The scientific journey from attraction to attachment and lasting love

Falling and being in love are two different things.

The scientific journey from attraction to attachment and lasting love

Valentine's Day is this week, and instead of anticipating a day of surprises and delight, we may find ourselves too tired or busy to make room for the celebration of our love that every media outlet says we should enjoy. Up to our eyeballs in kids, toys, tasks and poop, we might look at our partner and wonder just how we got here, those days of giddy longing seemingly eons behind us.


It may be hard to believe now, but those days are not gone forever.

Through the journey of love, we can reignite passion and desire along the way with a little understanding, focus and effort—and we can remain as madly in love as empty nesters as we were in the days before we became parents.

Love is what keeps us together

Love is nature's amazing way of keeping us interested in our partner long after the baby is made. According to Dr. Richard Schwartz, a Harvard Medical School associate professor of psychiatry at McLean Hospital in Belmont, Mass., “There's good reason to suspect that romantic love is kept alive by something basic to our biological nature."

Love involves a very complex and integrated dance between stimuli and its effects on our body and brain. There's a veritable soup of chemicals and hormones swishing around inside of us that sends information back and forth between our glands and organs, and that control, to a degree, how we feel and act.

But falling and being in love are two different things.

According to Helen Fisher of Rutgers University, there are three distinct stages of love which are driven by the hormones and chemicals that play a role in how we feel in love, as we progress through our relationship—desire and attraction give way to the attachment that ensures the best outcome for our offspring, and over the course of time, these phases of love change our brain and body for the better.

Desire

Whether it was love at first sight or a friendship that took a turn toward the romantic with that first whiff of smokey desire, lust probably had a hand in sparking the relationship we now enjoy.

Lust can be defined as our need to reproduce, as manifested in the desire for sexual gratification. In our brain, the hypothalamus plays a significant role in this, stimulating the production of the sex hormones testosterone and estrogen from the testes and ovaries, respectively.

Though characterized as the male hormone, testosterone increases libido in both men and women. And women enjoy an extra boost of sexy with a spike in sexual desire around the time of ovulation when estrogen levels are highest. Estrogen can increase confidence in appearance “by prompting subtle shifts in soft tissue that make…facial features slightly more symmetrical," says Gabrielle Lichterman, speaker and author of 28 Days: What Your Cycle Reveals about Your Love Life, Moods and Potential.

Attraction

Attraction involves the brain pathways that control “reward" behavior, which partly explains why the first few weeks or months of a relationship can be so exhilarating and all-consuming.

Remember the first time you laid eyes on your partner? Or those early days when all you could do was think about him or her, to the exclusion of all other things reasonable and necessary?

Well, we are not singular in this incapacitation, as studies have shown that early, hot love is associated with intense changes in emotion and attention, as well as reduced cognitive control that results in impaired ability to perform daily tasks, like study and work.

We crave them like an addict

When we fall in love, chemicals associated with the reward circuit flood our brain, producing a variety of physical and emotional responses—fluttery hearts, rosy cheeks, sweaty palms and moments of euphoria, passion and anxiety. Love triggers our glands and organs to surge the hormones into our bloodstream that are responsible for these intense feelings.

Research has shown that falling in love activates the same system in the brain and triggers the same sensation of euphoria experienced by people when they take cocaine. Other researchers from Syracuse University reveal in an article in the Journal of Sexual Medicine, called “The Neuroimaging of Love," that several euphoria-inducing chemicals, like adrenaline, dopamine, and serotonin, are released in the brain, activating the brain's opioid system in the same way heroin and opioid painkillers do.

The adrenaline released in the initial stages of falling for someone activates our stress response, increasing our blood levels of cortisol. This is why when we run into our crush or new beau, we start to sweat, our heart races and our mouth goes dry.

High levels of dopamine are released during attraction, and newly in love couples often show signs of surging dopamine—increased energy, less need for sleep or food, focused attention and immense delight in all the details of the new relationship.

Dopamine, produced by the hypothalamus, is a neurotransmitter that helps control our brain's reward and pleasure centers. It helps regulate emotional responses and enables us not only to see rewards, but to take action to move toward them. It's released when we do things that feel good to us, like spending time with our beloved and having sex.

Most types of rewards increase the level of dopamine in the brain, and many addictive drugs also increase dopamine neuronal activity.

“Romantic love is one of the most addictive substances on Earth… My guess is that our modern addictions—nicotine, drugs, sex, gambling—are simply hijacking this ancient brain pathway that evolved millions of years ago, that evolved for romantic love," says Dr. Helen Fisher, anthropologist and author of Why We Love.

