Valentine’s Day is the moment, once a year, when much of the world focuses on romantic love. It’s a day of silly love songs, heart-shaped cushions, PresentsFlowers and chocolates. Men, although not always men, have traditionally made a big gesture to show their love for their partners. Why are we so attached to a feeling that, when stripped back, is purely about making babies? More to the point, how did we get from just making babies to bribing maître d’s for the best table?
What is love anyways?
To attract someone to you, love must first occur. Attraction happens when the feel-good chemical – dopamine – is released in the brain’s reward centres after we see a person we fancy. According to anthropologist Helen Fisher, when people see pictures of someone they love while being scanned, those parts light up like the candles on a Valentine’s Day dinner table. At the same time, we get an additional rush from the hormones that live in our sex organs – testosterone and oestrogen – as our hypothalamus decides it’s time to breed.
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This is also known as lust. Evolution-wise, that’s all you need. That’s the love that birds do, bees do and even educated fleas do. It’s the hot, passionate first few weeks of your relationships. It’s known in psychology as limerence. Humans are group animals that stick together for long periods of time, especially in relationships. Stickiness is vital for evolution. Young people are more vulnerable than ever and need every protection they can get. That’s where the third element of love comes in – attachment.
Oxytocin is the key to attachment. Often called “the love drug”Oxytocin is the fuel for a belongingness engine. It’s released during bonding – specifically childbirth, breastfeeding and sex. It’s also been measured in pets when their owners return home. It’s what maintains a long-term relationship. These three scientific elements are called attraction, lust and affection. But the romantic love that drives Valentine’s Day isn’t all about chemicals. For that, you will need something else, something particular human: love games.
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History is filled with all sorts of love games, but the rules of the game that drives Valentine’s Day as we know it likely found their feet in the 18th century. The idea that marriage should only be between people who love one another won the battle against the idea of marriage as a union between two families in the 1700s. This was also when luxury goods became more affordable than it was for a select few. The game included tokens of affection, such as locks or gold jewellery. Sally Holloway, historian, describes all these tokens as love. “played a vital role in preserving the identity of the giver and acted as an important site of memory for the recipient”. When you give your partner flowers or chocolates, it’s more than consumerism making you buy stuff. It’s a way to express your love, to reaffirm it. They are part of the foundations that keep the temples to romantic love from falling apart.
A Human History of Emotion by Richard Firth-Godbehere is out on February 17 (4th Estate, £20)
Of course, there is another important part of Valentine’s Day. The bit afterwards that people don’t tend to talk about. This part of the love game hasn’t completely lost touch with its lusty, evolved roots. You can thank the 18th century for that, too – if the sudden boom in the population back then is anything to go by. In the 18th century, a new kind of masculinity emerged. Efficient was no longer socially acceptable. The days when camp princes wore extravagant clothes were ending. One way for a man prove his manliness is to have a lot of sex with a female. One rule of manly sex was that women were the recipients and men were the givers. Gift giving was also an important part of this manly sex. Locks of women’s hair and pictures in lockets from women gave way to flowers and grand gestures from manly men, and days on which to make these grand gestures. Like Valentine’s Day.