Love the One You’re With?

We’ve all heard the line by Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young: “If you can’t be with the one you love, love the one you’re with.” It’s an easy notion to understand, but if you’ve ever tried to apply it, you know it’s not so easy to do. There’s another, totally opposite but equally popular adage: We can’t choose the ones we love. Most of us have heard, usually from a friend in a toxic relationship, a mixture of these sayings and others to describe why, exactly, the troubled partner is “the one”.

When we want to save a relationship, turning to a common phrase about love is a reassuring, albeit naive, move. Love is too complex to whittle down to one line from a song. So complex, in fact, that we can’t really wrap our minds around it. Some of us lose our minds over it. We turn to aphorisms because it’s a way to understand something that, in fact, is pretty unfathomable. Why do we love the people we’re with? Why don’t we love that nice girl from high school who baked for us, did our homework and had an overwhelming trust fund?

Since songs, poems and adages only offer a glimpse at the truth, let’s look at the science behind love. Here, we can understand when, why and how certain reactions trigger an emotional bond unlike any other. Let’s look at the factors that contribute to an internal love cocktail.

As it turns out, ally of us are predisposed toward a certain type of person. For example, we may subconsciously choose someone because they have what we consider to be good genes, or we may fall in love with someone who looks and smells like one of our parents. Sorry, but whether you realize it or not, you will most likely end up with someone just like your mother. Or some subconscious version of her. Cue the cringes.

Well nurtured, long lasting love doesn’t take hold right away. First we fall in lust, or as some psychologists call it, the first stage of Passionate Love. Lust is a hormonal reaction to finding someone “attractive”. It can take a mere minute and a half to decide whether or not we’re attracted to someone, and we come to this conclusion largely through the other person’s body language and voice.  So, as it turns out, love at first sight does—kind of—exist. We find certain characteristics attractive based on our own subconscious perceptions of love. For example, do you perceive love as a game, as finding the ideal partner or as building a lasting friendship? In our purest of instincts, we’re driven toward people that, we think, will rear the strongest and smartest offspring. For that reason, most people favor an extroverted personality type, but that doesn’t mean that extroverted, “well-built” partners are more likely to last beyond the lust phase. 

In the first, lusty phase, estrogen and testosterone and the main culprits in attraction. Then, when we find someone with the right balance of genetic suitability and sensual familiarity, our bodies begin another hormonal dance designed to drive us into a lasting physical and emotional relationship. 

In this second phase, the physical relationship, we determine whether or not our partner is suitable as a long-term mate. In this stage, adrenaline, dopamine and serotonin enhance our attraction toward our mate. It’s here that you think about your lover constantly and, when you get to see them, you get a rewarding jolt that sends your heart racing. In fact, seeing your partner can have a similar effect on your brain as cocaine does

This hormonal cocktail gives us all of the tools necessary to form attachment. But, the reaction from our partner will be the defining factor. If our needs aren’t met in this second phase toward love, we’ll usually abandon that partner in search of someone better suited. Some people, though, will still experience the hormonal cycle of anticipation and reward despite having their needs untended. Because of this, a trusting bond will almost never flourish and the person will stay in this second phase rather than moving on to the next phase: true love. This stuck-in-between stage of neglect and lust is often referred to as Obsessive Love. So, the next time your friend is totally head-over-heels for someone who treats her like garbage, you can explain the downfalls of such an obsession. “Kelly, he’s just not that into you…”

The final phase of love is attachment or Compassionate Love. Here, we know our partner well and are therefore able to build a sense of trust and mutual understanding that is long-lasting. Many psychologists believe that, in order to reach this phase, sexual interaction during the previous phases is a key factor. When we engage in sexual behaviour, a slew of hormones are released that stimulate the bonding experience. These hormones—oxytocin and vasopressin—increase our sense of security. Over time, this leads to a more Compassionate Love, rather than a strictly passionate one. We understand, trust and respect the needs of our partner.  

So, we can choose our partners to some extent. Though mostly subconscious, we go for someone familiar and “well-built” who can also meet our own personal needs in a relationship. When genuine love blossoms, it’s a mixture of good pairing and good timing.

However, “Love the one you’re with” doesn’t prevail in this psychological break-down. Sure, you can look on the bright side of things, but if you aren’t attracted to someone, you won’t have the same chemical reactions associated with the first and second phases of love.

Maybe that girl from high school didn’t smell quite right or maybe she was a little too pale, telling your animal instincts that she may be sickly and unable to rear children. Whatever it was, your body decided she wasn’t right for you before you even knew it. After all, love is just a series of chemical reactions based on your needs and, when you find someone who sees in you what you see in them, you’re a destined pair.

A little less poetic than Shakespeare but hey, it’s science.



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