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on March 21, 2000
Exposed as children to imperfect relationships, many of us slip into the same stale and ineffectual patterns as adults, inexplicably falling for those who will hurt us, driving away those who don't, or habitually avoiding the intimacy that we need. No matter how senseless our behavior seems, we stick to the formula, married to conscripts of love that--time and time again--leave us broken-hearted.
Enter this sizzling new book called "A General Theory of Love," which--with unsurpassed eloquence--explains why love confounds us and why it is finally within our grasp. The authors--Drs. Lewis, Amini, and Lannon--are practicing psychiatrists from the University of California. Melding cutting-edge neuroscience with real human experience, they make a sober but uplifting case for the elemental tie between love, health, and happiness. Their argument will grab you by the seat of your pants. It is grounded in fact but spelled out in lovely prose with compelling allusions to history and literature. Believe me, this unusual work is a far cry from the stagnant drivel of many scientific journals (and some evolutionary biologists). Nor is it anything like a typical self-help book. It is a lifeline, masterfully woven from the hefty secrets unveiled within its pages.
To a few, love may come easily. For the rest of us, "A General Theory of Love" is indispensable reading. Why wait?
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on March 22, 2000
Warning: The General Theory of Love contains highly innovative ideas that are elegantly stated. It has been found in some cases that reading this book carefully may cause greater understanding of the world we live in. In order to understand a theory, it helps me if I can state the axioms as Euclid did in the classic Geometry text: "Elements".
In order to summarize the tremendous impact this book has had on my concept of human interaction, I have tried to reduce this theory to its core axioms or principles. Though one cannot do this in as pure a sense as pure mathematics, my approach is more concise than it is inaccurate. I should note that these axioms are based on conversations with the authors after a recent book signing.
There are 3 "axioms" for successful love: (1) Connect, (2) Be authentic, (3) The earlier the better. The more these 3 conditions are met, the more we experience love. Now that is a theory we can apply! As a member of the corporate world, I like the fact that the authors offer solutions not just scientific observations and results. "Connect" means listen, look at, etc. "Be authentic" means say what you are really feeling not what is convenient or politically correct. "The earlier the better" suggests that loving is most crucial early in life and early in relationships.
I don't want to get too analytical in the space of 1000 words, but let me illustrate a single application of these axioms. Separating the infant from the mother at birth is a common practice in the USA. However, this practice violates the "axioms of love" since the mother cannot connect emotionally by holding and smelling the newborn child if the child is taken away for "medical procedures". The "earlier the better" axiom is not satisfied either since mother/child are separated from the earliest moment in life. Conclusion: let the child stay with the mother so they can "connect early."
After reading this book, I am now confident that I can be an incredible lover and parent! I recommend this book to everyone. It resonates with me. I believe that as these ideas are applied, the world could end up a better place to live.
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on February 8, 2000
This book was an eye-opening experience for me. Since my early teens, I've established a pattern of being in relationships that start out on a high and then eventually deteriorate and fail. I've never understood why I involve myself-a successful, intelligent, generally happy person-with people who leave me dissatisfied, feeling worthless, and convinced that I should just give up and relegate myself to a lonely Siberian outpost. A General Theory of Love enlightened me. Not in some namby-pamby, self-help, touchy-feely kind of way-but by explaining the science of brain development and the associated outcomes in our personal lives using accessible, easy to understand language that borders on lyric prose. Thank you Dr. Lewis for introducing me to myself!
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on May 10, 2000
They wrote the book of love. The scope of the task undertaken by these authors is vast: explaining love. To unlock the secrets of the (metaphorical) human heart, they begin by educating us in biological fundamentals, explaining the three layers of the brain (reptilian=basic function, limbic=emotion, neocortical=facility to reason) and postulating on why our evolutionary path did not involve a cleaner convergence of our emotions and our rational mind. They go on to pour over several studies demonstrating our emotional dependence on others. All of the science is delivered masterfully, and this section of the book is one of the more literate non-fiction pieces I've read recently. Building on the underlying scientific knowledge collected, the authors then go on to explain their theories of limbic resonance (how we interact emotionally with others), limbic regulation, etc. While these theories may not seem absolutely convincing, they do make intuitive sense, though one is justified in remaining skeptical. Regardless, their theories are well presented and are certainly filling food for thought. Finally, we are left knowing much more about the biology behind our emotions, and should be more secure knowing that our emotions are a valid part of us, and not something that must be conquered by the rational mind. This is a different point of view then I've held, and it is a welcome outlook. Highly recommended
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on June 13, 2000
Homer's "The Oddessy"" and Flaubert's "Madame Bovary" are my two favorite books. "A General Theory of Love," a powerful and important work, is my third.
Had I read this book while in my twenties, I would have taken a break from my architecture practice and stayed home with my children during their early years. I would have picked different men to live with. I would have been able to explain to my friends why they consistently picked creeps, even though they knew better. In short, I would have had better tools with which to make life decisions.
What I love about this book is the warmth and compassion with which it takes me through the most recent findings and facts of neuroscience as it relates to the emotions. I've read several books on neuroscience and several books about the human spirit. This the only book I've ever read that weaves the two together.
As the authors state, "the heart and the brain exert their pulls in different directions. Where they are brought together, the result is incandescence." This book does, in fact, glow as it lights up previously dark and confusing spaces.
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on April 9, 2006
This book by three San Francisco psychiatists is unique and sheds light on one of life's greatest mysteries in an eloquent and easy to read fashion. It makes some very difficult scientific concepts accessible to people without specialized knowledge in neurology or psychology.

