We are all hardwired to fall in love, share lustful moments, and bond with others. In fact, there are complex neurochemicals that are released during all of these different phases of relationship development. In this 2-part blog series, I will share important information with you about the neurochemistry of falling in love, how falling in love influences lust, how lust influences falling in love, and how all of this leads to attachment bonding in relationships!
Passionate Love, Lust, and Attachment: The Neurochemistry of Romantic Passionate Love (Blog 1 of 2)
Have you ever found yourself tightly gripping and constantly checking your cellphone awaiting contact from your new love interest? If so, you may be in the phase of the universal experience of adult romantic passionate love. Across history and cultures, we have fallen in love, lusted for others, and attached to them as a result of innate emotion-motivation systems in the brain that drive us to create relationships. In her book Why We Love: The Nature and Chemistry of Romantic Love, Helen Fisher (2004) describes the adult romantic passionate love phase as an initial phase in the formation of an adult attachment bond. Read on to find out how the neurotransmitters in our brain – dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin – are implicated in you falling in love.
First, Fisher described the universal experience of romantic love based on her research. When falling in love, our new partner is imbued with special meaning (i.e., unique, all-important, novel). We also develop strong focus as our beloved becomes the centre of our attention and we pay special notice of our shared events, messages, music, etc. During this period, we also aggrandize our new love. We may magnify positive aspects of our adored one while minimizing flaws and exaggerating our similarities. We experience intrusive thoughts as we just cannot stop thinking about our new loved one. Emotionally, Fisher describes us as being “on fire.” We experience intense emotions and find ourselves feeling anxious, shy, and awkward at times. We have an increase in energy as well. All of a sudden we find ourselves staying up late, having sex all night, and still making it to work … then doing it all over again the next day. This energy burst also comes with a loss of appetite and sleeplessness. Driven by a deep stirring to connect, our moods can shift rapidly from ecstasy to despair depending on whether our beloved is as responsive to us as we would like. We also become hypersensitive looking for clues about whether our beloved is into us or not! Finally, Fisher noted that when we are infatuated, we are more likely to change elements of our personal identity like clothing and music preferences, alter our mannerisms and habits, and even take on new values, all to win over our new love interest.
Once you fall in love, it is hard to turn back, as a result of the numerous neurotransmitters at play. Fisher’s research using fMRI studies found that dopamine, serotonin, and norepinephrine are the neurotransmitters at the root of passion for our new love. She found elevated levels of dopamine, which is at the root of the hyper focus, high motivation, high energy, and exhilaration, sleeplessness, and loss of appetite. She claims that this neurotransmitter, when heightened during romantic passionate love, creates something within us similar to an addiction process, intense dependency, and cravings to be with our lover. High levels of dopamine are also found in fMRI studies of individuals experiencing a drug addiction. Love becomes so addictive at this point that when you do not have access to your new loved one, more dopamine is released to energize you to focus on further pursuing the reward of being with them. Testosterone, the hormone at the root of sexual desire, is also increased in our bodies as a result of the higher levels of dopamine. In other words, increases in dopamine come with novelty and passionate love, which then increases sexual desire through a heightening of testosterone.
Finally, the neurotransmitters norepinephrine and serotonin are also implicated in romantic passionate love. Increased norepinephrine adds to the high, exhilaration, energy, and sleeplessness we experience, and fuels us to remember the smallest details about our lover. Serotonin is lowered, which results in the obsessiveness and racing thoughts we experience. With increases in dopamine and norepinephrine, and decreases in serotonin, we enter into positive states of mind about the other and obscure negative aspects of the beloved. We are neurochemically primed through these transmitters to also experience a sense of oneness based on exaggeration of similarities and minimization of difference. These effects facilitate a sense of symbiosis, which eventually wanes after about 8 to 12 months when the tidal wave of neurochemicals subsides. At this point, we begin to realize our differences with our beloved, which can then bring on more conflict for some couples. Fisher’s conclusion based on fMRI studies was that adult romantic passionate love is a primary motivation system in the brain and stems from the changes in neurotransmitters summarized in this blog post.
Fisher’s research studies explain why in the early stages of a relationship, particularly during the adult romantic passionate love phase, many partners will describe having had “tons of great sex” and then later wonder “where did it go?!” For those of you who wondered, this chemically heightened period that revs your sexual motor only lasts for about one year. After this period, sex within the context of an attachment bond becomes motivated by different goals. See my other blogs on attachment and sex, including Part 2 of this blog series, to see what happens to couple sexuality once couples move from romantic passionate love to a more stable long-term bond.
Clinicians at CFIR work to support clients to develop passionate relationships and secure attachment bonds. We recognize that novelty and a connection are important contributors to a lifetime of passion. We also support our clients to recognize that falling in love might be a different experience from the process of establishing a secure attachment bond with a partner. Once the adult romantic passionate love phase ends, usually within one year, the dust settles and our self and relationship experience can shift. Learn how to recognize the telltale signs of whether you have found Mr./Ms. Right in a future blog post titled “Is This Mr./Ms. Right or Wrong?: Consider This Dating and Relationship Screener Before You Say ‘I Do’
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,