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How to Tell True Love from Ersatz Love

written by George Vaillant 15 February 2009

George E. Vaillant, M.D. has studied adult development, including the lives of 800+ men and women for over 60 years as a Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. His past books highlight many of his results in this field. His current book, Spiritual Evolution (2008), demonstrates the necessity of positive emotions for human development and survival.

His other articles are here.

First, what is “real love”?

Spiritual Evolution New Cover To understand love, those usually helpful resources—the ancient Greeks, the poets, the psychologists, even Cupid—all fail us. Too readily, these experts become preoccupied with lust and forget about lasting attachment. And the Buddha, too, lets us down; for he was too preoccupied with compassion to appreciate lasting attachment. True, love is compassionate; but compassion is not always love. Real love is attached, selective and enduring. In contrast, compassion does best when it is detached and rooted in time present.Mature mammalian, not just human, love involves enduring, remarkably unselfish limbic attachment. If “real” love remains remarkably independent of free will, mammalian evolution has liberated love from the reflexive neuroendocrine dominance by the hypothalamus. Mate choice and bonding, if relatively involuntary, is based on the altruistic, if still biological, motivation of oxytocin and mirror cells.

The Greek philosophers did not and the cognitive psychologists do not always understand attachment. The Greeks’ agape (universal unselfish love) is not selective, and the Greeks’ Eros (testosterone, estrogen and all-about-me lust) is not enduring. Love, like the sacred and our image of God, has a timeless quality. The spirit behind the New Testament words “God is love” can be found in even the self-consciously atheistic Great Soviet Encyclopedia, which explains to us “Love is the point at which the opposing elements of the biological and the spiritual, the personal and the social, and the intimate and the universal intersect.” The novelist Laurence Durrell reminds us that “the richest love is that which submits to the arbitration of time.” In contrast, lust marches to a marvelous but much more urgent drummer. The object of a passionate one-night-stand may seem boring and ugly the next morning. But what a wonderful evening!

The Buddha feared attachment; he correctly saw attachment as the root of much sorrow. Welcome to the world of love. Love is dangerous. Indeed, for many of us, love, like joy, is sometimes difficult to bear; for love – like joy and gratitude – makes us feel vulnerable – sometimes so vulnerable that we are afraid to take love in, let alone give it back. What if your child died, or your sweetheart left you. In contrast, William Blake understood the importance of attachment: both its loss and its restoration. Thus, Blake reminds us, “Joy and grief are woven fine…Under every grief and pine runs a joy with silken twine.” Savor lost loves: don’t just mourn them.

What is the difference between addiction and attachment?

The lonely cynic sneers that “falling in love” is just another form of addiction. Attachment fueled by oxytocin is indeed, dangerous stuff; it makes you fall in love and never get over it. Don Juan and the Buddha had the right idea: Don’t get attached! Consider Henry Higgins’ lament: “I was serenely independent and content before we met; surely I could always be that way again—and yet I’ve grown accustomed to her look; accustomed to her voice; accustomed to her face. Damn! Damn! Damn! Damn!” What is the difference between addiction and mammalian love?

Loving HugAh, let me count the ways. First, mammalian love is uniquely fueled by oxytocin and linked to limbic brain centers not linked to addiction. Admittedly, both addiction and love are fueled with the much less specific neurotransmitter dopamine. Dopamine, interestingly, is concentrated in brain centers that also contain opiate receptors. These centers are linked to heroin addiction—an ersatz and often lethal “love”—that is also selective and enduring.However, there is a second critical difference between heroin and love. Addiction is all about me; attachment all about the other. Addiction shouts, “Alack, poor me!” Love compassionately asks others, “Are you feeling better?”

Third, we rapidly habituate to our addictions; we need more and more for the same effect. In contrast, the soft touches of real love never stale.

Fourth, an addict in withdrawal is in a crisis of sympathetic arousal: fever, sweating, tachycardia, hypertension, and irritable screams at anyone who tries to hug him. In contrast, a husband at his wife’s gravesite is in a state of parasympathetic withdrawal: sobbing gently, with slow pulse, but grateful for a friend’s arm around his shoulder. In other words, grief over a loving attachment is in some ways still a positive emotion and in time helps us to broaden and build. Addiction destroys us—physically, mentally and spiritually.

