Hold on Tight! The Neurochemistry of Infatuation and Lifelong Love
Do you remember your early days of falling in love with your spouse? With a flushed face, beating heart, and a mind that could not stop thinking of your beloved, you were drawn to him or her. You may have felt boundless energy, inspiration, and a reduced need for sleep on this thrill ride. Maybe you even felt a little bit high or “punch drunk” just being with your sweetheart.
I remember those days fondly with my wife. On the night of our first date she and I walked around an ornate lake in our small city. Halfway around the lake she held my hand beneath the twinkling street lights. My heart felt like it could soar. After she left that night, I only slept for two hours as my thoughts raced in a dream that was finally coming true! The ride had just begun.
Infatuation is the term to describe this first phase of love. It is truly a special time in the newness of love, an intoxicating experience that is referenced even in the Bible. King Solomon mingles kisses and wine in his love poems, “…your mouth like the best wine. May the wine go straight to my beloved, flowing gently over lips and teeth” (Song of Solomon 7:9; NIV).
All of this euphoria serves a specific purpose. It drives us to hyper-attach to our lover so that we might form our own marriage bond and even bear children, or at least have fun trying. And it’s all part of God’s plan for us since the beginning of time.
God blessed them; and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply…” (Genesis 1:28; NIV).
He provided us with the equipment and the chemistry to fulfill our purposes of connecting with our spouse, procreating, and reigning on the earth. The thrill ride of infatuation is a crucial part of His provision for us.
The Neurochemistry of Infatuation:
Attachment is the bond of love that is formed between two individuals. It begins in infancy when we are completely dependent as we bond with our parents through thousands of tender interactions (Bowlby, 1969). In late adolescence or young adulthood this bond may transfer to a love partner.
It takes a powerful mixture of chemicals to stop us in our tracks, orient us towards one other person exclusively, and drive us to build an attachment bond with that special person. We have to shift from the independence of adolescence and young adulthood towards being connected to and dependent upon another person. We move from being open to the field of all possible mates to being devoted to just one individual.
This powerful mixture includes surges in neurotransmitters, which are messenger chemicals in our brains. There are many chemical changes, but three key movements take place in our brains’ levels of dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin.
Dopamine is kind of like human cocaine. It makes us feel a sense of craving, ecstasy, and exhilaration. Dopamine drives us towards a goal and motivates us to pursue rewards. On the thrill ride of infatuation, the reward is being close to our beloved. We literally feel “high” just being around them. fMRI brain research shows that the dopaminergic pathways of the brain are highly activated in the first seven months of love, and the reward center of the brain is lit up like a Christmas tree too (Aron et al., 2005). It’s so rewarding to be with and focus on our loved one that we keep coming back time and time again, rapidly building our bond.
Norepinephrine is a form of amphetamine or “speed”. It is another chemical which is involved during the romantic phase of love (Dutton & Aron, 1974). Norepinephrine acts more generally within the nervous system, and it is key to the “Fight or Flight Response” of the brain physiology. Think of a pounding heart, elevated blood pressure, flushed skin, and sweaty palms, and breathless sensations, and you’ll get a clear picture of the effects of norepinephrine on the human body. This is what gives you boundless energy for the pursuit of your love interest and makes you restless when you are apart.
Serotonin has many functions within the human body, but you may broadly think about it in terms of feeling mellow and “at ease”. When you first fall in love, research shows that you actually have reduced levels of serotonin in your brain. You are discontented and actively seek after your beloved in a very fixed way. One study explains why we can’t stop thinking about our beloved in the throes of infatuation. It showed that recently infatuated lovers had brain scans which were similar to people suffering from Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (Marazziti et al., 1999)!
All of this makes us bond rapidly to the object of our affection. Feeling driven and rewarded to be with him or her, ensures that we will spend quality time together. We share vulnerably and without defenses. Our minds continually think about our loved one. So we rapidly build our attachment bond in these early days together.
The intensity of this thrill ride doesn’t last forever, as we all know. We actually develop a tolerance for our own dopamine and norepinephrine, which allows us to mellow out a bit and resume a less intense pace of love after about 12 months. Our vision also becomes more clear and we can see our loved one with greater objectivity.
The Neurochemistry of Lifelong Love:
As infatuation transitions into a more measured pace of love, we have to be intentional about growing our bond together. Life moves fast. Misunderstandings happen, and we’ve got to repair them. We must still hold on tightly to one another, and God gives us oxytocin to help us strengthen our bond.
