October 1, 2011

The Chemistry of Love

We’ve all been there. You notice someone and suddenly everything changes. You feel the almost irresistible urge to connect with that person on a deep level, a primal drive to be near that person, to have that person. Butterflies in the stomach, stuttering, shivers, your feet go weak and you can only babble incoherently around that person.

There is also another time when a very similar set of emotions rises – this is when your partner is leaving you or you find out they are cheating on you. The same feeling of needing to possess, a primal drive to protect what’s yours, a fear of losing something of yours.

Fear is a common denominator in both cases. Fear that the person might not feel the same way as you do. Fear of rejection. In many ways, the chemical reaction that is widely perceived as love or lust for someone is, in fact on an emotional level very close to fear.

This state of mind and release of those chemicals into your brain – testosterone, estrogen – is triggered by something specific in the other person – a piece of clothing, a look, a type of smile, specific sound of their voice, the way they walk. The actual trigger is individual to everyone but the resulting brain chemistry and emotional state is the same.

Recent studies in neuroscience have indicated that as people fall in love, the brain consistently releases a certain set of chemicals, including pheromones, dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin, which act in a manner similar to amphetamines, stimulating the brain’s pleasure center and leading to side effects such as increased heart rate, loss of appetite and sleep, and an intense feeling of excitement.[1]

The problem here is that this state and those chemicals are extremely addictive. Once you’ve received a dose, you need to get more and more otherwise you face very heavy withdrawal symptoms, including anxiety, depression and others. This is what very often leads to ‘rebound-relationships’ – by feeding your addiction a new dosage of the drug you avoid the withdrawal. In extreme cases, this can lead to a succession of relationships each few days up to few weeks in length, until each of them runs out of love – fails to produce that chemical reaction any further – and then the addict will go look for the next target, next fix.

How exactly is this any different from alcohol, tobacco or heroin addiction? Extreme sports? Online gaming? They all share, to bigger or lesser extent, the search for repeat of a feeling and the search for the next high.

Let’s take a few steps back. Can such physical connection, such lust lead to lasting relationships? A relationship is a two-way street – both parties have to have a mutual interest in it for it to work. So is this chemical reaction which we call love mutual? The one feeling it definitely wants it to be, believes it to be. How else could they? If they didn’t, if they accepted that the other person isn’t feeling that way, that would immediately lead to realization that they’ll never be able to completely acquire their target into their life, which in turn would instantly lead to withdrawal symptoms described above. A rather typical addict behavior, to distort and change the reality, to see what they want to see, isn’t it? It’s much easier to believe that they feel the same; bask in their presence, turn into a pink macaroni for a while, close your eyes and float in the clouds. Even if it’s for a day, a week or a month.

So we’ve established that this chemical reaction is personal, only within your own brain and is one-way. We also know it’s addictive, it’s rather draining to be in that state for long time and that the other person does not feel that way. All in all, this means that any relationship built upon this is doomed from the get-go since it’s not a two-way street – the one under the spell will always be at a disadvantage, in fear of losing their precious. Usual behavioral patterns for such a person in a relationship include being overly protective, paranoid, suspecting. Side-effects also often include nightmares involving their partner, usually themed around the target leaving them. This is clearly an unhealthy relationship and an unhealthy way to live.

By the way, in a rare chance where both parties would have the same chemical reaction, it would lead to a very high-energy, stormy and powerful relationship yet still filled with distrust, paranoia and suspicion – because both parties would be too much in love, but at the same time also consumed with fear of losing the other person. Again, not a healthy and in the long term very draining way to live. Notice how “fear” keeps coming up again and again?

So what would a normal relationship be like? A normal, healthy relationship would be built upon being comfortable around each other, trusting and relaxed; where all involved parties can be themselves without pretending or worrying what the other person might think about them. There is no butterflies in the stomach feeling in such a relationship. There’s no fear either. It’s a relaxed co-existence.

Now, if you’re going to argue that that’s not love, you’re going to be right on the mark. Because you don’t want to have love in a relationship – at least not in the sense it’s usually understood as the addictive chemical imbalance in your brain. So we’re not going to call that love, we’re going to call this emotion comfort. That’s what you’re looking for.

So the last question remains. Can you go from the initial primal, physical, chemical attraction to a comfortable, relaxed co-existence? The answer is yes, however it requires that the object of the love recognizes that chemical imbalance in their partner and cares enough to help the love-sick person work out and through their problem. Because we already know that you really don’t want your partner to become (or remain) distrustful, paranoid, fearful and suspicious.

If we notice that, if we notice that our partner is deeply in love with us and is exhibiting those abnormal symptoms, we shouldn’t get angry at them, we shouldn’t yell at them; they really can’t help it. Think back to when you were in that position, perhaps in an earlier relationship that didn’t last. Think what that person whom you were in love with should have done to build comfort with you – to calm your fears, to address your insecurities, to make you relaxed – and then do those things to help your partner reach that balance, relaxed state of brain-chemistry. Only then can the relationship become normal, healthy, relaxed and comfort has been reached.

Love is an addictive chemical reaction in your brain, emotionally sharing a lot of similarities with fear. It’s a a drug, an unhealthy and addictive mental state; it is very difficult to build relationships upon that, impossible without a lot of mutual cooperation. Recognize it in yourself and in others around you; conquer it in yourself, then help others do the same.