Research supports that when we are newly in love, we have a lot more cortisol in our bloodstream, which helps our bodies cope with the “crisis" of love, but depletes the neurotransmitter serotonin, a hormone that's known to be involved in appetite and mood.

This can bring on the “intrusive, maddeningly preoccupying thoughts, hopes, terrors of early love," as described by Schwartz. Other studies have also associated the effects of attraction with the low serotonin levels that also occur in obsessive-compulsive disorder, helping to explain the cravings, obsessive thoughts and desire to spend every moment with your partner.

In an Italian study, it was demonstrated that attraction could change the way we think. Dr. Donatella Marazziti, a psychiatrist at the University of Pisa, studied 20 couples who'd been madly in love for less than six months “to see if the brain mechanisms that cause us to think about our lover constantly are related to the brain mechanisms of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder." By analyzing blood samples from the 20 couples, Dr. Marazziti discovered that serotonin levels of new lovers were equivalent to the low serotonin levels of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) patients.

There's a reason why love is blind

When we are newly in love and extremely attracted to each other, we tend to idealize our relationship, finding perfection in each other. This is because the hormones involved in these feelings of love also deactivate the neural pathway responsible for negative emotions, like fear and social judgment, effectively shutting down our ability to critically assess our partner.

Psychologists think we need this foggy lens to help us want to stay together, so we can enter the next stage of love. First comes love, then comes...

Attachment

Attachment is the bond that keeps us together long enough for us to have and raise children. While lust and attraction are pretty much exclusive to early love, attachment is the main factor in long-term relationships, mediating friendships, parent-infant bonding, social bonds, and many other close relationships. The two primary hormones at work are oxytocin and vasopressin.

Like dopamine, oxytocin is produced by the hypothalamus and released in large quantities during sex, breastfeeding, and childbirth—the common factor being all of these events are precursors to bonding. Oxytocin is also known as the love, or “cuddle," hormone, and when released invokes feelings of contentment, calmness and security. Heightened by skin-to-skin contact, oxytocin is released by men and women during orgasm, establishing the theory that the more sex a couple has, the deeper their bond becomes.

Vasopressin is another important hormone in the long-term commitment stage of relationships and is released after sex directly into the brain from the hypothalamus—as a vasoconstrictor, it is responsible for the postcoital glow and has a significant role in the social behavior that produces long-term, monogamous relationships.

The differences in behavior associated with the effects of oxytocin and vasopressin can explain why passionate love fades as attachment grows.

Lasting love

When love lasts, “the wild ride of emotions mellows within years," says Schwartz. “The passion is still there, but the stress of it is gone," he adds. Cortisol and serotonin levels return to normal. Love, which began as a stressor (to our brains and bodies, at least), actually then becomes a buffer against stress.

Brain areas associated with reward and pleasure are still activated as loving relationships proceed, but the constant craving and desire that are inherent in romantic love often decrease. “Many theories of love," says Schwartz, “propose that there is an inevitable change over time from passionate love to what is typically called compassionate love—love that is deep but not as euphoric as that experienced during the early stages of romance."

This does not, however, mean that the spark of romance is no longer there for long-married couples.

Thinking of our partners can yield a greater sense of social connection to and care for them by activating our brain's empathy and emotion-processing centers, while also reducing activity in brain areas associated with self-focused thought. And research supports this theory in that the more we think of others first, the better we get at it, since our brains respond by growing more neurons in those areas that are associated with processing emotion.

So the more we love, the more empathetic and able to process emotions we become, changing our brain structure for better and for life.

A 2011 study conducted at Stony Brook University, New York, found that it is possible to be madly in love with someone after decades of marriage. Researchers found similar activity in specific brain regions among longtime, happily married couples, and among couples who had recently fallen in love.

The research team at Stonybrook performed MRI scans on couples who had been married an average of 21 years. They found the same intensity of activity in dopamine-rich areas of the brains as seen in the brains of couples who were newly in love. The study suggested that the excitement of romance can remain while the apprehension is lost.

The study also found that for those of us whose marriage seems to have transitioned from passionate, romantic love to a more compassionate, routine type of love, due to the daily grind and mental load, it appears that it is possible to rekindle the flame that burned so hot during our early days. All we need to do is have more sex.

Sexual intercourse can increase oxytocin levels and activate the brain's reward circuit, making couples desire each other more.

According to an article in Psychology Today, we experience intense romantic love when...

