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Love remains the mystery of life

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A middle-aged couple huddled under a blanket at a picnic table in the park. So adorable! The two were leaning into one another, combining body heat, talking softly on a chilly winter afternoon. Cozy. Merged for protection. And let us repeat: middle-aged. This was the perfect image of enduring love, the dream of every person, the whole “On Golden Pond” fantasy. It can happen!

But when a Post photographer approached and asked to take their picture, they declined. The photographer thought: Affair?

The photographer was about to leave when the man walked over and apologized.

The problem, he said, is that we’re breaking up.

Ouch! Didn’t see it coming.

Love is the central mystery of life. You can’t see inside the heads of other people or into their hearts, to use a metaphor that somehow has survived 400 years of medical research. You can barely know your own thoughts.

Love deceives. It confuses. It heals and it hurts. It can make you lose your mind. It should come with a warning label. Carolyn Hax, a Post advice columnist, suggests: “Don’t operate heavy machinery when you’re under the influence of this stuff.”

Yet people still are trying to explain love, to measure it, calibrate, capture it with advanced medical imaging. The science of love is in the air. Scientists are homing in on the neurochemistry of love. The love experts talk about dopamine and oxytocin and vasopressin and opioids. They study brain scans of people in various throes and permutations of love, and say things such as (we got this the other day from Helen Fisher, a pioneer in the field, and a professor at Rutgers): “We found activity in a tiny little part of the brain called the ventral tegmental area.”

Yet when you’re in love, it doesn’t feel like the ventral tegmental area is the cause.

It seems like, for example, that the eyes are more important. The hands. And other parts.

A recent study, highly publicized, suggested that women prefer the smell of men who produce a different set of disease-resistant antigens than they do. It’s like the DNA is deciding on a mate. Are we animals? No, more like robots. Human mating behavior varies from individual to individual, but collectively, we obey the commands of biology. We follow reproductive strategies of which we are barely conscious. The man possesses billions of sperm, the woman releases only about 400 of her eggs, and from the difference emerges a million romcom screenplays.

Yet when you reduce love too much, you lose the essence of it, the texture, not to mention your audience (boring!). It may be that love demonstrates the limits of empirical inquiry. “The Science of Love” flirts with being an oxymoron. Love is an emergent phenomenon, like consciousness, and thus a little bit squishy, immeasurable, enigmatic. Water is two hydrogen atoms and an oxygen atom, prone to joining other such molecules through bonds in the hydrogen atoms — but that tells you nothing about what it feels like to be wet.

We’re looking at a photograph of a mother, a father, a newborn. She’s kissing the baby. The baby has launched its relentless project of reeling in the parents. The two have become three, forever connected, with the child now carrying the nerve endings of the mother and father. Give it any technical name you want — this is a picture of love, abundant.

In his book “The Social Animal,” journalist David Brooks offers a tour de force examination of two fictional people falling in love, describing their interactions at the unconscious level:

“As Julia and Rob semi-embraced, they silently took in each other’s pheromones. Their cortisol levels dropped. . . . Later in their relationship, Rob and Julia would taste each other’s saliva and then collect genetic information. . . . They had decoded silent gestures — a grin, a look, a shared joke, a pregnant pause.

It’s smart stuff, though not exactly . . . hot. It’s a bit of a buzzkill, like explaining a joke. And some jokes, such as the one about the chicken crossing the road, simply defy explanation (because what’s funny about the chicken joke is that it’s not funny — get it???).

The Greeks had a nice vocabulary of love, starting with agape, the unconditional love, and eros, that passion that may involve a flaring in the groinal region, and philia, the friendship love, and storge, which we need to Google. Modern writers find all kinds of words to describe the shadings of love, as in a pdf we got by e-mail:

“According to Sternberg (1988), for example, types of love are determined by various combinations of passion, intimacy, and commitment. Possible combinations result in romantic love, infatuation, companionate love, liking, fatuous love, empty love, and consummate love.”

Fine, but what do you call the love you feel when, after 17 rounds of “No, it’s your turn,” the spouse finally agrees (because it was her turn, by the way) to get up at 3:45 a.m. to deal with the squawking child?

People talk about “infatuation,” but even that has degrees, ranging from a carefully controlled interest to a manic obsession, and from a theoretical (repressed, inappropriate, guilt-inducing) crush to the full-blown sensation of being as out of control as a dishrag in the washing machine.

“Be my valentine”: After all these years, no one knows what that means. It sounds like a euphemism. Probably for something dirty.

A valentine is shaped like a heart, which, oddly, is not shaped like a human heart at all. The valentine shape is symmetrical, two halves perfectly conjoined in the middle. It’s not just a metaphor: One of our accompanying photos shows two people in love. They’re both male, but that’s not what’s striking. The way they put their heads together and their arms: They form, for the viewer, a perfect valentine.

Raymond Carver wrote a story called “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.” The four characters, boozing it up over a kitchen table, talk about love in terms of jealousy, rage, pain, abuse, suicide and an overpowering need to connect. The ice melts in the ice bucket. The sun goes down. Finally, they sit in the dark, saying nothing. They can feel their hearts beating. Thumpa thumpa thumpa.

Maybe love should be defined as the thing about which people write songs. No one writes songs about, say, the Higgs boson. No one writes songs about Vince Lombardi. No one writes songs about the Peloponnesian War. At least not any that are very hummable.

When people have a song in their heart, it means they’re in love or an advanced state of like. Cole Porter once asked (it helps to listen to the Sinatra version, in his great Capitol Records phase):

What is this thing called love?

This funny thing called love?

Just who can solve its mystery?

Why should it make a fool of me?

Fools in love: They talk like mice, or in baby voices, and follow each other around obsessively, cooing, fussing with each other, nuzzling, gurgling, sniffing, sniveling, being completely nauseating in every way to the outside observer. In the throes of it, in that first rush of connection, no one else matters.

There are primitive elements to love. There are parts of the love instinct that predate the caveman. That caveman habit of grunting, being lewd and gross, swinging a club — that’s actually relatively civilized compared with how things used to be, back before we were technically people. This is a good line of argument for men who have to get out of a jam: “Honey, that’s nothing compared with what’s common practice among lizards.”

It’s never entirely clear where sex fits into a discussion about love. You can have love without sex, and sex without love. The experts tell us that that women fall in love and then want to have sex, and men want to have sex and then fall in love. In the long run, somehow, supposedly, it all works out, collectively, for the species. We all get along, because, through divergent evolutionary needs, we wind up co-signatories on a mortgage.

But there are outliers, exceptions, mutations, perversions, distractions, digressions, transgressions. If it weren’t for transgressions, we’d have no literature. Anna Karenina; Hester Prynne; Madame Bovary; every John Updike character.

Maryetta Andrews-Sachs, a Washington couples therapist, says modern life can be rough on romance because people work such long hours and are so thoroughly distracted by communications technologies.

“I see couples, young couples, who are so busy working, they don’t have sex. That’s crazy, right?” she says.

And then the older couples, they don’t even look at each other.

“Couples neurologically regulate each other through their eye contact,” she says. At first, early in the relationship, the eyes are key to the flirting, the fun, the connection. “Then if you get married, you get caught up in all the management part of life, and people stop having fun and stop having eye contact.”

So we like this photo of the old couple on the couch. They’re holding hands. They’re looking directly at one another. They’ve been together for 74 years. See, it really can happen — it’s not something we imagined, or projected.

This one, we dare to think, is gonna last.

© The Washington Post Company