The authors do a good job of balancing the insights of science with the interpretation necessary to understand subjective experience. While the book is speculative in some ways, it is intelligently and appropriately speculative.

This book was difficult to put down because it brings together an understanding of attachment theory, brain research and striking analogies to come up with a scientifically plausible explanation of love. The real achievement here is not dehumanizing the experience of love in the process of writing about it from within a scientific paradigm. However, I think they are a little hard on Freud and the psychoanalytical field. While Freud wasn't perfect, he had a lot of great insights for someone of his time. At times, I found the authors dismissive of some of the work in this area without presenting compelling arguments appropriate to the strength of their statements.

I particularly liked the way this book talked about implicit memory and how this plays a role in love without us being conscious of the process. This helps explain why the head and the heart are often at odds.

Another unusual aspect of this book is how well written it is. It's difficult to put down and does not come across as overly technical or mechanical. It is juicy... so to speak! In other words, it lacks the sterility of some of the books written by highly technical people about thier own fields.

While I don't think these authors unlocked the ultimate secret of love, they certainly raised the right questions and helped move our understanding forward in this area. This is a good book for anyone who wants to understand love at a deeper level. I recommend it highly!
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on February 14, 2004
This book has some good qualities along with some major flaws. First I should say that it is beautifully written in a style which is almost like a poetic kind of prose. I am a clinical psychologist, and I like the fact that the authors are psychiatrists who are obviously oriented to psychotherapy something that is not so common these days. There is also a nice humanistic quality to this book and the overall theory of love with its evolutionary perspective I found interesting and relevant. As for flaws I see two major ones: an apparent lack of awareness of the history of psychotherapy and a lack of knowledge about treatment outcome research. They present a relationship oriented approach to psychotherapy which in practice sounds almost identical to that of Carl Rogers who emphasized the importance of therapist empathy and believed that the therapeutic relationship itself was the curative factor in psychotherapy. Rogers began formulating his views in the 1940's and ultimately became one of the most influential figures in the history of psychotherapy. Yet amazingly Carl Rogers is not mentioned even once in this book! In addition they fail to mention family systems approaches which view family attachments as the key determinant of human emotional life and also of mental disorders. They also seem to echo one of the key trends in psychotherapy from the 1960's when many of the experiential therapies claimed that most insight was too intellectual and sterile and only emotional experience was seen as therapeutic, a somewhat outdated view. The authors then state that only relationship quality and not therapeutic orientation makes any difference and only long-term therapy can be effective. As someone who specializes in anxiety disorders I know this to be completely inaccurate. There are countless treatment outcome studies done at top universities and medical schools with cognitive-behavior therapy of anxiety disorders with success rates as high as over 90% with short-term therapy. There is no one suffering from agoraphobia or a specific phobia who is going to overcome these problems simply by establishing a good relationship with a therapist even if they come for five years. Exposure therapy is absolutely essential. These results are irrefutable, occur in short-term therapy, and only within the specific modality of cognitive-behavior therapy. This is in complete contradiction to the statements made by the authors and show an unacceptable lack of awareness or selective inattention to the current scientific literature in psychotherapy. My advice for most people is that if a therapist says that therapy will take three to five years explore the possibility of seeing another therapist. The authors also seem to make the assumption that all problems are relationship problems which is not always the case. Some problems are the result of simple classical conditioning such as many anxiety disorders. I also have trouble with the biological rationale offered by these authors for their treatment. If mammals all have a similar limbic brain then why don't we find the same mental disorders in animals as we do in humans? Do dogs suffer from agoraphobia or dissociative disorders? They completely neglect the role of higher human functions which give us the ability to reason, to see a future and a past, and the capacity for language as if these play no role in human emotions and emotional disturbance. So there are some significant problems with this book, but it does have some good points and I think is worth the read.
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on February 14, 2013
Book Review: A General Theory of Love
Kirk Honda
February 14, 2013

