As we approach Valentine’s Day yet again, a successful day for Hallmark and a very dubious one for the rest of us, it’s useful to understand this set of sensations that we are calling love.
When we first meet and are attracted to one another a series of neurochemical changes trigger in the brain. Attraction is driven by the hormones testosterone in men and estrogen in women. As that attraction deepens, you begin to obsess about your lover. You don’t want to eat or sleep and you fantasize about what you will do together and how exciting it will be. Three chemicals are responsible for these feelings, norepinephrine, dopamine,and serotonin.
Dopamine is about motivation and reward. It is also the chemical that makes you see your partner as unique. Norepinephrine creates that surge of energy and it suppresses appetite and even the need for sleep. It drives you to take action toward your lover. The serotonin level is lowered which contributes to the obsessiveness of these early stages.
You can’t maintain this heightened state forever and so the chemical progression continues. Assuming you have made it through these initial stages and haven’t starved to death or lost your job, the original hormones get replaced with oxytocin and vasopressin which complete the chemical mating dance by making you want to bond and cuddle and dream together.
While we would love to romanticize the progression of attraction into attachment, it really is chemical. In fact, it’s a chemistry that we love to experience and when it starts to wane we may say “I’m falling out of love”. We are unwittingly relying on our partners to provide the same chemical hit over and over again, and when they don’t, or more to the point, can’t provide the next “hit” we blame them or feel abandoned. We might even move on.
Understand this: Chemistry is critical to romance, but in truth, it only sets the table for real partnership. If we understand these stages, we can manage them toward the real goal. We seek partnership in order to create connection and meaning. Being aware of the chemistry of love can give us a huge advantage, as we use each stage to connect, to communicate and to forge real intimacy that endures beyond the chemistry.