It’s the month of love, or so the people peddling overpriced flowers, candle lit meals and mawkish cards for Valentine’s Day would have you believe. What’s all that love stuff all about though? I’ve studied it for many years as a first hand researcher.
A couple of years ago I read a book by a psychologist called Frank Tallis called “Love Sick”. I went through a phase of reading pop psychology books during a turbulent phase in my love life and had just recently discovered that I was indeed a “Woman Who Loved Too Much” (albeit the wrong gender) and that it was also “Called a Break-Up Because it’s Broken”.
Frank Tallis spoke to me in my state of disillusionment at the time and answered the doubts about love harboured by my poorly concealed inner cynic. He proposed the theory that love is actually a name for a quite debilitating mental illness which afflicts many with transient madness and in some cases is even terminal. How many murders and suicides are motivated by love that has gone awry?
Yet at the time of reading the book I was still actively seeking it out. I wanted more madness. I’ve always hated that horrible cliché that the time you stop looking is when you find a partner. Statistically this has got to a bit of a shaky one. It’s hard to stop hoping for something that you really want.
My first experience of love, aged 16 was pure infatuation. I had a bet going on with a friend who was 9 months older than me that I could lose my virginity before she did. She’d managed it at 16 and 9 months and I needed to catch up quickly. If I wasn’t to lose face I needed to lose my big V. This is probably not the best reason for losing your virginity, by the way.
I won the bet and gained an infatuation of startling intensity within days. The boy, a 17 year old from my school, was equally infatuated and we were archetypal love sick teenagers. I mooned about, didn’t sleep, didn’t eat. I was nauseated and restless and whole heartedly obsessed. I adored everything about him for about 14 days then I suddenly snapped out of it and realised that he was a bit of a knob. I then spent weeks trying to get rid of him and he took a (thankfully small and luckily harmless) drug overdose complete with dramatic note addressed to me. I found it all very exhausting.
My subsequent experiences of love were at times, equally exhausting. I’d love to get back the hours I’ve spent thinking obsessively with a churning stomach. I’d love to take back the psychopathic text messages brimful of meanness and a fine vocabulary of inventive swearwords. I’d like to have not experienced the drunken stupors and crying fits and the bleakness of spirit. I’d like to have not experienced the misdirected self hatred after rejections and infidelities. I suspect many of my long suffering friends also wished they’d not gone through this with me too. I think Frank Tallis had a point in many ways and as I mooned about swamped with fatigue and full of pain after another bad experience I’d hold him up as an icon and myself as a scientific example for his work.
However, I still sought it out sporadically, lurching from relationships to relationships with minimal intervals in between. Along with the lows there were highs. The exhilarating feeling of experiencing someone’s passion for you is one not to be missed, even if that passion does turn out, ultimately, to be rather weak and transient. It’s a fine sensation to feel excitement when he calls, to tremble when you see him and have a head full of dreams. Mental disturbance isn’t all bad. I saw it as a risk worth taking, a pay off worth paying for.
I’m not overtly romantic in a traditional sense and like to think of myself as a cynic. I did manage to become moderately contented on my own and met my partner entirely by accident in an improbable place after a long period of single life. I wasn’t seeking a new partner but equally wasn’t not seeking one.
I still think Frank Tallis is right. Love is a strange biochemical process based on neuro-transmitters with a lot of societal pressures and psychological foundations. You know what though? Two years down the line, mental illness never felt so fine. Maybe I’ve got wiser as I’ve got older. Miracles do sometimes happen even to the cynical non-believers.
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