Alix Kate Shulman’s memoire, To Love What Is presents an exemplary romantic relationship that survived a harsh blow from fate. I believe the strength of their relationship was fortified by oxytocin, which promoted and enhanced Shulman and her husband Scott York’s attachment. That is not to say that their relationship was supported solely by hormones: Shulman and York exhibited compassionate love for one another.
Doug Oman cited five characteristics of compassionate love in his article, “Compassionate Love: Accomplishments and Challenges in an Emerging Scientific/Spiritual Research Field,” which we clearly see in the relationship between Alix Kates Shulman and Scott York:
- Valuing and respecting, but not pitying, the other
- Free choice for the other, as opposed to love that is instinctive or coerced
- Understanding the needs of the other person with a desire to enhance the other’s well being
- Emotional engagement
- Openness and receptivity
Evidence of Shulman and York’s compassionate love is found throughout Shulman’s memoir: “We had built our bond on our independence and autonomy, they were (paradoxically) part of what drew us together” (Shulman 44). Scott respected Alix’s need for independence and personal space even when those needs were dissociated from his – a perfect example of his compassionate love for her. Additionally, Scott, who was not Jewish, surprised Alix with a trip to Israel for Christmas “as an act of solidarity with my ethnic roots” (Shulman 54).
Shulman’s solidarity with Scott was staggering. She and Scott were in their 70s at the time of his accident and she took on the responsibility of being his care giver, never opting for the easy way out. Her perseverance is evident in the following passage:
I will not allow him to doze his days away even though, left to himself he’d do nothing else. I will bring him back to upright and engaged…I devise stringent regiments to keep him alert and exercised. I take him to his therapies by subway instead of by taxi, forcing him to climb those challenging flights of stairs, and I forestall his falling when the train lurches by boldly claiming one of the seats reserved for the disabled…I cajole or bully him into daily drawing sessions (Shulman 68).
When well-meaning friends suggest that Shulman should not sacrifice her own life because of Scott’s injury she checks her hostile impulse, “Yes, it’s a drag to take care of him, I want to say, just as it’s often a drag to take care of your children, but you do it for love” (Shulman 87). Shulman’s ambition to return Scott to his life was her “heightened purpose of healing him” (76). Shulman’s joys in Scott’s rehabilitative accomplishments are for him. She took Scott to see the Christo Gates three times because Shulman wanted “to witness his pleasure” (Shulman 80). The laying down of a new memory is a cause for joy, “I rejoice as if he were my child taking his very first step” (Shulman 120).
When Scott was in the hospital, Kate Shulman’s “only goal in life” (Shulman 28) was to keep Scott alive. After hospital staff proved themselves inept, Shulman felt like a “lioness stalking prey” (Shulman 47) protecting Scott, hounding personnel, advocating for her mate. Much the way mothers feel relief when their child is safe and well, Shulman was relieved to be in control of Scott’s care once Scott was out of the hospital and home with her. The bonds of attachment, supported and reinforced over the years by oxytocin were, I believe, partly responsible for Shulman’s behavior. Since oxytocin facilitates attachment, how could it not figure in their love?
From the beginning, oxytocin played a role in Shulman and Scott’s relationship, making its first appearance in the physical attraction Shulman felt toward Scott: “He had long figured in my fantasies….At six feet, with thick blond hair, chiseled features, and muscular shoulders and thighs” (Shulman 12). “Scott seemed different [from other athletes]. Despite his uncommon good looks, he was shy, earnest, and humble, with a sweetness about him that puzzled me” (Shulman14).
Then, there was the kiss: “…a kiss so unrestrained and stirring that it threw me completely off balance. I felt it in my knees and down to my toes…His combination of knockout good looks, Harvard education, and worldly accomplishments…in an instant that kiss negated the outer trappings of alpha male and exposed [his vulnerability]” (Shulman70).
That kiss, no doubt, created an elix of bonding chemistry in their brains as detailed by Diane Ackerman in A Natural History of Love: Ackerman learned that when two people find each other attractive, “… their bodies quiver with a gush of PEA (phenyl ethylamine, a speed-like chemical)…that speeds up the flow of information between nerve cells [and] whips the brain into a frenzy of excitement (Ackerman165). The amazing rush of dopamine and oxytocin provided a great, life affirming chemical reward predetermining future attraction and passion.
Shulman and York spent years forming and cultivating their attachment. Shulman’s rewards for caring for Scott after his accident is suggestive of the oxytocin reward mothers feel when their children are safe and cared for. And although he was changed intellectually and creatively, Shulman’s attraction to York was still evident: “Sometimes we put on music and slow dance in the afternoons… [watching a movie on television] holding my hand…as if we were kids making out in the back row” (Shulman67).
Another positive aspect of Shulman and York’s relationship was the fact that they had been married for decades before Scott’s accident. Ackerman asserts that while new love has its thrills and undeniable appeal, “Being in love is a state of chaotic equilibrium. Its rewards of intimacy, warmth, empathy, dependability, and shared experiences trigger the production of that mental comfort food, the endorphins. The feeling is less steep than falling in love, but it’s steadier and more addictive. The longer two people have been married, the more likely it is they’ll stay married” (Ackerman166-167).