Finally, “the morning after” is always the crucial test between true attachment and addiction. Mother bears are delighted by what they find cuddled up to them the next morning; lusty participants in bacchanalias are less enthusiastic about what they find at dawn’s early light.

Where does love come from?

We do not learn how to love from religious education or from life coaching. Love does not come from the Buddha’s mindfulness.

Mom always knows how to make him smile We learn love from our genes, from our biochemistry and from the people who love us and who let us love them.

The brain hormone, oxytocin, is released when all mammals give birth. Oxytocin seems to permit mammals to overcome their natural aversion to extreme proximity; and, thus, oxytocin has been rechristened the “cuddle hormone.” In human newborns, there is a short-lived overproduction of oxytocin. Oxytocin goes up in human puberty in parallel with adolescent crushes. Put a newborn baby in a mother’s arms or bless a couple’s sexual union with mutual orgasm and brain oxytocin levels rise. If they are genetically deprived of oxytocin, monogamous, maternal, loving prairie voles (a species of rodent) turn into another subspecies—the heartless, promiscuous, pup abusing montane voles. Without oxytocin, parental cooperation and responsibility vanishes.

But love is not just about genes and hormones. If, as the French planter sings in South Pacific, “you have to be taught to hate and fear,” you also have to be shown how to love. The ethologists studying imprinting in ducks and the evolutionary anthropologists studying hunter-gatherers know enough to show us rather than tell us how love evolves.

Monkey mother and baby Love is about attachment, music, and odors; states that do not lend themselves to words. Song maybe, but not words.Thus, the behavioral self-regulation that we associate with love does not come from a solitary brain, but from one brain evolving and becoming shaped forever through attachment to a beloved other. Monkeys raised in isolation go on eating binges and cower in corners. Instead of playful roughhousing, they fight with their peers unto death; and they never really get the hang of copulation. All their lives such isolated monkeys remain inept “at doing what comes naturally.”

In contrast, isolated monkeys who are subsequently raised by mothers or with siblings for even one year can learn to roughhouse—gracefully stopping once social dominance is achieved; and to skillfully negotiate the dance steps to successful impregnation.

In closing, I may do well to remind the reader of Aren Cohen’s useful suggestion in How Sweet It Is… that love songs, too, are for the transmission of love.

No storm can shake my inmost calm
While to that Rock I’m clinging.
Since love is lord of heaven and earth,
How can I keep from singing?
~ Robert Lowry, 1860

Editor’s note: This article is included in the Love and Be Loved chapter of the Positive Psychology News book, Character Strengths Matter.




Cohen, A. (2008). What is love anyway?. Positive Psychology News.

Cohen, A. (2009). How sweet it is …. Positive Psychology News.

Fisher, H., Aron, A., & Brown, L. L. (2005) Romantic love: an fMRI study of a neural mechanism for mate choice. Journal of Comparative Neurology, 493, 58-62.

Great Soviet Encyclopedia. (1973) Vol 15, p. 153, 3rd Edition, English Edition, Jean Paradise (Ed.). New York: MacMillan Publishing. Quote above: p. 153.

Insel, TR. and Young, LJ. (2002) The neurobiology of attachment. Nature Reviews Neuroscience 2, 129-136.

Lewis, T., Amini, F., & Lanoran, R.. (2000). A General Theory of Love. New York: Random House.

Uvnas Moberg, K. (2003) The Oxytocin Factor: Tapping the Hormone of Calm, Love, and Healing. Cambridge, MA: DeCapo Press.

Vaillant, G. (2008). Spiritual Evolution: A Scientific Defense of Faith. New York: Broadway Press.

New cover for Spiritual Evolution from George Vaillant
Flickr images were found with Creative Commons License:
Loving hug, labeled True Love in Albert”s photostream,
Monkey Mother and Child from KenderishShot’s photostream
Mom always knows how to make him smile from jusgre’s photostream

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Christine Duvivier 15 February 2009 - 10:07 am

Dear George, Thank you for a beautiful, moving description of true love! I’ve shared it with my husband, children and others I love.

