Securing Real Love: Three Chemicals That Make Us Feel We’re In Love, 1 of 3 By Athena Staik, Ph.D.
~ 5 min read
The science of couples love is a fascinating study of human nature – perhaps at its best and worst.
Human beings get unhinged about a lot of things, yet nothing seems to compare to the actions of desperation, and the emotional roller coasters in the dance of romance.
Where in life are we suddenly in the most intimate of circumstances, contemplating dramatic shifts to our lives and future plans, with someone who was a total stranger a relatively short time ago?
The behaviors of males and females alike go way beyond what can possibly be explained by the ‘survival of the species’ imperative. Arguably, the emotion-drives (spiritual instincts?) to establish close, secure and meaningful connections to key others in life are more intense than the drive to physically survive.
The wired instincts for connection are perhaps better understood as behaviors that are driven by — and drive — the firing and wiring of certain emotion-command neural patterns connected to do more in life than merely survive, and rather to thrive — to matter in relation to self because we matter in relation to a certain other, or visa versa. That’s the connection.
The firing of these neural patterns more specifically means certain chemicals are released that directly shape what comes next!
And, when it comes to the mating dance of romance, however, the emotion-drives to secure a meaningful, enduring connection to a special mate seem to operate at higher levels of intensity!
According to the science of romance, no drug is as potent as what is released in the dance of couple relationships. The amount and mix of chemicals released in the bloodstream by the intensity of our yearnings, fantasies — and especially the illusions — are enough to drive otherwise “normal” people to do not-so-normal and quite nutty things.
In The Science of Romance: Why We Love, Jeffrey Kluger notes that three areas of the brain operate together to make love a potentially addictive, intoxicating habit. These hormones explain:
Why it feels so incomparably good with a potential partner.
Why it feels so real, as if we’ve finally found the right person, the true-love or soul mate we seek.
Why we feel so connected one moment, day, week, etc., then wonder what we were thinking the next.
The reason people can feel so “anything” when under the influence of alcohol, drugs — or love — and then wonder what they were thinking when they sober up has to do with the impact of these chemicals on their emotional states of body and mind.
In a nutshell, hormones were in charge, not the “real” thinking part of their brains (or the “real” sensory system of their body for that matter).
1. The dopamine area.
The first area of the brain, known as the ventral segmental, is the one that produces the reward hormone dopamine. This hormone regulates goal-oriented behavior by stimulating cravings, the anticipation of pleasure and behaviors motivated with unstoppable momentum, in effect, producing a steady flow of pleasure in the direction of reaching ‘the goal.’ The overarching goal is to attain whatever is defined as desirable to the person, which can be something big, like getting your degree or married, or something small, like proving you’re right or the other is wrong. In studies of couples in the early stage of their relationship, Fisher and colleagues conducted fMRI brain scans of partners in couple relationships and found the areas of the brain that produce dopamine are working particularly fast and furious for each partner in the early stage of a relationship. Notably, once goal is reached, so does the release of dopamine.
(The moral of the story? We need to set a second goal that supports the first, such as getting a higher degree or job [or building a vibrant, enduring relationship] prior to achieving first goal! If your main goal after getting a degree is relaxing on the beach and taking it is easy for an extended period [or thinking “the attraction” will be there forever without conscious, wise efforts on the part of both persons], this will not work, and is simply a set up for a let down!).
2. The oxytocin area.
The second area of the brain that makes love feel good is the one associated with the release of oxytocin, the love and safety hormone. The formation of an ingrained habit takes more than intoxicating supplies of dopamine. Oxytocin is the substance that forms the fibers of emotional connection between two people. Newborns and their mothers are flooded with this hormone, and so are live-in fathers to the extent they are involved. This hormone is so powerful it can instantly make two people feel a shared connection of operating as one-against-the-world, willing to be vulnerable to share heart and soul openly and freely give and receive, courageously break barriers of fear, feeling safe enough to to things they never thought they would or could experience. Studies the effects of oxytocin injections on human behavior have found it may promote fidelity of men in monogamous relationships, more engaged fathers and, among others, increases in trust, empathy and reciprocity in relationships. Why artificially inject when the body is magnificently designed to produce and release oxytocin in the bloodstream when we engage in caring behaviors, such as hugging, touch, affection, deep breathing, and so on.
3. The serotonin area.
The last area of the brain makes love feel real and permanent is the area known as the caudate nuclei that regulates the quick formation of patterns and habits from behaviors that are reinforced, repeated. As they feel familiar, thus reliable, they are not easy to let go of and stop. This is the area in which the most mundane skills such as learning to ride a bike or drive our car are imprinted, never to be forgotten even after years of not engaging the behavior.
Decades of cross-cultural research reveals that, throughout the world, people of all faiths and cultures love passionately and do crazy things in the couples dance. The false hopes and expectations can be misleading. In the words of Kluger, “Any overwhelming emotional experience that ratchets up your sensory system can distort your perceptions, persuading you to take a chance on someone you should avoid.”
It’s also helpful to know that the typical relationship cannot maintain the same level of intensity at the start without serious damage. In other words, the waning of that passion doesn’t mean you’ve chosen the wrong mate. As Kluger says, “if partners are going to stay together for the years of care that children require, they need a love that bonds them to each other but without the passion that would be a distraction.” Therefore it’s necessary for committed couples to move from passion to “compassionate bonding,” a higher kind of love.
Kluger and his romance experts reassure couples that they’re doing just fine in their committed relationships, that even if they get distracted here and there by the release of chemicals in their brains, that by staying true to their vows, they are utilizing the more evolved or sophisticated part of the human brain.
Nearly all relationships must settle and cool, that’s a hard truth, but it’s a good thing, one that makes us feel secure, comfortable in more life sustaining ways. The human drive for love and meaningful connection – to matter in life – is arguably more intense than the drive to survive, and, in the couple relationship, it takes unique turns and twists. The intensity and obsessive quality of both sexes cannot be mostly about the meeting of a sperm and an egg. There are deeper issues at stake.