Why do men fall in love more than women? And when women do fall in love, why is it that they become addicted to the feeling more easily? Why do people invariably find the person who they fall in love with attractive? Why is it that lovers write poetry and sing love songs? How can we explain romantic conventions like men giving gifts to women? And why can passionate love never last? Remarkably, all of these questions can be answered – and many more – if we accept a simple, somewhat startling, premise: Love is a mental illness.
Since the dawn of civilisation, poets have described love as a kind of madness – and historically, the medical profession has endorsed a similar view. According to the principles of Hippocratic medicine passionate love almost invariably turns into ‘love melancholy’ - a form of depression. Moreover, anybody who has experienced falling in love, will know something of love’s madness- an emotional roller coaster that seems to carry the occupant between the two extremes of heaven and hell.
The symptoms of love are many and varied. What’s intriguing is that if we list them- for example, preoccupation with the loved one, tearfulness, euphoria- and check them against accepted diagnostic criteria for mental illness, we find that most ‘lovers’ qualify for diagnoses of obsessional illness, depression or manic depression. And this is no superficial relationship. Neurochemical and brain scanning investigations have shown a considerable overlap between ‘the brain in love’ and ‘the brain in the throes of mental illness’. Why should this be? Why is love experienced as a kind of madness?
Human babies, born uniquely weak and vulnerable, require a massive amount of care and attention from two committed parents. Unlike other animals, our big brains allow us to rebel against, or foil, our reproductive instincts, and avoid the hard work of raising kids. We can, for example, decide to be celibate – or use contraception. Yet we don’t. People keep on having children - and they are usually two people who say they are in love.
It is revealing that most people only experience being madly in love for about two years. This duration corresponds exactly with the time it would have taken our ancestors to produce and wean one child. Thus, love’s madness lasts just long enough to ensure the survival of genes from one generation to the next!
All kinds of human behaviour suddenly begin to make sense when looked at in this way. A woman who stays with a thoroughly unsuitable man- because love’s spell makes her feel it is impossible to leave him. The man who spends his life a confirmed bachelor and then falls suddenly and desperately head over heals in love. The devoted husband whose marriage is suddenly threatened by the seven-year itch. Every one of these people is suffering from a temporary mental illness, designed to ensure their genes are safely passed on to the next generation.
The proposition that love is a mental illness is simple, straightforward, and illuminating. Moreover, it has never been given serious consideration in modern times. It can reveal much about why men and women behave the way they do. And it provides a truly startling and unexpected answer to the much vexed question: What is love?