Your Brain on Love

As far as the brain is concerned, the first throws of love are no different than the high that comes from heroin. In fact, when we fall for someone our brain goes into overdrive producing adrenaline, dopamine, serotonin and oxytocin, powerful naturally occurring brain chemicals that put us in an altered state.

Dopamine creates a sense of euphoria and invincibility, and dulls pain. Adrenaline makes our heart pound when the beloved is near; while oxytocin (also known as the “cuddle drug”) bonds us with the one we love and makes us crave their touch, their smell and being near them. When we have sex, oxytocin floods the brain creating a deeper bond. Serotonin just fills us full of joy at everything about our new love.

During the first months of a love relationship the brain and body are washed in this delicious cocktail. It is the height of passion, the inspiration for love songs and poetry. It is one of the most awesome powers on earth. But, it also has its dark side. There are two significant dangers when we are in this state.

The first problem occurs when dopamine is at its most dominant in the first six to twelve months of a love relationship. At this time, we ignore, or more likely don’t even see our beloved faults. Red flag behaviors are often accepted and forgiven. Dopamine makes us blind.

The other major drawback to the dopamine rush is that some of us become addicted to it. We have all known people who just can’t seem to sustain a relationship past the two-three year mark, the time when the chemical balance in the in-love brain often shifts from dopamine dominate to ocytocin dominate. Or, if they are able to hang on in the relationship, they may tell themselves they’ve fallen out of love and begin to blame their partner, head to counseling, or try to reclaim those ecstatic feelings in affairs.

What these folks don’t know is that the transition from crazy in love to a more subdued but substantial love is the natural way of things. If we think about it, it makes sense from an evolutionary perspective. The first period is about bonding with mate. It’s a time when we only have eyes or time for each other. But, the next stage is designed to support and nurture the offspring that are the result of the first. It wouldn’t work very well for parents to be so into each other that they neglected their children.

It can be tough to accept that the euphoric state is temporary. We long for the high, for the sense of merging with the beloved, of losing ourselves in bliss. We think there is something wrong when this rapture fades into a steady comfort and profound sweetness. But if we believe that, we are wrong. A mature love sustains us when life gets hard, which it will. It is a love of choice, rather than of forces that seem beyond our control. It is a love that makes room for other love, of children, of friends, of meaningful work, or spiritual calling. It is a love that can survive illness, aging and separation.

So, enjoy the love you are experiencing, no matter what stage you are in, and if you are in the initial stages, take time for it to mellow and your head to clear before you commit yourself.

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