In their book A General Theory of Love (2000), Thomas Lewis, Fari Amini and Richard Lannon, psychiatry professors at the University of California, San Francisco, examined the phenomenon of love and attachment by synthesizing the previously separate fields of cognitive psychology, art, neuroscience, culture, and evolutionary biology. The style of the book lies within a happy medium between stagnant scientific journals and accessible self-help books. The book effortlessly sways back and forth from romantic sentiment to cutting-edge scientific research. In this way, this book appeals to academics and non-academics alike, and its popularity is evidenced by it having been translated into Spanish, Chinese, Japanese, Portuguese, Korean, Latvian, Croatian, and Farsi.

The Main Points

The four main points of the book are: 1) our brains are affected by those closest to us, particularly during childhood; 2) within intimate relationships, our limbic systems synchronize with one another; 3) our brains can be changed for the better through long-term therapy; and 4) American society often frustrates our efforts to satisfy our biological need for connection.

Evolutionary Biology

The authors begin by educating us in biological fundamentals, explaining the triune brain (reptilian with its basic functions, limbic with its emotional function, and neocortical with its facility to reason) and explaining how evolution led to our illogically-structured brain. As ancestor animals adapted to their environment, each evolutionary solution was solved by modifying already-established structures, including the nervous system. Thus, over the eons, evolution's twists and turns led to a quirkily designed brain. Structures of the brain evolved incrementally and without and end goal (p. 21).

Early Relationships

The authors take us further down the road toward love by describing the evolved functions of the brain structures involved in early relationships. Throughout the ages, instincts have evolved. For example, infants have an instinctual attraction to faces and a pre-programmed understanding of facial expressions (p. 61). This multitude of inborn brain structures encourages survival by fostering a bond between parent and child, so the child may be protected and taught by the parent. Along these lines, research has found that a lack of nurturing love will damage the human brain forever (p. 89). Grim evidence of this can be found within findings that extreme emotional deprivation can even cause infant death (p. 87). Human children are pre-designed for attachment and they need it for biological and practical survival.

Neurons and Neurotransmitters

The authors continue by explaining that the brain is a network of neurons. Through chemistry (neurotransmitters), neurons send signals to each other. By altering the chemistry in the brain, one can alter the functioning of the mind. Caffeine can cause alertness, SSRI's can alleviate depression, Ritalin can increase focus, and so on. In theory, all aspects of the mind are modulated by chemistry, including love.

The authors briefly discuss the neurotransmitters involved in experiences of love. They point out that current biological investigations of love focus on three crucial chemicals: serotonin, opiates, and oxytocin (p. 92). For instance, oxytocin levels have been found to surge in human mothers around birth which stimulates labor and also facilitates bonding between mother and neonate. Also, oxytocin gushes at puberty which motivates crushes and romantic love (p. 97).