As you point out, words won’t do justice to my appreciation, so I’ll leave it at “thank you!”

Margaret 15 February 2009 - 11:46 am

George, I LOVE your take on LOVE! While we may not have much control over our genes or biochemistry, I believe we can all aspire to Love and expand the Capacity To Be Loved. Much love, Margaret

Senia 15 February 2009 - 12:00 pm

This article made me so happy!
Happy Valentine’s Day!!!

LeanRainmakingMachine 15 February 2009 - 5:50 pm

What does this say about children abandoned at birth? Are they doomed like the isolated monkeys, fated to be unable to understand and “get” love; “inept” forever? Is their future as bleak as their past?
After all, they are incapable of being with either their mother or their siblings, if any.

WJ 16 February 2009 - 4:48 am

George, how does storge (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Storge) fit into the equation.

I suspect its the low energy versions of love that are more enduring. This wouldn’t be surprsing given that research suggests that low energy positive emotions (like contentment) might be the basis of wellbeing. See http://www.innate-intelligence.com.au/blog/?p=261

The other point I would like to make is that mindfulness (awareness without judgement) might be the basis of long lasting relationships. When love is unconditional (non judgemental) it is so much more powerful. My marriage has gone fom strength to strength when I learnt to accept my partner for who and what she is.

Kathryn Britton 16 February 2009 - 9:39 am


I’ve been married for 28+ years, and I think you and George both highlight important parts of keeping a relationship growing.

I trust that non-judgmental doesn’t mean neutral — I don’t have a neutral relationship. I’m rather partial to Marcus Buckingham’s description from The One Thing You Need to Know — Find the most generous interpretation you can for any behavior & believe it. I’ve got an example from my own life here: http://theanocoaching.wordpress.com/2008/09/23/reflections-on-marriage-part-2-one-thing-to-know/

But I also think that regular warm physical contact is important. My husband is a great hugger, and I’ve learned to be. Random hugs throughout the day make a big difference.


WJ 16 February 2009 - 2:26 pm


I agree hugging is important. Did you know that it slows the amygdala and lowers cortisol levels. And the closer you are too someone the more the effect.

Non judgementally doesn’t mean neutral – the key is acceptance.

You might be interested in this article on mindfulness and relationship enhancement.


Kirsten Cronlund 16 February 2009 - 6:02 pm

Dear George,

Thank you so much for the beautiful picture of “true love” that you painted in this article. The ideas you explored here were of particular interest to me because of the many conversations you and I have had about attachment, nonattachment, and love.

I was excited to get a greater understanding of your ideas because it helped clarify some things for myself, and I’d like to throw them out here in order to spark a conversation (with anyone who is interested, including you, George.)

I wonder if your definition of attachment, which is probably pretty much in line with Bowlby’s ideas of secure attachments, is actually quite different from how the Buddha would define attachment. You say in this article that “addiction is all about me; attachment all about the other.” If my understanding of Buddhism is correct, attachment in Eastern philosophy is very much “all about me.” In fact, the suffering that is referred to is the very outcome of the need for another person or circumstance to conform to our preconceived ideas about the way things “should” be. We bind ourselves and others in a noose of our own making when we don’t love with openness and unconditionality (nonattachment).

Nonattachment, as I understand Eastern philosophy to say, is not the lack of deep caring, but indeed is the very embodiment of that deep caring (directed at one at a time, as well as creation as a whole). It epitomizes true love because it wishes well to the other, even when it involves self-sacrifice. My need for closeness to another, whether physical or emotional, is my own need. Sometimes that need can be met in a mutually life-giving way, and that’s a good thing for both me and the other. When I’m ruled by my need for closeness, however, at the expense of what the other’s needs are, then that need which is masquerading as love does not give life to me or to the other.

I welcome the thoughts of others.


Alex100 19 February 2009 - 10:18 pm


darren 20 February 2010 - 8:19 pm



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