Falling in love is undeniably one of the best feelings in the world. The majority of people who seek psychotherapy are either looking for love, too afraid of it or recovering from its loss. Psychologist Cher Laurenti Engerer explains what happens in our brains through this fundamental human experience.
According to Sigmund Freud, “Love and work… work and love… that’s all there is for us to find contentedness.”
The reality, however, is that to love and to stay in love are not as simple as one may think.
Romantic love – the kind that makes our heart skip a beat and puts a bounce in our step – may well be one of the most studied but least understood human behaviours.
Psychological studies about love over the last decade have taken on a new dimension. Through the technologies of MRI imaging of the brain of individuals in the depths of romantic love, we have discovered that the very sight of our loved one is enough to send our brain into a biochemical overload.
It was discovered that seeing photos of people we are in love with causes our brains to become active in regions associated with pleasure and rich in so-called feel-good neurotransmitters (happy hormones), such as dopamine.
We also now know that primitive areas of the brain are primarily involved in romantic love – which means that love is not something we are consciously in control of but rather a process that happens with little involvement of the central brain. Falling in love happens without us thinking about it. This phenomenon is something of great frustration for most people. In fact, clients often come for psychotherapy hoping to be hypnotised or to be taught ways of forgetting or to stop loving, which of course is not something within our human capacity.
People also often seek to take a rational approach to love but, based on these findings, we can see that it is scientifically impossible to be rational and in love at the same time since two very independent mechanisms of the brain are responsible for love and reason; biochemicals are the fundamental influencing factor in the process of falling for our person.
So what happens when we fall in love? Chemicals associated with pleasure circuits flood our brain, producing a variety of physical and emotional responses – increased heart rate, dilated pupils, flutters in the stomach, loss of appetite, sweaty palms, flushed cheeks, feelings of passion and anxiety. Levels of stress hormones also increase during the initial phase of love, something most people find difficult to understand.
Psychologists are often asked the question: “But if this is the right person for me, why am I feeling so stressed and anxious?” This leads many people to believe that they are making a mistake or falling for the wrong person, taking these stress levels to forewarn danger or doom.
The truth is, romantic love is experienced as a crisis in the brain, causing an avalanche of chemical reactions which shake the pediments of our life. With the increase of certain chemicals comes the depletion of others, causing strange and irrational behaviours. Sometimes, people can even become ecstatic, obsessive, irrational and terrified.
We are also prone to making rash decisions in these flights of passion. When in love, the neural processes responsible for making critical assessments of other people, including those we are in love with, shut down – which in essence is the basis for the old adage ‘love is blind’.
To love and stay in love are not as simple as one may think
A chemical that deserves a mention in the process of romantic love is oxytocin, also known as the love hormone. This plays an important role in pregnancy, breastfeeding and mother-infant attachment and is also the very same hormone released when in love, during sex and heightened by skin-to-skin contact.
Oxytocin deepens feelings of attachment and makes couples feel closer to one another after having sex. It elicits feelings of joy, passion, safety and serenity. The lustful part of love is caused by testosterone and estrogens; other chemicals known as monoamines are responsible for attraction.
Most would describe this phase as a pleasurable experience, similar to euphoria – the be-all and end-all. In fact, it is also not uncommon for individuals to seek this euphoric feeling in less constructive, conventional and healthy ways if they experience the loss of their romantic partner. This brings us to heartbreak.
Heartbreak is a strong feeling of grief or despair. It can be experienced as a physical pain in the chest and at times can also be chronically debilitating to our lives, sending us into emotional turmoil and distress.
Everyone’s life is affected by heartbreak. This experience is also fundamentally biochemically based. In essence, it can feel like a ‘withdrawal’ from an addiction, during which ‘happy hormones’ leave our body or try to equilibrate and regulate themselves.
Heartbreak causes a volcano of chemical reactions which bring strong feelings of sadness and stress. Our brain triggers that we are in trauma, sending us into an autonomic loop of survival instinct. Life suddenly becomes about coping and our brain floods us with alert signals of danger and copious amounts of stress hormones in our blood.
When we fall in love, chemicals give the body a goal and when heartbroken, the very same chemicals in the brain go out of whack, causing a chronic chemical imbalance. Heartbreak takes time to heal and has to run its course.
If love lasts, the rollercoaster of biochemical reactions and emotions tends to calm within one or two years, a term people commonly refer to as the end of the ‘honeymoon period’. Brain areas associated with pleasure are still activated as loving relationships proceed, but with the decrease of oxytocin, we also experience a decline in passion and craving.
Some propose that over time most couples see a change from passionate love to what is typically called compassionate love – a love that is deep but not as euphoric as in the early stages of romance. This is often a critical period for couples. Some assume they are no longer in love, some seek the passion elsewhere and others experience silent disappointment.
The good news is that it is actually possible to stay madly in love with someone after decades together. Research using MRI scans has shown that the same intensity of chemical reactions was observed in couples who had been together for over 20 years, as in those in the early stages of love.
So, why do some couples have this and others not? Is it possible to rekindle the flame we experienced in the early days of our relationship after being bogged down by life, children, sickness and work pressures? The study suggested that the excitement of romance can remain while the apprehension is lost.
Cher is public relations officer for the Malta Chamber of Psychologists. Any comments or queries may be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.