Oxytocin is a gift to us as human from our earliest days on earth. At first it helps with building the bond between mother and child during breastfeeding and infant attachment. Oxytocin, the “cuddle hormone”, is also released during hugs, prolonged touching, and sexual connection in adults. It is a sustaining gift over the course of a long term marriage as it drives us to deepen our marriage connection with our spouses (Insel, 2010).
Oxytocin is a neuropeptide hormone that strengthens attraction, the intensity of sensation in touch, bonding, attachment, and trust. It increases when you feel connected, “in love”, sympathetic to others, and when you touch others. Oxytocin also increases empathy, eye contact, face memory, and generosity.
When you get into a regular pattern of touching your spouse, oxytocin will increase just at the anticipation of being touched. Oxytocin helps you feel close and connected, and it helps you “want to” be close and connected. The more oxytocin you produce, the more you respond and are receptive to it. In other words, you don’t build up a tolerance. You just keep getting more benefits from your ever increasing oxytocin.
Oxytocin helps to keep you from getting into conflict. It is hard to feel like fighting when your hormones are making you want to cuddle. It’s a positive cycle. The more oxytocin you have, the more favorably you will view your spouse and the less you will fight.
Oxytocin provides health benefits as well (Heinrichs et al., 2003). Did you know that oxytocin helps to reduce cortisol, the stress hormone that is implicated in heart disease and reduced immune system functioning? So the regular practice of touching your spouse and increasing your oxytocin can help prevent heart attacks and illnesses.
Suggestions for Ways to Touch Daily and Increase Oxytocin (based on Childerston and Taylor (2010)
- Hold hands while walking. Hold hands in a lingering sensual manner.
- Hold one another in a longer embrace, at least two minutes. (It takes oxytocin about 30 seconds to be released. So you need a longer hug to get the benefit).
- Allow your body to touch your spouse when you sleep at night. Oxytocin will be released throughout the night. When you wake up in the morning any arguments you had started will be easier to manage.
- Take time for lingering kisses, for a full 10 seconds. When we kiss passionately we imprint positive images of our beloved in the brain which we tend to review throughout the day. Your spouse will look better and better to you.
- Lingering kisses also release dopamine in your brain, rewarding you for being close together!
- All of this lingering touch will be a nice appetizer for sexual connection. Sex is another great way to sizzle your dopamine and surge your oxytocin (which is released at 5 times the normal level upon orgasm).
Hold on tight during the wonderful ride of infatuation and long term love with your spouse! Touch is such an essential way to build and maintain your marriage bond and to engage the power of attachment. If you want to learn more about attachment in marriage, including the emotional side of bonding, please check out “Face to Face: Seven Keys to a Secure Marriage” at www.facetofacemarriage.com
Dr. Gill is passionate about marriage therapy and Attachment Theory. He conducts therapy, workshops, and trains other counselors. www.facetofacemarriage.com
Aron, A., Fisher, H.E,, Mashek, D. J, Strong, G., Li, H.F., and Brown, L.L. (2005). Reward, motivation, and emotional systems associated with early stage intense romantic love: An fMRI study. Journal of Neuropsychology, 94, 327–357.
Bowlby, J. (1969). Attachment and loss (Vol I). London: Hogarth.
Childerston, J. & Taylor, D. (2010) The brain and sex: The science of love and relationships, Christian Counseling Today, Vol 17, No 2, pp 41–42.
Dutton, D. G., & Aron, A. P. (1974). Some evidence for heightened sexual attraction under conditions of high anxiety. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 30(4), 510–517.
Gill, J. (2015). Face to face: Seven keys to a secure marriage. Bloomington, IN: Westbow Press, a Division of Zondervan and Thomas Nelson.
Heinrichs, M., Baumgartner, T., Kirschbaum, C., & Ehlert, U., 2003. Social support and oxytocin interact to suppress cortisol and subjective responses to psychosocial stress. Biological Psychiatry, 54(12), p.1389–1398.
Insel, T.R. (2010). The Challenge of Translation in Social Neuroscience: A Review of Oxytocin, Vasopressin, and Affiliative Behavior. Neuron, 65(6) p768–779
Marazziti, D. et al., “Alteration of the Platelet Serotonin Transporter in Romantic Love,” Psychological Medicine, 29 (1999), 741–745.