Is Love a Mental Illness?

Mortal Mischief - book cover
Love Sick/Hidden Minds and other Frank Tallis titles can be purchased on Amazon.

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 heels 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?

 


Sample from chapter one of Love Sick


Latent Fire

‘Universals that stretch across cultures are rare and tell-tale’

The Ascent of Man. J. Bronowski

Love can exist in many forms; however, there is one manifestation of love that seems to have fascinated humanity since the dawn of recorded history. This is the love that two people share when they ‘fall in love’ - the love that is now more frequently described as passionate or romantic love. In this sense, love has a special place in human affairs. It has always been (and continues to be) a universal preoccupation.

Among the many states of being that characterize human existence, the state of being ‘in love’ seems to be the most mysterious. It is a unique and sometimes puzzling experience. For millennia, very different cultures have attempted to understand love – most notably in poetry and song – and in these forms of artistic expression we repeatedly encounter questions such as ‘Why do I feel this way?’ ‘What is happening to me?’ and more precisely, ‘What is love?’ Thus, our preoccupation with love also represents an enquiry into its nature; the Muses preside over a vast reservoir of introspective and observational data that may not be scientific evidence, but nevertheless qualifies as evidence of a kind. As soon as human beings were able to record their thoughts by writing, they began to compile a reference library of ‘folk’ psychology much of which concerns the causes, experience, and consequences of love.

Even a superficial examination of artistic works on the theme of love will reveal a striking duality. Love is rarely described as a wholly pleasant experience. It is an amalgam of seemingly incompatible and ungovernable mood states. When in love, individuals describe odd combinations of pleasure and pain, rapture and grief, ecstasy and disappointment. Love seems to provide a shuttle service that operates between only two destinations: heaven and hell.

The effect of this emotional turmoil is often quite profound. Love changes people – the way they think and the way they behave. Moreover, these alterations are often associated with a general impression of mental instability. People feel less ‘in control’ and more volatile - less capable of making rational judgments.

Love is also strongly associated with a wide range of physical ‘symptoms’. Lovers are often described as fevered, or pale and depleted - unable to sleep or eat. Thus, for as long as people have been writing about love, they have also been describing it as an illness. Indeed, the illness or sickness metaphor is one of the most consistent features of love poetry and love songs throughout the ages. There are many answers to the question ‘What is love?’ But ‘A kind of illness’ is one that appears (and reappears) with remarkable frequency.

Such an answer might be viewed in varying degrees as cynical, amusing, or absurd. It is certainly one that most would not take very seriously. Yet, it is an answer that the medical profession was willing to accept for over a thousand years, and one that - if given proper consideration within the context of modern scientific theories - may prove to be surprisingly apposite. Indeed, this answer – that love is a kind of illness - may contain within it a number of extremely revealing clues as to why we love, and why we experience love in the way that we do.

As we shall see, the illness metaphor is remarkably illuminating. If we are guided by its subtle logic, we will be able to answer a number of questions about love. For example: Why do men fall in love more than women? Why do women tend to become more addicted to love than men? Why do all lovers see their partners – at least for a time – as beautiful (irrespective of how they really look)? Why do people (when they fall in love) want to write love poetry (even if they’ve never written poetry before)? Why is heartbreak so painful? And why does wild, passionate love rarely last? These, and many more important questions about love, can be readily answered.

In addition, the illness metaphor reveals something very important about how we construe love. For millennia, it has been employed to emphasize the similarities that exist between love and madness. The metaphor has been so successful in this respect, that we now find it difficult to separate the two concepts. Thus, in the well-worn contemporary phrase – truly, madly, deeply – madness is supposed to be as significant an indicator of love’s authenticity as honesty and depth. We do not want love to be rational. We want it to be audacious, overwhelming, improvident, and unpredictable.

But what are the consequences of this legacy? How has it affected the way we form intimate relationships? And how has it affected the quality of those relationships?

Sages as diverse as the philosopher Bertrand Russell and the present Dalai Lama have identified happiness as a rational goal. Moreover, they suggest that happiness is best achieved by pursuing a rational course of action. We might choose to do a particular job because it pays well, or develop a rewarding friendship because of shared interests. The preference can be justified. In matters of the heart, however, we proudly relinquish logic altogether. Perversely, we consider the formation of a meaningful, intimate relationship essential to happiness, but at the same time, repudiate rationality because it is ‘unromantic’. Thus, cold hearted women and handsome scoundrels have become the staple of romantic literature, demonstrating that Cupid is a poor match-maker, landing his arrows with unparalleled carelessness.

It may be that love’s madness is part of the human condition. Something that is inescapable; however, acknowledging its power, understanding its processes, and being aware of its effect on the mind, may provide us with at least some protection against the torment (and misery) commonly celebrated by die-hard romantics.

If love is construed as a kind of illness, then perhaps it has a cure? Or perhaps there are more satisfying, durable, and less troubled ways of loving? Although we are inclined to love madly – perhaps we should also consider the possibility of loving sanely. Again, the illness metaphor – by implicating the existence of remedies – can be extremely illuminating and practicable.

What would loving sanely entail? How might love-sickness be turned into love-fitness? These too, are questions for which we will find answers.

To fully appreciate the degree to which the illness metaphor has shaped our beliefs about love, it is useful to first examine how it was employed in the early writings of the ancient and classical world. Love was swiftly identified with illness largely because of its physical manifestations; however, in due course, the emphasis shifted from the physical to the psychological. Thus, as classical civilization progressed, the illness metaphor was used with greater specificity. Poets recognized that love didn’t resemble just any illness – but rather, a particular kind of illness: mental illness. Even on the frayed papyrus and pottery pieces of the earliest civilizations, love was being linked with madness.