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Passionate Love, Lust, and Attachment: The Neurochemistry of Falling in Love, Bonding, and Staying Lustful! (Pt.2)

Does love lead to lust? Can lust lead to love? And how does all of this somehow end up in our developing an attachment bond with someone else? This is Part 2 of my blog series on adult romantic passionate love, lust, and the formation of attachment bonds in couples.

Passionate Love, Lust, and Attachment: The Neurochemical Relationship Between Romantic Passionate Love, Sex, and Attachment (Blog 2 of 2)

In the early days of passionate love, sexual desire is increased due to increasing levels of dopamine and testosterone. This increased sexual activity may then also be implicated in the development of our attachment bonds. Should you worry that, despite your efforts at restraint, your repeated lustful nights with a new love interest might turn into passionate love and attachment? Can falling in love lead to lust, or can lust lead to love and bonding?

Both women and men have sexual cravings fueled by testosterone. Higher testosterone levels create greater lustful possibilities and motivate us to seek out others for sexual play. Sexual desire is recognized as different than adult passionate romantic love in different cultures and it has been shown to light up different regions of the brain in fMRI studies. In my previous related blog post titled “Passionate Love, Lust, and Attachment: The Neurochemistry of Romantic Passionate Love,” I referred to Fisher’s (2004) work linking higher levels of dopamine with romantic passionate love and how these higher dopamine levels increase the release of testosterone, the hormone of sexual desire. As a result of the romantic novelty, a new partner automatically drives up our testosterone levels because of the related increase in dopamine levels. However, Fisher notes that the reverse may also be true: sexual activity raises testosterone, which also increases dopamine and norepinephrine in our brains, which means you could end up creating a more stable attachment bond and falling in love with a casual sexual partner.

Eventually, romantic passionate love moves into the attachment phase of love. For some couples, this will mean the chemically-induced romantic passionate phase with its more energetic and exciting versions of their sex lives will begin to wane as the comfort, calm, and relaxation of attachment security sets in. With the ensuing shift in neurochemicals, the exaggeration of similarities and the obscuring of differences between partners will also wane and the realization that differences exist may become a source of conflict and diminished connectedness. For some partners, a feeling of sameness and oneness was an important driver of their passion in the first place. For others, these newfound differences will not threaten each partner and can instead become a place of intrigue, curiosity, and new learning. At this stage, secure attachment might provide couples with the best possibilities for navigating the recognition of self-related differences as partners feel enough safety and trust in the relationship to tolerate and explore the difference.

Once the attachment phase of the relationship settles in, Esther Perel (2006), author of Mating in Captivity, notes that couples can struggle to reclaim the passion of these earlier days as it is difficult to reconcile the safety and security of long-term attachment with the excitement of eroticism. For Perel, the erotic is the exotic, meaning desire requires risk-taking, novelty, and space, which can certainly oppose the safety and security focus of the attachment phase of the relationship. Some partners who are securely attached continue to keep a healthy level of desire in their sexual relationships because secure attachment allows them to take sexual risks and create sexual novelty without the fear of rejection. The securely attached are, therefore, able to continue to explore the sexual, erotic, and novel, within the context of a safe, secure, and nurturing relationship (Zuccarini, 2004; 2008; Johnson & Zuccarini, 2010; 2012).

Further neurochemical action tethers together passion, sex, and attachment. Oxytocin is the attachment-related neuropeptide that may be physiologically implicated in the process of moving us from passionate love and lust to an attachment bond with our beloved. For instance, oxytocin increases dramatically during sexual arousal and orgasm, as well as in pair-bonding (Hazan & Zeifman, 1999). What this means is that, while we are lustful, we also benefit from the attachment neuropeptide, which results in a sense of calm, safety, security, and relaxation. We are then motivated to seek out the pleasure of sex and the ensuing sense of calm and relaxation caused by oxytocin. Over time, sexuality becomes a space that can deepen our attachment to another as a result of the release of oxytocin involved in our sexual interactions. In this way, we are tethered together through passion, sex, and attachment in a neurochemical manner!

Clinicians at CFIR work to support clients to develop passionate relationships within the context of secure attachment bonds. The more securely attached you are with your loved one, the more you can take risks to share your passions, fantasies, and explore the erotic without fear of judgement, rejection, and abandonment. At CFIR we recognize that sexual desire that includes novelty and risk-taking can solidify secure attachment, while at the same time understanding that secure attachment can facilitate the risk-taking and novelty required for a relationship of romantic passionate love.

Dr. Dino Zuccarini, C.Psych. is CEO and co-founder of the CFIR. He has published book chapters and peer-reviewed journal articles on the subject of attachment, attachment injuries in couples, and attachment and sexuality. He has taught courses at the University of Ottawa in Interpersonal Relationships, Family Psychology, and Human Sexual Behaviour. He has a thriving clinical practice in which he treats individuals suffering from complex attachment-related trauma, difficult family of origin issues that have affected self and relationship development, depression and anxiety, personality disorders, sex and sexuality-related issues, and couple relationships. At CFIR, he also supports the professional development of counsellors, psychotherapists, and supervised practice psychologists by providing clinical supervision.