AH, THE Tender Trap. There must be something to it, considering how much of life's great art, music, literature and column inches are devoted to it. I remember reading, years ago, that despite Gallic men's sexy reputation, 80 per cent of French women said they'd never known 'great love'. (The culture of endemic infidelity might have something to do with that). And feeling quite pleased with my then-24-year-old self, for being fortunate enough to feel I had.
However, great love, much like beauty, is very much in the eye of the beholder. And a grand passion bears many similarities to a kind of delusional state. With a whole bunch of deeply held, fixed beliefs about your paramour, based on very little other than 'feelings'.
It takes us a mere 0.2 secs to fall in love, hence our ability to fall in love at first sight. And the feeling is caused by a cascade of neurotransmitters like dopamine, oxytocin and phenylethylamine, which flood the brain and cause our hearts to pound and butterflies to take over our stomach. Basically love is a very powerful stimulant. We feel lightheaded and lose our appetites. (I once lost 10lbs in the first two weeks of a relationship).
The 'in-love' brain feels ecstatically happy, sexually aroused and has a kind of constant yearning to be with the object of its affection. The drive to procreate is fundamental to our survival. And, subvert it how we may, with romance and contraception, sex is a real driving force. Incidentally, it's also a good form of physical exercise, burning up to 300 calories an hour (though your average sexual encounter might not last that long) and causing prolactin to be released, making you feel happy and sleepy. At its most intense, sexual desire physically dilates our pupils, makes our pulses race, causes erectile tissue to engorge and can actually make us weak at the knees.
That all sounds slightly dangerous – but never fear, the first surge of hormonal desire cannot last indefinitely and, over time, this neurological bombardment stops and we settle into a more sustainable engagement.
This still has an effect on our health however, as stress levels and blood pressure are lower in a loving relationship than when we're young, free and single. Hence, married men live longer than their singleton counterparts. (Married women don't fare so well for some reason.)
But also, it seems that those in a relationship take better care of themselves, eat better, exercise more, are likely to be economically secure and also have the benefit of a sense of social connection and inclusion. Our mental health too, is strongly linked to our romantic endeavours – with happy supportive relationships having a positive effect on our mental wellbeing. And equally, abusive relationships being associated with higher levels of depression, anxiety and substance abuse.
And when love breaks down? Well, that can have a hugely detrimental effect on both our physical and our mental health. It can be a time of enormous stress and isolation. There are documented genuine cases of Broken Heart Syndrome, a stress-induced cardiomyopathy, which people have died from. And brain scans have shown us that the changes to brain function after emotional distress, caused by an unhappy-ever-after, are similar to those caused by physical pain – the only difference being the changes with physical pain resolve more quickly.
The agony and the ecstasy may be all down to science, but the exquisite knife edge that is new love sure feels like there's more to it than that. The pursuit of love is fundamental to the human condition. It's worth all the risk, all the pitfalls. And even better, it's good for your health.
Sunday Indo Living