  • We crave union ?
  • We focus our attention on our beloved
  • We have increased energy with them
  • We are motivated to do things that make them happy
  • We are sexually attracted to them and think about them when we are apart

Although the days in this season of life may be long, the nights don't have to be. We can still conjure the heady high that accompanies a racing heart, sweaty palms and hot desire for that love object in front of us. And for the time being, this little hit of lust is the honey on our daily bread, fortifying us when things might get a little stale.

[A version of this article was originally published February 12, 2018.]

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    7 hacks for simplifying after-school snacks

    Prepping delicious and nutritious foods shouldn't take all day.

    When you're in the middle of the school year and managing a family, each minute of time becomes very precious. Sometimes that means healthy food choices in the household can take a backseat. But don't stress it, mama. Prepping delicious and nutritious choices for the kids to munch on doesn't need to take all day.

    Remember to keep it fun, simple and interactive! Here are tips for simplifying after-school snacks once and for all:

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    This simple trick can make the rest of the week a breeze. Tupperware is your friend here, you can even write different days of the week on each container to give the kids a little surprise every day. I really like storage with compartments for snack prep. Personally, I slice apples, carrots or cucumbers to pair with almond butter and hummus—all great to grab and go for when you're out all day and need some fresh variety.

    2. When in doubt, go for fruit

    Fruit is always a quick and easy option. I suggest blueberries, clementine oranges, apples, frozen grapes or even unsweetened apple sauce and dried fruit, like mixed fruit. It's fun to put together a fruit salad, too. Simply cut up all the fruit options and let the kids decide how they'd like to compile. Prepped fruit is also great to have on hand for smoothies, especially when it's been sitting in the fridge for a few days—throw it in the blender with some nut milk and voila.

    3. Pair snacks with a dip

    Hummus is a great dip to keep on hand with lots of versatility or you can grab a yogurt-based dip. Easy and healthy dippers include pre-sliced veggies, baby carrots and multigrain tortilla chips. Plain hummus is a great way to introduce seasonings and spices too—shake a little turmeric, add fresh basil and you'd be surprised what your kids will take to.

    4. Have high-protein options readily available

    Snacks with high protein, like cottage cheese, Greek yogurt, hard boiled eggs and jerky will fuel kids for hours. One of my favorites is a turkey stick, which is a fun addition to the hummus platter. Just slice into bite-sized pieces. I love cottage cheese because it can go savory or sweet, use as a dip with your prepped veggies, or drizzle pure maple syrup and sprinkle with berries.

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    Monthly deliveries keeps the pantry updated without a trip to grocery store. Many kids are big fans of popcorn, granola and pretzels. We like to DIY our own snack packs with a little popcorn, pretzels, nuts and whatever else is in the pantry so there's always something different!

    6. Make cracker tartines

    I love the idea of replicating popular restaurant dishes for kids. Here are some of my favorite snack-sized tartines using any crisp bread, or favorite flat cracker of your choice as the base. There are no rules and kids love adding toppings and finding new combinations they love.

    • Avocado crackers: Use a cracker and then layer with thinly sliced avocado, a dollop of fresh ricotta cheese topped with roasted pepitas or sunflower seeds.
    • Tacos: The base for this is a black bean spread—just drain a can of black beans, rinse and place into a wide bowl. With a fork or potato masher, lightly smush the beans until chunky. Spread onto your cracker and top with tomato, cheddar cheese and black olives. Try out a dollop of super mild salsa or some lime zest to introduce some new flavor profiles.
    • A play on PB&J: Smear peanut butter, almond or a favorite sun butter on the cracker. I like to get a mix it up a bit and put fresh fruit (strawberries, blueberries and tiny diced apples) and a little bit of dried fruit sprinkled on top.

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    15 toys that will keep your kids entertained inside *and* outside

    They transition seamlessly for indoor play.

    Keeping kids entertained is a battle for all seasons. When it's warm and sunny, the options seem endless. Get them outside and get them moving. When it's cold or rainy, it gets a little tricker.

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    From sunny backyard afternoons to rainy mornings stuck inside, these indoor outdoor toys are sure to keep little ones engaged and entertained.


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    Step2 Up and Down Rollercoaster

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    kidoozie-sand-and-splash-activity-table

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    Vintage scooter balance bike

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    Foam pogo stick

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    Baby forest fox ride-on

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    Even 5 hours of screen time per day is OK for school-aged kids, says new study

    Researchers found screen time contributes to stronger peer relationships and had no effect on depression and anxiety. So maybe it isn't as bad as we thought?