Early animals evolved a mechanism to detect bodily damage: the neurotransmitters involved in the sensation of pain. And since the body needs a way to restore balance, opiates evolved to assuage that pain. When mammals evolved the limbic brain to facilitate the dependence on each other for survival, evolution recruited this primitive pain/opiate system to motivate mammalian social behavior. This is why relationships are both pleasurable and agonizing. For example, most people say that nothing is more painful that losing a loved one (p. 95).

Cutting. As a particularly poignant application of this theory, the authors attempt to explain cutting behaviors. Life is rife with tiny and not-so-tiny rejections - a disagreement, an apathetic look, a break-up. These social experiences produce emotional pain, which in some ways is indistinguishable from physical pain. When a teen cuts her skin, pain fibers send pain signals to her brain. Eventually, the brain releases pain's counterweight: the soothing, numbing opiates. In effect, she caused a physical pain to trick her nervous system into eventually numbing both her physical pain and her emotional pain (p. 96).

Limbic Attractors

The authors dedicate a significant portion of the book to describing research in cognitive psychology that demonstrates that much of our motivations, memories, and processing occurs outside of our awareness or control. With this empirical foundation, the authors assert that the limbic brain contains emotional Attractors, encoded early in life (p. 140). These Attractors compel bias when viewing emotions and relationships. They influence our experience of romantic relationships. Since these templates were established within the mostly-unconscious limbic brain, these Attractors are nearly impossible to modulate by the conscious mind (p. 142).

Parenting and the Development of Self

In the first few years of life, the over-abundant neural pathways are whittled down to a select set of frequently-used circuits. Through repeated experience with caregivers, the brain becomes imprinted with what love feels like to the child. This collection of experiences and their neural consequences tell the child what relationships are, how they function, what to anticipate, and how to conduct them. If parents love children healthily, wherein mistakes are forgiven, children's needs are paramount, and hurts are soothed, then that is how the children will feel about themselves and relate others later in life (p. 160).

Romance

The target audience of the book seems to be people who have had a troubled romantic life in that the authors are often attempting to explain why so many of us have dysfunctional relationship patterns.

Early experiences establish particular neural pathways that set the stage of adult romantic relationships and how they feel to us. If a child is not given a steady limbic resonance, that child will have difficulty empathizing with others. Whereas if a child experiences a steady limbic connection, that child will develop the ability to empathize, to look inside someone else, and to respond accordingly. And when two healthy limbic systems join, limbic attunement allows these lovers to regulate each other's emotions, neurophysiology, hormonal status, immune system, and other functions (p. 207).

Psychotherapy

The authors go on to assert that the human limbic system is stabilized through relatedness. In the short-term, when people are hurting and out of balance, they turn to others for support - this returns them to limbic homeostasis (p. 170). In the long-term, people can permanently fine tune their limbic systems through prolonged contact with a caring, wise, responsive person who, over time, can bolster their healthy neural networks that will lead to increased self-soothing and relationship satisfaction. Many people leave therapy sessions (regardless of the theoretical orientation of the therapist) feeling calmer, stronger, safer and often they don't know why (p. 171). This is the result of limbic resonance, which is outside of conscious awareness.

When a client comes in to therapy suffering from unfulfilling relationships or low self-esteem, the therapist, through long-term limbic attendance, alters the microanatomy of the client's brain. Long-term, relationship-oriented psychotherapy strengthens or weakens particular neural pathways (p. 176). Short-term self-help solutions are ineffective because they propose that a strong-willed client should be able to change how they think and feel. But the psychophysiology of emotional life cannot be changed so easily. It took a limbic connection to create the problem and it will take a lived limbic connection to repair it (p. 177).

Society

The authors make a compelling argument that American individualism, materialism and capitalism are frustrating our emotional and physical health. Americans are encouraged to achieve and not to attach (p. 206). For example, we disparage "needy" people, but we glorify self-made individuals. Since our culture promotes self-sufficiency which leads to isolation, we suffer needlessly from anxiety, depression, narcissism and other such maladies of the 21st century. Therefore the authors advise that we should not only privilege our cortex/cognitive mind, but we should also pay attention to our limbic/emotional selves (p. 229). To this end, the authors also advise that couples should spend time together if they want to maintain their bond.

