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What is love?

A man kisses a smiling woman on her forehead
Poets write about it, singers sing about it, and we’ve all felt it at some point in our lives. But what is love?

Whether your relationship status is single, taken, or complicated, we’ve all wondered what’s this crazy little thing called love.

Human beings have pondered the meaning of love for thousands of years.Love is complex because of how people experience it differently and how it can change over time.

Can science explain the dizzy dancing way you can feel when you’re in love? Is lovesickness a thing? What actually is heartbreak? Read on as we explore how love can affect your mental and physical health.

I want to know what love is

At some stage in your life, you’ve probably been asked this question: do you like them, or do you love them? Psychological research has investigated the difference between liking someone, loving someone and being “in love”.

Liking someone involves finding a person’s company fulfilling, experiencing warmth or closeness and having positive thoughts and feelings towards a person.

We experience these same positive thoughts and experiences when we love someone, as well as a deep sense of care and commitment towards that person.

Being “in love” includes all the above and can also involve feelings of sexual attraction and arousal.

When we think about love, we often separate romantic love from other kinds of love or intimacy. Romantic love often means love that involves sexual desire, but this may not always be the case. Most romantic relationships, whether they be heterosexual or same sex, involve passionate and companionate love. Passionate love involves feelings of sexual attraction and arousal. Companionate love describes feelings of emotional intimacy, commitment and attachment to your partner.

Love is an emotion that bonds people together. Love is experienced differently by everyone. Romantic love does not have to be the be-all and end-all. Love can be whatever we want it to be: you can love your partner, your mum, your dog, your friends, your neighbours, everyone.

What’s love got to do with your health?

Despite what Taylor Swift would have you believe; love doesn’t reside in your heart but in your brain. Research shows that when people are in love, regions of their brain associated with reward and pleasure are activated. These regions release chemicals such as dopamine, oxytocin and vasopressin, which produce feelings of happiness and euphoria that are also linked to sexual excitement and arousal. These hormones also have many other health benefits, for example, vasopressin helps control blood pressure.

Studies also suggest neurotransmitters, the chemical messengers that help regulate many bodily functions, including dopamine, adrenalin and serotonin, can cause the sometimes unpleasant physical symptoms that people experience when they are falling in love. This may explain those butterflies in your stomach, racing heart or inability to sleep that can come with a new relationship.

Cortisol, the stress hormone, initially rises when you fall in love, but quickly drops in a long-term, stable relationship. Low cortisol levels sustained in a long-term stable relationship contributes to many health benefits. Overall, love can make us happy and ease stress and anxiety.

Interestingly, studies have also shown that couples can encourage each other to seek medical advice and can notice warning signs and symptoms of health conditions. For example, people in relationships may be able to detect melanoma earlier than singletons as their partner may spot suspicious moles immediately.

Two women cuddling on a bed

Not in love? How to still reap the benefits

If there is no significant other in your life, no need to worry. Feeling connected to people, groups, places and culture plays an important part in our overall wellbeing. Regular positive interactions stimulate the production of those feel-good chemicals in our brains, boosting our mood. Studies have also found that having close social relationships helps you live longer.

Humans evolved to live in tight bands or family groups, with a need for social interaction hardwired into our DNA. Now that we live more independently, this means many of us may feel disconnected or lonely.

Making meaningful connections with people could include spending time with family and friends, inviting co-workers or classmates for lunch, joining a team or club, or even having a friendly chat with the guy serving you at the bakery.

Love takes many forms. Building stronger relationships and connections to your community will also strengthen your social networks for the times you might need extra support.

A group of men playing soccer on a field in the late afternoon

Is lovesickness a thing?

First things first, lovesickness is not an official diagnosis. People often describe lovesickness or being lovesick in a negative light as the intense emotional consequence of falling in love.

In a romantic relationship a person may have obsessive passion for their partner, which can be problematic for both the relationship and that person’s wellbeing.

In a harmoniously passionate relationship, we are often more in control of our emotions and less likely to let ourselves be controlled by them. A healthy or harmonious passion can lead to a more sustainable and mature relationship. It can also help ensure both individuals retain their identity, maintain a balanced lifestyle and experience a deeper connection with each other.

What is heartbreak?

Heartbreak sucks. Most of us are no strangers to losing someone or something we loved, and the stress it can cause. This stress can affect how we feel emotionally and physically, and may take weeks, months or even years to recover from. An increase in cortisol, the stress hormone, over time can contribute to anxiety, nausea, acne and weight gain – all those unpleasant mental and physical symptoms associated with heartbreak. We delve deeper into the science behind a broken heart in our blog here.

Help! I need somebody

When heartbreak strikes or when loneliness may be getting you down, it’s important to reach out if you’re struggling. Talk with a supportive friend, family member or partner, book an appointment with your GP, or call a hotline like Lifeline or beyondblue to talk to a counsellor about how you’re feeling.

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Last updated: 12 February 2021