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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.

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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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This article was sponsored by The Kroger Co. Thank you for supporting the brands that support Motherly and mamas.

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