Do you remember your first love? The first time you fell head over heels for someone and those feelings were returned? Chances are you could think about little else. You felt as if you’d met your soulmate, your one true love. You were certain no one else had ever felt that way and that your love would last forever.
What is responsible for those “can’t get enough of you” feelings? Is your romantic partner simply that wonderful and your love truly magical?
Maybe. But there’s another explanation. It has to do with brain chemicals and hormones. In this case, dopamine. I know brain chemicals and hormones may not sound as romantic as bouquets of roses and moonlight walks on the beach. Understanding the role this hormone plays during the attachment stage of your relationship will help you enjoy this magical stage and decide if your love will last.
What is dopamine?
Adrenaline is the first love hormone you’ll encounter in a new relationship. This powerful neurochemical causes intense reactions when meeting someone to whom you are attracted. It can also sneak up on you when you “discover” someone you’ve known for a while, seeing them with new eyes. Adrenaline is responsible for lust. Read more about the effects of adrenaline on your brain, body, and relationship in this post.
Adrenaline moves from the forefront as a relationship starts to bloom, making room for dopamine to take over. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter in the brain associated with feelings of pleasure, motivation, and reward. The brain assigns importance to activities that trigger a rush of dopamine and seeks to repeat that action in order to continue to experience the rush.
Think of dopamine as the neurochemical of desire. The release of dopamine controls the brain’s “reward system,” which is linked to areas that direct focus, process emotion, and seek rewards. The release of dopamine is caused by various stimuli including food, video games, and sex. Even if you’ve never read the Shopaholic books by Sophie Kinsella, it may not surprise you to find out that shopping can also cause the release of dopamine.
What does this have to do with love? When you experience love, particularly during the early stages, your brain releases large amounts of dopamine. This triggers the euphoria and addictive feelings common in love’s early stages.
Have you ever wondered why romantic comedies are so popular? And what about the billion dollar romance novel industry? Those heady feelings of early love are intoxicating. When you don’t have them in your life, you seek them out even if that means experiencing them through fictional characters.
What are the effects of dopamine on your body?
You’ve probably heard the saying, “love is a drug.” It’s actually more accurate than you might think. The release of dopamine triggers an intense rush of pleasure that has the same effect on the brain as if you’d taken cocaine!
The results of dopamine being released into your body include:
Faster heart rate
Increased heat in face, especially cheeks
Decreased need for food or sleep
Increased need for attention
Greater feelings of excitement and happiness
Intensified focus on the object of your affection
Dopamine is responsible for finding the most insignificant details about your love to be endlessly fascinating and adorable. Even those things that would (and do) annoy you in the later stages of a relationship. The levels of this hormone are at its highest during a relationship’s early stages. It is this high level of dopamine that makes new love seem so exciting and worth pursuing.
What happens when the dopamine high starts to wear off?
The release of dopamine causes feelings of euphoria. Your love feels invincible. You are convinced you’ve found your soulmate and no one else has ever had a connection with someone as special as yours.
Is there anything wrong with having these feelings? Of course not. They’re actually important to building the foundation for a long-term relationship. These intense feelings can act as the basis of a powerful, lasting connection. That is, if you and your partner are truly a good match.
The reality is that the dopamine high can’t last forever. You will move beyond this stage of intense focus and excitement. While this is natural and in fact necessary if your relationship is going to last, it can be disappointing to some.
You may feel as if you are no longer as interested in your partner. You may even miss the dopamine rush so acutely that you end an otherwise promising relationship prematurely, assuming that if it really were true love, the rush would last.
This is a good time to assess the health of your relationship. Do you find yourself working hard to seek out excitement and attention from your partner? This could be a sign of unhealthy patterns in your relationship. Take time to look into your heart and consider whether you are falling into a pattern of intermittent reinforcement.
It’s important to understand that it’s perfectly normal for those intense feelings of passion to fade a bit as your relationship matures. And to realize that in healthy relationships, there is more to look forward to.
What comes next?
Romantic love comes in many forms. It’s true that being caught up in the midst of a rush of dopamine, feeling intensely connected to and fascinated by your partner is intoxicating. It can be tempting to end a relationship when those feelings fade in order to seek them out with a new partner.
Take time to truly understand where you are in your relationship and what you are feeling. There are rewards in a mature relationship, too. Feelings of attachment and deep connection. Safety and security.
The most important factor in having a successful relationship is knowing and trusting yourself. Come to your relationship from a healthy place, a place of autonomy. It is then that you are able to truly give of yourself and accept the love of your partner.
Know yourself. Be your own best friend. Be Self-full®.
Learn more about what it means to be Self-full®.
Jessica Baum is a licensed and experienced relationship therapist in Palm Beach County, specializing in codependency and love addiction. To learn more about love addiction or to book an appointment, please feel free to call her at 1-800-274-8106.