As Valentine’s Day comes to us this month, relationships grab even more attention than usual – assessing ones we have, envisioning ones we want, watching for cards and flowers, shopping for the right message, or maybe just wishing the Day would hurry on by. There is an old saying that marriage is like a walled city: those who are inside want out and those who are outside want in. What is it that makes relationships so central even though elusive or troublesome? The most common thought is hormones. Hormones drive us to find a mate. But according to three professors at the University of California, San Francisco, School of Medicine, the driver is not our hormones but our nervous system.
In A General Theory of Love, Thomas Lewis, M.D., Fari Armini, M.D., and Richard Lannon, M.D., explain that while the nervous system is busy regulating our physiological functions, it is relying, for its own stability, on synchronizing with a nearby loved one. If this orderly connection is interrupted even briefly, the body and mind react with alarm. If the interruption lasts long enough, physical and mental processes decline into the flatline of despair.
The part of the brain that accomplishes this synchronizing exchange is the limbic system. Here’s the deal. The human body regularly fine-tunes thousands of bodily functions – heart rate, blood pressure, temperature, immune function, oxygen saturation, levels of sugars and salts, and more. We might think that each body can accomplish this regulation all by itself. Wrong. We need another person to transmit information that can help regulate all these functions in our body. At the same time, we are transmitting information that helps regulate that person’s physiological functions. None of us can run our bodies all alone; we all need somebody else to help. For most people, that somebody is a romantic partner, but it may be a relative or friend.
As the authors put it, “Love is simultaneous mutual regulation, wherein each person meets the needs of the other…and both thrive. For those who attain it, the benefits of deep attachment are powerful – regulated people feel whole, centered, alive. With their physiology stabilized from the proper source, they are resilient to the stresses of daily life, or even to those of extraordinary circumstance.” And, we might add, they are happy.