First, A Primer
There are a few key terms when discussing love, relationships and science that you'll want to familiarize yourself with prior to us moving forward. Dopamine, serotonin and oxytocin fall into the most important category, as they're referenced often. In a nutshell, all three are neurotransmitters - chemical messengers that transmit information between the body's cells. Dopamine has a hand in the body's processing of one's focus, movement, pleasure and hormones, while oxytocin is better known as the "cuddle hormone", as it is released during physical contact in both genders. Serotonin hides in the digestive tract and brain, helping with digestion, mood, sleep, appetite and memory. Another term to know is phenylethylamine (PEA), which is found in foods like chocolate, and accounts for the feelings one gets during the initial stages of falling in love.
Falling in Love is Like Using Drugs
If you've read any sort of women's magazine or psychology journal, you've likely heard this tale before: falling in love lights up the same brain pathways as cocaine use. According to professionals like Dr. Helen Fisher, the scientist behind Chemistry.com and a handful of journal articles and books on the subject of love and the brain, dopamine is released when we fall in love, helping along those feelings of excitement and nervousness. A decrease in dopamine production when a relationship ends therefore, can also be likened to kicking a drug habit. To add to the confusing flux of emotions during these initial states, serotonin is often low during this time, which is also found in people suffering from obsessive compulsive disorders. Sound familiar?
Long Term Love vs. Falling in Love
There's a significant difference between the rush of falling in love and the long term love one feels for a romantic partner after many years together. They feel different, they serve different purposes, and our brains also react differently in turn. Just like doing drugs non-stop is detrimental to your health, so are those falling-in-love neurotransmitters, which can wreak havoc on all parts of your daily functioning. This is also why, in my opinion, many dating relationships fail to make it past the initial love phase; we get addicted to the "high" of love, love has to fade after a few months to maybe 18 months (depending on what researcher you ask) because our bodies need a break, and what's left still feels wonderful, yet very different and more subdued.
Staying in love during this process is, again in my opinion, one of the hardest phases of the dating trajectory to manage and understand. This is where the reality of your partner hits home, and where you say things to yourself like, "How did I miss that about him/her?" and, "Do I really want to put up with that for the rest of my life?" The rose-colored glasses come off as dopamine decreases, we're left with whatever feel-good oxytocin lingers (depending on how much was shared between the couple prior to this state). So, what's a couple to do?
Bring in the Prairie Voles
Neuroendocrinologist Sue Carter at the University of Illinois wanted to find out exactly what oxytocin offered long-term, monogamous couples, so she went in search of the prairie vole, one of the five percent of all mammals that mate for life. Scientists have known for a while that oxytocin is released during physical contact, breastfeeding and night sleeping with young children, all for the purpose of cementing relationships emotionally. In a nutshell, Carter discovered that if she injected the voles with oxytocin, the pair-bonds formed more quickly than normal, and when she blocked oxytocin, the voles failed to form pair-bonds at all.
How Can I Apply This To My Love Life?
Studies with regards to love and relationships are a touch tricky in the scientific world, especially when it comes to oxytocin and long term romantic relationships. As Carter shared in an interview with Discover Magazine, "Well, do you want to be in the study? I mean, this is powerful stuff. It's extremely powerful and important to human behavior. Suppose you agree to participate in a love study, and I pick out a random partner for you? They do that on TV, but you can't do it in universities."
For some ideas on how to enhance your romantic bond, including research-fueled suggestions from the likes of Dr. John Gottman, let's move on to the next article in this series: Making Love Last.
- Carter, C. S. (1992) "Oxytocin and Sexual Behavior." Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews 16: 131-144.
- Fisher, H. (2000). “Lust, Attraction, Attachment: Biology and Evolution of the Three Primary Emotion Systems for Mating, Reproduction, and Parenting.” Journal of Sex Education and Therapy, 25, 96-104.
- John Gottman and Nan Silver, “What Makes Love Last?” (Simon & Schuster, 2012).
- Johnson, Steven. (March 1, 2003). "Emotions and the Brain: Love". Discover.