Reuters reports a study by Italian scientists that says falling madly in love is a process linked to a molecule called nerve growth factor (NGF). According to their findings, published in a journal with the reader-unfriendly name Psychoneuroendocrinology, the levels of NGF in the blood decline after about a year, and this helps explain why the roses-and-moonbeams phenomenon only lasts about that long.
The report caught my eye because it fit my experience rather strikingly. I’ve been truly, crazily smitten only once in my life, and as I recall, it started to fade after just about exactly a year. I remember, too, the sadness of realizing that the madness was slipping away, that earth couldn’t be heaven after all. Before that, merely to see each other was to go into ecstasy; while a separation of a few hours was cause for mourning.
But fade it did — and less than another year after that, the whole thing was kaput.
Trying to understand later what went wrong, I didn’t invoke any molecules, but the heavenly period began to seem less and less real in retrospect. The reason was simple: both of us were human beings, and neither of us was genuinely so great as to justify flights of rapture at the mere sight of us. From this high — molecules or not — an eventual crash was inevitable, or so it seems now. In this case, the new, more mundane reality didn’t survive the crash.
That real, lasting love, even of a “romantic” hue, can exist between people is not in doubt. But that kind of love almost always entails acceptance of things one doesn’t like — acceptance, that is, of human nature, of reality. Love of this sort is almost always, in part, an achievement, linked to sobriety and wisdom — even, perhaps, a little denial and discipline. Judging by the high rate of divorces and breakups in society, this is the kind of love that people now have trouble sustaining.
Part of the reason may be a social overvaluing of the first, loonier kind of love. Growing up, you see it portrayed thousands of times in TV and movies — people of flawless outer and inner beauty finding lasting redemption in each other. Secularization is probably also involved: for many people, emotions that once were channeled into the religious sphere now seek sublimity and perfection in the love domain. Some people, frustrated, feel that they don’t find it; others feel that they do, but when it crashes, what’s left seems plain and a letdown.
Considering that women now initiate about two-thirds of the divorces in society, their enhanced freedom apparently also plays a role. Tending to be more invested in interpersonal relations, more attuned to their nuances, than men, both their expectations and their disappointments tend to be more intense. Many men will settle for a marriage or relationship they feel to be “good enough”; many women will not.
None of this is to say that the walking-on-air, swooning kind of love is bad and we should try to banish it. If the Italian study is right, it’s in part biochemically determined. Even if it’s not right, the human record suggests the event is universal enough to be called “natural.” It may have a function of getting people hooked in the first place, so as to launch the procreative process; it may involve psychological projections that emerge inevitably at some point in a life. “Madly in love” is something that has always been, and will continue to be.
Still, a rational individual or society probably wouldn’t put excessive stock in it. They wouldn’t see it as a necessary lead-in to lasting love, or, if experienced, as something that need go on indefinitely. There is a place — in religion, or in appreciation of great art — for the rapturous contemplation of perfection. In the human sphere, there’s always room for sobriety.