Thursday, 14 October 2010

The Chemistry of Love: How Relationships and Breakups Happen

Well, you should know there are three basic stages of Love:
  • Infatuation
  • Attraction
  • Attachment
Infatuation or lust is the initial passionate, sexual desire. In the first stage, sex hormones as testosterone and estrogen are released in greater amounts.

Then you quickly move to the “falling in love” or “crazy about you” phase where you start obsessing about that person. Many chemicals are released: PEA (phenyl ethyl amine), dopamine (which is also activated by cocaine) and nor-epinephrine (which stimulates adrenaline production). These chemicals combined give us that feeling of infatuation. It is why new lovers feel euphoric and energized, floating on air. It is also why new lovers are rather inseparable and can talk all night for weeks on end. The effects of this stage last from several weeks to several months, depending on the person and circumstances.

However, the interesting thing is when we have great chemistry with someone, it's hardly flattering! According to Dr. Harville Hendrix our brain dumps PEA when we identify someone who can finish our childhood business; that is when our brain recognizes the original child-parent relationship!

Later in this highly-charged stage, serotonin and endorphins are released as well. Serotonin is a natural anti-depressant; endorphins give the feeling of morphine-like calmness and they promote feelings of intimacy, comfort and warmth. They don’t give those “hyper” feelings experienced before; however, they can be more addictive. The absence of endorphins is responsible for making you miss or yearn for your loved one when apart. This stage lasts from several months to a few years.

By the way, endorphins are also released after a good workout or eating good-quality chocolate; remember that!

When infatuation and attraction subside and things seem to be cooling off, it’s the last stage which many don’t reach (and when breakups often happen). This is the "unconditional acceptance", lucky attachment phase. This involves commitment and is responsible for long-term relationships. Here you are aware of both the positive and negative traits of your partner AND you've decided you want to build a life together.

In this stage, higher levels of the chemicals oxytocin and vasopressin are produced to a greater degree than in short-term relationships; both promote bonding and devotion to your partner. They are both released when we’re physically intimate—while holding hands, kissing, cuddling, or having sex. Oxytocin makes people calmer and more sensitive to others’ feelings. Oxytocin is also linked to milk production in women.

Only the “attachment phase” of love is physiologically sustainable and can thus endure. This incidentally is real love; the earlier stages are a part of love, too, but as amazing as they can be, they’re always and must be transitory and short-lived. They can’t last, but a deeper sense of love and commitment is achieved instead which is, after all, what we are eventually seeking.

Which reminds me: Don't take it too personally when someone breaks up with you or tells you they're no longer in love with you. I know this is so hard to grasp at first. But the truth of the matter is most of the time it's not about you. They've run out of their "love cocktail". They weren't in love with you to begin with; they were in love with being "high”; sadly not you.

Accordingly, some people become "love addicts" or "junkies" based on these facts. They badly need this chemical "excitement" to be intoxicated by life (which happens in the earlier stage of love). Once this initial rush of chemicals wanes (inevitable after several months to several years, depending on the individual and the circumstances), the relationship crumbles. They're soon off again, seeking a "quick fix" to their forlorn feelings and "shattered dreams": another chemical high from infatuation.

These love junkies also have one other problem. The body builds up tolerance to these chemicals. Then it takes more and more chemistry to bring that “special” feeling of love which they crave.

Many adults go through life in a series of three-month to three-year relationships. If these love junkies stay married, they are likely to seek affairs to fuel their chemical highs.

One of the best things I've ever learned is knowing if someone is/will be happy in their marriage, or marriage-to-be. The answer is very simple. It’s actually a question:

How happy were/are they before getting married?

There's your answer.

Remember in the first stages of love, we project expectations and ideals on our partner. Both parties are also on their best behavior. The chemicals produced in the early stages do that to you. They "suspend observation and distort perception" which is why after some time some people think they have fallen out of love because their beloved no longer meets their ‘fantasy standards’. Now you know why.
Whoever abandons the other first in a relationship breaks free from the "spell of love" first.

Surprisingly enough, there have been suggestions that the levels of dopamine and serotonin drop off first in the originally less happy partner who wasn't at peace with themselves from the start. The one with more self-doubts and less self-acceptance breaks free from the biochemical spell often fast, too.

The closer to the attachment phase you are, the more difficult a breakup is on you and the greater the withdrawal symptoms are (from all the chemicals you’re now being denied being apart from the one you love)—similar to the withdrawal symptoms of a narcotic! The deeper in love you are with someone, the more painful abandonment or betrayal of that person feels.

My advice to you: Even though we have no control over who we fall in love with, we can control who we get in a relationship with. Choose someone happy about who they are and at peace with themselves. AVOID like the plague anyone who tells you they've been waiting for you to save/fix/help them or make them happy. Observe that person: what they have achieved in their life so far, their parents’ relationship with each other, how that person treats others, the kind of relationships he/she has been in and HOW and WHY things ended (you could observe a pattern). See if they jump from relationship to relationship because "they're addicted to love" and being in relationships.

Just remember a relationship can never remain in the “infatuation” or “attraction” stage indefinitely; it’s not really a sign you’re in the wrong relationship.

Apart from chemistry, love is still a mystery to many of us and I enjoy writing about it in my novels. Here’s something (non-chemical) I’ve written before about love:

Love hurts. A lot. It's unexplained. It's unexpected. It's very clear. It's strange. It's mysterious. It’s cruel. It's kind. It's sweet. It's bitter. It's sadness. It's pure joy. It's torture. It's relief. It's nothing. It's everything.

Exactly. No one can figure out love.

I can tell you one thing though: Everyone's version of love is different. Some have dwelled on the bright side; others on the very dark side. So don't let others' stories affect you.

My side of the story is that love is cruelly kind, vaguely clear, sweetly bitter and sadly joyful.

Real love is different. Real love is about two people letting go of their selfishness selflessly for love. Real love is about hanging on, and still knowing your someone is on the other side holding the other side of the rope, even if only ever so lightly. Real love is about understanding, commitment, intuition, communication, patience, and faith... a lot of faith. Real love is strengthened with time, not otherwise.

Most importantly remember to fall in love with yourself first; only then others will follow.

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© Marwa Ayad

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