blind men and the elephant. Each of them has his hand on one small part. "An elephant is long and squirmy," says the elder, holding the trunk. "It's a round, rough rock," says the one leaning his head against the elephant's side. "It's a wide leaf in the wind." "It's a polished spike." "It's a snake."

What if you were one of these men, not blind but maybe blindfolded, and you were sent into the jungle to capture an elephant? How could you find one? Could you recognize it if you bumped into one?

It's the same with love.

What is love? Is it that rush when a stranger across the room triggers unconscious memories of Mom or Dad? When someone's touch sends fire across your skin? When he's so cruel sometimes and it hurts so much that you're desperate for just a smile?

If you're calm and contented but you only have sex once a week, are you in love? What if you only have sex once a month? What if you never have sex?

If you both like and love your best friend, while you both hate and love your mate, are both those things love?

How can we talk about love with our lovers when we may not be talking about the same thing? Remember "limerence?" This word was an attempt by psychologist Dorothy Tennov to create a less mushy concept of love by renaming one specific kind, the euphoria and uncertainty of the first stage of falling in love. Okay, it's an awkward and unromantic word, but it could simplify some of those early relationship discussions.

While we probably could use 28 different words for love, there's one kind that I think is "true love":  the deep, enduring bond forged by oxytocin. Oxytocin is a chemical produced in the brain that triggers a special physical and mental state that lets us live happily with a life partner until death do us part, as well as give up our lives to the care and feeding of squawling babies.

Love like this changes the very structure of the brain and expresses itself through every nerve as it flushes the body with healing chemicals. It isn't all in your head, but it starts there.

I guess it's unrealistic to wish for a new vocabulary for all the states and traits of human attachment, a language of love. But at least, let's remember how much love is like an elephant.