    MoMo Productions/Getty Images

    If you've internalized some parental guilt about your own child's screen time usage, you're not alone. Numerous studies have shown that exposure to significant amounts of screen time in children leads to an increased risk of depression and behavioral issues, poor sleep and obesity, among other outcomes. Knowing all this can mean you're swallowing a big gulp of guilt every time you unlock the iPad or turn on the TV for your kiddo.

    But is screen time really that bad? New research says maybe not. A study published in September 2021 of 12,000 9- and 10-year-olds found that even when school-aged kids spend up to 5 hours per day on screens (watching TV, texting or playing video games), it doesn't appear to be that harmful to their mental health.

    Researchers found no association between screen usage and depression or anxiety in children at this age.

    In fact, kids who had more access to screen time tended to have more friends and stronger peer relationships, most likely thanks to the social nature of video gaming, social media and texting.


    The correlations between screen time and children's health

    But those big social benefits come with a caveat. The researchers also noted that kids who used screens more frequently were in fact more likely to have attention problems, impacted sleep, poorer academic performance and were more likely to show aggressive behavior.

    Without a randomized controlled trial, it's hard to nail down these effects as being caused directly by screens. The study's authors analyzed data from a nationwide study known as the Adolescent Brain Cognitive Development Study (ABCD Study), the largest long-term study of brain development and children's health in the country. They relied on self-reported levels of screen time from both children and adults (it's funny to note that those reported numbers differed slightly depending on who was asked… ).

    It's important to remember that these outcomes are just correlations—not causations. "We can't say screen time causes the symptoms; instead, maybe more aggressive children are given screen devices as an attempt to distract them and calm their behavior," says Katie Paulich, lead author of the study and a PhD student in the Department of Psychology and Neuroscience. Also worth noting is that a child's socioeconomic status has a 2.5-times-bigger impact on behavior than screens.

    Weighing the benefits with the risks will be up to you as the parent, who knows your child best. And because we live in a digital world, screens are here to stay, meaning parents often have little choice in the matter. It's impossible to say whether recreational screen time is fully "good" or "bad" for kids. It's maybe both.

    "When looking at the strength of the correlations, we see only very modest associations," says Paulich. "That is, any association between screen time and the various outcomes, whether good or bad, is so small it's unlikely to be important at a clinical level." It's all just part of the overall picture.

    A novel look at screen time in adolescents

    The researchers cite a lack of studies examining the relationship between screen time and health outcomes in this specific early-adolescence age group, which is one of the reasons why this study is so groundbreaking. The findings don't apply to younger children—or older adolescents, who may be starting to go through puberty.

    Screen time guidelines do exist for toddlers up to older kids, but up to 1.5 hours per day seems unattainable for many young adolescents, who often have their own smartphones and laptops, or at least regular access to one.

    Of course, more research is needed, but that's where this study can be helpful. The ABCD study will follow the 12,000 participants for another 10 years, following up with annual check-ins. It'll be interesting to see how the findings change over time: Will depression and anxiety as a result of screen time be more prevalent as kids age? We'll have to wait and see.

    The bottom line? Parents should still be the gatekeepers of their child's screen time in terms of access and age-appropriateness, but, "our early research suggests lengthy time on screen is not likely to yield dire consequences," says Paulich.

    Children's health

    Mom and gorilla bond over their babies at the zoo: ‘It was so beautiful’

    The new mothers shared a special moment at a Boston zoo.

    Franklin Park Zoo/YouTube

    Motherhood knows no bounds.

    When Kiki the gorilla spotted a new mom and baby visiting her habitat at the Franklin Park Zoo in Boston, she immediately took a liking to the pair. Emmelina Austin held her five-week-old son Canyon to the glass so Kiki could get a better look.

    The gorilla spent nearly five minutes happily pointing and staring at baby Canyon.


    Emmelina's husband captured the sweet moment on his phone, in a video that's now gone viral.

    Mother shares unique maternal bond with gorilla (FULL VIDEO) www.youtube.com

    Why was Kiki so interested in her tiny visitor? Possibly because Kiki's a new mom herself. Her fifth baby, Pablo, was born in October.

    Near the end of the video, Kiki scooped up Pablo and held him close. The new moms held their baby boys to the glass and shared a special moment together: just a couple of mothers, showing off their little ones.

    "When I walked into the zoo that day, I never could've imagined that we would have had that experience," Austin told ABC News. "It was so beautiful, and we walked out just over the moon."

    We can't get enough of the sweet exchange. There's something special about sharing your little one with the world. Mothers of all ages, races–and it turns out, species–understand.

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