Mainstream medicine has responded to external and internal economic pressures by paying less attention to patients' limbic system. The authors claim American patients have deserted mainstream medicine for the warm embrace of practitioners who attend to patients' limbic system: massage therapists, chiropractors, acupuncturists, and a host of others (p. 222). They recommend mainstream medicine change their systems and practices to the way things were before, when kindly doctors attended to the patients' limbic systems.

Critique

The authors wisely admit that even though love emanates from the physical brain and science provides a valuable tool for exploring the brain, human beings come equipped with an older means of discerning the nature of emotion: subjectivity (p. 12). This is a welcomed admission for those readers who are skeptical of the broad and reductionistic claims often made within science today.

Brief Therapy. The authors disparage brief therapy as a universally unfortunate development since it denies clients' need for long-term limbic attendance. As a relational therapist, I agree with the authors' assertion that some therapeutic goals are best met through an ongoing attuned therapeutic relationship. In support of this, there is a growing body of empirical evidence supporting the efficacy of long-term, psychodynamic therapy (Town et al., 2012). However, many of my clients also come to therapy for issues that are not suited for long-term therapies. Some clients' goals are best met in short-term therapy. Furthermore, brief therapies have a much larger body of evidence supporting their efficacy. As one of many examples, a 2012 meta-analysis of 15 randomized controlled trials found brief psychotherapies to be more efficacious than control (Nieuwsma, Trivedi, Mcduffie, Kronish, Benjamin, & Williams, 2012).

No Credit Given. Much of the book is common wisdom: love feels good, childhood experiences affect adult relationships, parents should pay attention to children's needs, society pressures us to move too fast for our own good, etc. These are good messages, and the authors provide an inspiring new angle on these old wisdoms. However, since the authors do not credit the giants upon which they stand, many readers might attribute these wisdoms to the authors themselves. It is common for self-help authors to write as if they were the first to put forth their ideas, but academic psychiatrists should know better. One might defend the authors by pointing out that this book is meant for the lay audience who don't care about citations. However, these are adept writers who could have woven in a few references to satisfy the academic audience.

The title of book could have been The Recent Biological Science that Supports the Long-Established Bowlby/Ainsworth Attachment Theory. But I suppose that title would have spoiled the book's marketing efforts. Attachment theory was mentioned only briefly in the book. The authors did not credit Bowlby, Ainsworth, and the many other theorists who had similar if not identical claims - this is like writing a book about gravity and not mentioning Newton.

Myths and Truths. As an example, after a somewhat long, circuitous discussion regarding cognitive research findings, the authors arrive at one of their main concepts: Limbic Attractors, or biases developed early in life that affect one's view of adult relationships. During this discussion, the authors mention that Freud's concept of transference is similar to their concept of Limbic Attractors. This exhibits responsible writing: give credit where credit is due. However, in the next paragraph, they write "Science has a way of supplanting myths with no less fantastic truths: transference exists because the brain remembers with neurons" (p. 141). The key words are "myths" and "truths." Transference is a myth while Attractors is a truth.

Limbic Resonance. (I am not a biologist, so my opinion on the following matter should be taken with a grain salt.) Throughout the book, the authors claim that our limbic brains synchronize, resonate, regulate, and revise. However, in my humble opinion, they did not provide any direct empirical evidence of this claim. Perhaps they merely omitted the research for the sake of readability. Or perhaps such supporting evidence does not exist. Their claims make intuitive sense, but without biological evidence, the authors are merely repackaging long-established psychological philosophy within biological terminology.

Perhaps the authors did not want to bore the lay audience with research and jargon. Or perhaps the authors wanted to make it seem as though they were truly inventing a new General Theory of Love. Rather than speculating, I wrote the authors and asked them. They have yet to reply.

Conclusion

This book added to my understanding of attachment. It has illuminated connections I had not seen previously. For example, I have worked with many clients who cut. The authors' explanation of the involved neurochemistry (i.e., opiates) was the missing puzzle piece in my formulation of self-abuse.

