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What’s Love Got to Do with It?: Love Through the Lens of Science and Faith

Andrea Gurney

What can relationship science teach us about love?

Associate Professor of Psychology, Westmont College
November 20, 2017

There is no culture in the world where people don’t love. As human beings, we long for love. We die for love. Some even kill for love. Love is mysterious, unpredictable, magical, emotional, irrational, and wonderful. According to Ben Franklin, love is accidental. Love is confusing and full of contradiction: wonderful euphoria and infuriating pain; sweetness and sorrow; the best of our self and the worst of our self; a reason to live and a reason to die; a deep yearning and an intense disgust. Love heals, and it hurts. It pulls us in and pushes us away. It makes us feel vulnerable and safe. We fall in love, and we fall out of love. Love makes us whole and shatters us to pieces.

What Is Love?

But what is love, exactly? Poets, songwriters, theologians, scientists, and Hollywood characters are some of the voices that echo in our heads when we try to define love. The Ancient Greeks identified four types of love: storge, philia, eros, and agape. Affectionate love, shared among family members (storge), is differentiated from the give and take, “brotherly” love exchanged between friends (philia). Eros is the intimate love, passionate and sexual in nature, whereas agape is reserved for the spiritual realm and equated with divine love. Confucius philosophy underpins love in the Chinese tradition with an emphasis on benevolent actions and duty. In medieval Europe love was defined as a chivalrous and often secretive social custom among nobility. In more recent history, love has been viewed as transactional, transitory, and conditional, maintained only if both parties are satisfied by the relationship’s benefits. Biologists and evolutionary psychologists claim love is a mammalian drive that ensures the survival of our gene pool, whereas neuroscientists liken love to an addictive drug. Currently, there is a burgeoning field of psychological research that examines the science of love.

Arguably, what’s more important than any of these lines of inquiry is your own experience regarding this four-letter word. Love is, after all, embedded in relationships. At the core of our beings we are relational; we desire connection. Imago Dei—we were made in the image of God. And at His core, our God is relational. So undoubtedly, for each one of us, when we think about the word love, a certain face, image, smell, or feeling arises within. Sights and sounds of love fill our minds and ring in our ears. Some might be pure and sweet; others confusing and perplexing. At times, even our own memories and current experience of love elude us, similar to the poets, philosophers, and scientists through the ages.

The Art of Listening and the Science of Relationships and Love

As a clinical psychologist, I liken my line of work to the art of listening and the science of relationships. I spend many hours behind closed doors listening to my clients. Countless stories are told about family members, friends, and lovers; stories of joy, pain, hope, and hurt. I watch beautiful and redemptive moments unfold as couples and families resolve simple conflicts to deeper hurts. Although the word “love” might never be spoken in our time together, at the end of the day, I am left with an overwhelming sense that love lies at the heart of each story.

We are designed to love a few precious others who will protect us through the trials and tribulations of life.

If the art of listening points me toward love, what does the science of relationships and the science of love indicate? Some of you think the word science is synonymous with boring, logical, solvable, and measurable, while others think it’s the golden standard of all logic and truth. Science is a systematic body of knowledge that is based on observation, prediction, and explanation. While love can’t be measured or observed in a petri dish, relationship science does offer some compelling takeaways that most likely resonate with your conception of love and Christ’s teachings on love. Relationship science indicates that love challenges us to move from self-absorption to attunement with another. Love enables us to enter in to another’s story, truly seeing others with compassion and care. There is mutuality in our relationships when we are able to holistically embrace and connect with the other. This science of love is based on attachment theory.

Love 1.0: Attached at the Hip Heart

Let me introduce you, briefly, to the man whose pioneering work in the field of attachment theory laid the foundation and paved the way for current research on love. John Bowlby was a British psychiatrist who worked with children in post-war Europe. In contrast with the dominant psychoanalytic wisdom of the time—which suggested that problems arose as a result of unconscious desires and fantasies—Bowlby asserted that problems were rooted in relationships with real people. Given this, Bowlby wanted to have contact with the parents of his young clients, but he was forbidden to do so. This enraged Bowlby and was the impetus for the development of his own theory.

World War II disrupted Bowlby’s career as a clinician and simultaneously laid groundwork for his research. Wartime events, such as the evacuation of children from London to protect them from air raids and the separation of children from familiar people, further propelled Bowlby’s interest in the role relationships play in the development of children. He reasoned that all babies and young children would innately display what he termed “proximity-seeking behavior” (attachment!); when he was then commissioned in 1949 by The World Health Organization to write a report on the emotional and mental health of homeless children in Europe, he found that when children were separated from their parents, “they underwent three increasingly unfavorable stages of response to separation: protest, despair, and finally detachment.”1 His findings, then, confirmed his previous claims that loving relationships are key to mental health and survival. Drawing on Darwin’s concept of natural selection, Bowlby concluded that keeping loved ones close is an ingenious survival technique wired in by evolution. In gist: We need one another to survive.

