Without knowing why this was happening, I recognized, early on, consistent patterns of behavior in relationships that started out romantically. I also recognized these patterns in my previous relationships.
This puzzled me.
In my teen years, I listened to a pensive song by the Carpenters, Love Me For What I AM. It made a huge impression on my young psyche, and prompted many questions.
We fell in love
On the first night that we met
Together we’ve been happy
I have very few regretsThe ordinary problems
Have not been hard to face
But lately little changes
Have been slowly taking place
It wasn’t until around 2007 that I gained a better understanding, and this knowledge has played a significant role in making me aware of the importance of getting to know a person, very well, before pursuing romance. This is especially important when considering the possibility of a long-term relationship, and all that that can entail.
Romantic love has been one of the most studied, yet least understood behavior, until recently. Over two decades ago, Helen Fisher, who is a biological anthropologist, studied 166 societies. In 147 of them, she found evidence of romantic love, the kind that can leave you overwhelmingly preoccupied with the other person, and hypnotically euphoric.
Fisher also led a research team in 2005, publishing a groundbreaking study that included the first functional MRI (fMRI) images of the brains of individuals in the throes of romantic love. Her team analyzed 2,500 brain scans.
“Photos of people they romantically loved caused the participants’ brains to become active in regions rich with dopamine, the so-called feel-good neurotransmitter. Two of the brain regions that showed activity in the fMRI scans were the caudate nucleus, a region associated with reward detection and expectation and the integration of sensory experiences into social behavior, and the ventral tegmental area, which is associated with pleasure, focused attention, and the motivation to pursue and acquire rewards.”
I’ve read comments from people who say that understanding love through the lens of science devalues its beauty, and seems mechanical. I disagree. What is beautiful about waking up next to your partner, after months, or perhaps a year or two of orgasmic bliss, and realize you really don’t have much in common. What’s beautiful about breaking up or divorce?
When the honeymoon period ends, it’s not uncommon to get annoyed by habits your partner has — habits you never paid attention to before — or if you did notice, you simply overlooked them. It’s not uncommon to start seeing flaws in another, that matter to you now, when it didn’t matter at the beginning of the romance.
What happened? What changed?
Romantic love is kept alive by something basic to our biological nature.
The Brain On Love
Harvard Medical School professors and couples therapists, Richard Schwartz and Jacqueline Olds, study how love evolves, and why it so often collapses.
“When we are falling in love, chemicals associated with the reward circuit flood our brain, producing a variety of physical and emotional responses—racing hearts, sweaty palms, flushed cheeks, feelings of passion and anxiety. Levels of the stress hormone cortisol increase during the initial phase of romantic love, marshaling our bodies to cope with the “crisis” at hand. As cortisol levels rise, levels of the neurotransmitter serotonin become depleted. Low levels of serotonin precipitate what Schwartz described as the “intrusive, maddeningly preoccupying thoughts, hopes, terrors of early love”—the obsessive-compulsive behaviors associated with infatuation.”
“Being love-struck also releases high levels of dopamine, a chemical that “gets the reward system going,” said Olds. Dopamine activates the reward circuit, helping to make love a pleasurable experience similar to the euphoria associated with use of cocaine or alcohol.
Scientific evidence for this similarity can be found in many studies, including one conducted at the University of California, San Francisco, and published in 2012 in Science. That study reported that male fruit flies that were sexually rejected drank four times as much alcohol as fruit flies that mated with female fruit flies. “Same reward center,” said Schwartz, “different way to get there.”
Is it wise to put the cart before the horse?
When potential partners take the time to really get to know one another, there’s a good chance that nature won’t dupe them into believing they are compatible when they are not. Nature is sneaky like that. As noted above, romantic love is a highly rewarding experience and is linked to the perpetuation of the species.
Romance also activates regions in the brain’s reward system that coincide with areas rich in oxytocin and vasopressin receptors.
“In addition to the positive feelings romance brings, love also deactivates the neural pathway responsible for negative emotions, such as fear and social judgment.
When we are engaged in romantic love, the neural machinery responsible for making critical assessments of other people, including assessments of those with whom we are romantically involved, shuts down.
“That’s the neural basis for the ancient wisdom ‘love is blind’, said Schwartz.”
Such knowledge can help prevent confusion, blame, misunderstanding and heartache. It can create relationship harmony. Having awareness about our neurobiology is empowering. That is something worth sharing.
“The power of getting to know one another is so immense, eclipsed only by first getting to know ourselves.” ― Bryant McGill,