Also, this book helped me to understand the biological effects of love and the biological effects of a lack of love. The authors have bolstered and inspired my efforts to foster more love in the world. After reading this book, I found myself focusing more attention on my clients' "limbic" selves. Are they getting enough love in their lives? Could they give more love to others? I have always recommended cuddle time for couples but now I can make connections between cuddling and their brain chemistry, which in turn affects other areas in the lives (e.g., sleep quality, mood, immune system), which in turn affects their cuddle time, creating a recursive cycle.

A reviewer on Amazon.com wrote (retrieved on 2/8/13): "This book was an eye-opening experience for me. Since my early teens, I've established a pattern of being in relationships that start out on a high and then eventually deteriorate and fail. I've never understood why I involve myself-a successful, intelligent, generally happy person-with people who leave me dissatisfied, feeling worthless, and convinced that I should just give up and relegate myself to a lonely Siberian outpost. A General Theory of Love enlightened me. Not in some namby-pamby, self-help, touchy-feely kind of way-but by explaining the science of brain development and the associated outcomes in our personal lives using accessible, easy to understand language that borders on lyric prose. Thank you Dr. Lewis for introducing me to myself!"

There are many more reviews like this one. Regardless of the critique, this book has helped people to understand themselves and to forgive themselves for their relationship foibles. I suppose that benefit far outweighs any shortcoming.

References

Lewis, T., Amini, F., & Lannon, R. (2000). A general theory of love. New York: Random House.
Nieuwsma, J., Trivedi, R., Mcduffie, J., Kronish, I., Benjamin, D., & Williams J. (2012). Brief psychotherapy for depression: A systematic review and meta-analysis. International Journal of Psychiatry in Medicine, 43(2), 129-51.
Town, J.M., Diener, M.J., Abbass, A., Leichsenring, F., Driessen, E., & Rabung, S. (2012). A meta-analysis of psychodynamic psychotherapy outcomes: evaluating the effects of research-specific procedures. Psychotherapy, 49(3), 276-290.
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on January 2, 2004
The author's theory of limbic resonance correlates very accurately with reality. As any good theory on human emotion should, it accurately explains why we love who we love and why we are who we are. For years and years I argued with countless intellectuals who said there was no such thing as "Spark". This book not only provided me with a realistic explanation of my own emotional makeup and attraction certain woman (through spark), but gives me a way to examine spark and change it if I so desire.
It's not a book for everyone, since the first four or five chapters are a bit slow and technical, but if you get bogged down, skip to Hebbian learning (the fundamentals behind artificial intelligence in computers) in chapter six and you'll be suddenly and completely enthralled. The way it ties our mind together as a logical group of thinking units and then ties this back to the way we love is fantastic. Get the book, read it, you'll learn a lot. I guarantee it.
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on February 9, 2006
What is love? The authors take a hard-science look at the biological and evolutionary basis for love. But they also use poetry to bring home the point that words and rational thinking can never fully capture the reality of love. Nevertheless, it is revealing to understand how the human brain is organized and how unlearning a behavior is more difficult than learning it.

When discussing love, they start with the love a mother has for her child. This attachment, they explain, is critical for the survival of the species. Relationships not only feel good, they argue, but are necessary for good health and even survival. In later life, we will be attracted to and bond with people whose brain structure matches a prototype we develop during childhood. If this prototype is unhealthy, we might find ourselves continually drawn to people who mistreat or abuse us. But the ideal case is that we have a healthy prototype for a mate, and that when we find each other everything clicks in a harmonious and satisfying way.

The authors spend some time tearing into Freud with passion. Without any scientific knowledge of how our brain is structured or functions, Freud created the school of psychotherapy that is full of misconceptions and bad ideas. They give him credit for attempting a scientific exploration of emotions and emotional problems, but blame him for inventing explanations from little or no evidence.

One topic not discussed is the need many of us feel to get away from people from time to time. They describe in detail the need for relationships and attachment, but don't even consider the possibility that at least some us sometime crave time alone. Likewise, no discussion was made of the need felt by teenage children to separate from their parents.

But in total, this was a very readable and credible case for a theory of love.
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