By Jennifer Kelton
Following lust is the romantic love stage. Fisher explains that romantic love is “not an emotion. Rather it’s a motivation system. It’s a drive. It’s part of the reward system of the brain.”Dopamine and PEA levels begin to rise,increasing our excitement about the person we desire. “Sex elevates testosterone levels which then rev up the dopamine.” The reason we feel elated when we think of our new love, and on the flip side, depressed when they are not around, is the result of chemical spikes of dopamine and PEA in our brains.“ No wonder lovers can stay awake all night talking and caressing. No wonder they become so absentminded, so giddy, so optimistic, so gregarious, so full of life. Naturally occurring amphetamines have pooled in the emotional centers of their brains; they are high on speed.”
As a relationship progresses, dopamine levels begin to taper off, that I need to get my hands on your body this very second feeling becomes less intense, and romance moves into attachment, Fisher’s third stage of love. That’s where oxytocin and vasopressin take over, creating “the sense of calm, peace and stability one feels with a long-term partner.”
Oxytocin and vasopressin are known as the “cuddle chemicals.” Oxytocin is released during childbirth and aids lactation in women, but it is also emitted by both men and women during orgasm. Vasopressin, the male bonding chemical, is released through the kidneys. Both aid a long- term connection between romantic partners for the care and nurture of children. According to Psychology Today, “Warm and fuzzy though they make us feel, these hormones can’t match dopamine’s edgy high.”
Monogamy “Only about 3% of mammals are monogamous, mating and bonding with one partner for life…scientists tell us humans are not one of these naturally monogamous mammals.”20 Monogamy in humans is primarily a social construct. According to research, chemicals that keep the relationship exciting, like dopamine and PEA, only remain in the body for three to five years of a relationship,“long enough to procreate and then protect the child during early years of life.”
So what hope do we have of achieving a lasting, loving relationship? Dr. Fisher reassures us that in her studies, “This yearning for emotional togetherness far surpasses the desire for mere sexual release.” But how long it will last is conjecture. Dr. Fisher goes on to say, “It seems to be the destiny of humankind that we are neurologically able to love more than one person at a time.You can feel profound attachment for a long-term spouse, while you feel romantic passion for someone in the office or your social circle, while you feel the sex drive as you read a book, watch a movie, or do something else unrelated to either partner. You can even swing from one feeling to another.”
Many theories exist as to why long-term loving relationships work, despite our seeming chemical disadvantage. The psychiatric community is divided as to whether these powerful chemicals are triggered by emotion or our emotions trigger the chemicals. Humans, unlike most animals, have the ability to consciously override the neurological and chemically enhanced dance in our heads. That is why we can end a relationship with someone we are “in love” with, or begin one with someone who is completely wrong for us. We also have powers of reason and decision making that can let us choose a life direction that is right for us. Psychologist Robert Sternberg “divides love into three basic ingredients: passion, intimacy and decision/commitment.” Our ability to decide what path to take allows us the possibility of a lifetime connection with another person. I believe we all have the desire for a lasting relationship built into our makeup. Mother Nature plays her part and we play ours. “Nature isn’t tidy; she likes options,” Dr. Fisher adds, “and there is no definite relationship between neurotransmitters of romance and the hormones of attachment. As should be said of all these chemical interactions: it depends.”
Why We Love Love Everywhere you turn, love is held up as the ideal of emotional expression. Whether it’s a play about the joy of discovering a new romantic partner or a country song mourning the loss of love gone bad, there is nothing so perfect, so painful as love. There is something deep within us that makes us crave that ultimate connection, and we will do all within our power to make it last.
Building families and ensuring the continuation of the genetic line may be the inherent goal of coupling, but the promise of love’s highs keeps us motivated to find a partner with whom we connect, despite the lows we know can be just around the corner.The desire for love is as much a part of our inherited makeup as the color of our eyes. It’s traceable through history in our art, poetry and the stories passed down through the generations. From the beginning of time, we have searched for love, and we will continue to do so.
“Westerners adore love.We symbolize it, study it, worship it, idealize it, applaud it, fear it, envy it, live for it, and die for it. Love is many things to many people. But love is common to all people everywhere and associated with tiny molecules that reside at the nerve endings in the emotional centers of the brain, then love is also primitive.” Nature provides us with the tools to start, develop and sustain loving, lasting and connected relationships. We just have to choose to surrender and make the leap.