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Journal for the Psychoanalysis of Culture and Society 8.2 (2003) 279-288

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Where Do We Fall When We Fall In Love?

Elisabeth Young-Bruehl

1. Free Fall and Fall to Earth

In recent years, evolutionary psychologists have been counting the ways in which people love one another. With their new techniques for revealing our biochemical and neurophysiological selves, a group of the contemporary Darwinians have had no trouble taking the mystery out of romantic love. They tell us that when we fall in love we are falling into a stream of naturally occurring amphetamines running through the emotional centers of our very own brains. That is why we feel exhilarated, manic, powerful, creative, suddenly grown up if we are young and suddenly rejuvenated if we are older. The ecstasy of love is located in our nerves; we get high; we speed. Eventually, our nerves being what they are, their endings become amphetamine immune or exhausted, and the delirium of our free fall abates. We come down to earth.

The very same evolutionists who have explained passion as an amphetamine rush have seen in the fall to the quotidian of love the appearance of endorphins, those natural morphine-like agents of calm. After periods of wildness, we human beings settle into attachment—if we do not crash or break up on the way down. The fall after the fall is into daily routine, child-rearing, going to work in the morning, participating in community life—all the attachment actions that you cannot do if you are tripping on amphetamines. The endorphins are our attachment regulators. But, these evolutionists go on to claim, receptor sites in the brain can become desensitized to endorphins as well. Even the calm of love's earthbound maturity phase—love's depressive position—must come to an end, and people, then, are ready once more for passion: they separate, divorce, commit adultery, cruise, add another concubine to their collection, go in for serial monogamy, or in some way move along to another amphetamine high. To one degree or another, everyone is, if I may use a fashionable phrase, a love addict, an alleged neurophysiological fact that would be perfectly obvious if we did not have all kinds of institutions, like marriage, to protect from view the deterioration of love's calmer forms and the reappearance of the infatuation high.

So, this is one current sociobiological imaginary for explaining love's old roller coaster. The scientific merits of such an evolutionary theory and it appeal to the alleged facts of natural amphetamines processes are certainly debatable, but the fashionableness of its imagery is attested by the commercial success of Helen Fisher's Anatomy of Love, which can be read without even high school chemistry. Why would such an evolutionary theory be so fashionable now? 1 I think that the current state of love relations in America, where these theories are proliferating, is so distressing to so many people that there is tremendous appeal in an approach that explains—in one giant sweep—how we are hard-wired for passion, for attachment or marriage, and for divorce. It makes all of the above natural. Thus, among those who are worrying about "family values," a familiar old enemy is reaffirmed: it is our nature, in the form now of natural amphetamines, that must be fought. We must mount a war on our body's drugs. Just say no. Even the troubling matter of homosexuality can be at once denounced as an aberration because it does not promote reproduction and forgiven if a homosexual will only, like any heterosexual adulterer, put a check of prayer or psychotherapy on his or her natural amphetamines.

But I think that explanations like these neo-Darwinian ones, which can support or substitute for religious fundamentalism, also serve to obscure psychological phenomena that are distressing for less [End Page 279] moral-political reasons. Specifically, they obscure what it is in sexual passion that so often leads not to attachment but to impossibilities of attachment, whether tragic or comic or...


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pp. 279-288
Launched on MUSE
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Archived 2003
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