Bowlby’s view of attachment was rejected by the culture in which he lived. Love wasn’t about dependency upon, and security and connection with, one another; sexual instincts and unconscious desires won out (Freud was a prominent force!). Bowlby’s attachment theory simply wasn’t in line with the spirit of his age.

Love Revisited: Relationship Science and Attachment Theory

Thankfully, though, researchers since the time of Bowlby have confirmed that he was right on when he talked about “effective dependency” from “the cradle to the grave.” Findings from many contemporary empirical studies illuminate this fact. Perhaps the most striking results come from mortality studies conducted in industrialized nations. These studies consistently find that individuals who are emotionally and socially connected live longer, healthier lives.2 Social connections reduce illness and relapse in individuals with pre-existing medical and psychological conditions. Whether it’s depression, schizophrenia, Alzheimer’s, cardiovascular disease, obesity, diabetes, or cancer, we do better when we are in supportive relationships. And then there’s married folks; people who are in a satisfying marriage live longer, have less psychiatric problems, have a decreased risk of infection, quicker recovery from injury, and a lower rate of mortality following a life-threatening illness than those who are unmarried.3

Additionally, those who feel connected and supported fare better in the face of threat, danger, and terror. Captors have used social isolation as a means of torture for decades. And the unit of survival in concentration camps was a pair–in other words, interpersonal bonding, social reciprocity, and sharing with another victim was a source of strength and survival among inmates in the Nazi concentration camps.4 Is it any wonder, then, that one of the best predictors of recovery for children who have been sexually abused is whether or not their mothers believed and supported them.5 Similarly, the best predictor of whether an individual will overcome trauma is what happens afterward–namely, can they seek comfort in the arms of another? Secure attachments are a natural buffer and antidote for threat, terror, helplessness, and meaninglessness–for when we have somebody beside us, the dark is less terrifying. In other words, a deep sense of belonging results in the taming of fear.

For Christians who put their faith in a Triune God, the author of all love, we have assurance that our ultimate dance partner will always protect, always trust, always hope, and always persevere.

Consider the words Jesus left with his disciples before he prepared to return to the Father: “And Jesus said: I am with you always, to the very end of the age” (Matthew 28:20). In the same way, God tenderly reassures the nation of Israel in the Old Testament: “Fear not, for I am with you. Do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you. I will uphold you with my righteous right hand” (Isaiah 41:10). And God offers the same reassurance to us. He is here. Present. Always. Thousands of years later, scientific studies affirm the truth of God’s promise: we are made for deep relationship and it is within these relationships that love is born.

So both scientific research and Biblical truths speak to the protective power of intimate relationships. We are designed to love a few precious others who will protect us through the trials and tribulations of life. As researcher and psychologist Sue Johnson writes, “Sex may impel us to mate, but it is love that assures our existence.” We cannot survive without it. History repeatedly shows us this. From the children Bowlby worked with in post-war Europe to the infamous case of Genie who was bound in a crib and locked alone in a room for the first 13 years of her life, we have learned that emotional isolation not only has the potential to make us sick, but the power to kill us. Because we are inexorably social beings, the most catastrophic event involves the shattering of human connections. As W. H. Auden put it, “We must love one another or die.” This is, after all, the message we have heard from the beginning (1 John 3:11).

Love from the Beginning of Time

So what is love, exactly? Love is a deep, emotional bond between two people–between friends, family members, or a romantic partner. It is a call-and-response system, a dyadic synchrony. I liken it to a dance, full of emotional dialogue and interaction. At our best, we hold each other close and seamlessly engage with one another, mutually taking turns, gently leading and following, respectful of each other’s space but also not afraid to become one. But like the best professional dancers, we occasionally fall and trip and step on each other’s toes. We get hurt. Maybe crushed at times. And then we get up and start over again—at least that is the hope. The dance continues. Partners might change, we learn new steps and moves, and we perfect old ones. We draw close and we step back; we move together in harmony and we go out on our own, proud to do our own thing occasionally. The dance continues, weaving through time and space, yet grounding us in the here-and-now.

For Christians who put their faith in a Triune God, the author of all love, we have assurance that our ultimate dance partner will always protect, always trust, always hope, and always persevere. Christ modeled the greatest act of love, through His sacrifice on our behalf, while God the Father shows us mercy and grace, and the Holy Spirit indwells to infuse our hearts with God’s presence and comfort.

Now cue the music—and get out on the dance floor.