We all covet those mesmerizing, fleeting moments of falling in love. That rush! Those endorphins! Their smile! It’s electrifying and magnetic. The world finally makes perfect sense, and our lucky stars have aligned precisely how we wanted.
All those Disney movies? They aren’t just silly, childhood fantasies! They’re real, right? We’re living it now, right?
We all love being in love- at least initially. But too much of anything can be a bad thing, and love is no exception.
With the right person, the neuroscience behind falling in love moves in its natural evolution. In unhealthy dynamics, however, this ‘falling’ resembles more of a slow and agonizing burn. We’re falling away from ourselves, away from our sanity, and away from any semblance of peace.
The Initial Excitement
Most love starts with a tone of intrusive thinking. We replay the sweet compliments or funny jokes. We dream about the other person, spend our time fantasizing about what they are wearing, obsess over what plans they may have tonight. We don’t know the other person well enough, so we spend a lot of time trying to fill in those mysterious gaps.
The neuroscience behind falling in love shows that we experience all those teenage physical symptoms. Sweaty palms, stammering speech, increased heart rate, restless nights. That’s because the brain releases a surge of dopamine, serotonin, and norepinephrine during the initial stages of attraction.
- Dopamine: Dopamine plays an essential role in movement regulation and reward activation in the brain. It heightens arousal and sexual desire. Abnormal or disordered dopamine levels are associated with a variety of mental health disorders like depression, ADHD, and substance addiction.
- Serotonin: Serotonin is a ‘natural mood’ stabilizer associated with our sleep, eating, and digestive patterns. Additionally, serotonin supports anxiety and mood regulation. Thus, serotonin deficiency is also associated with mental health disorders like depression and substance addiction.
- Norepinephrine: Norepinephrine is responsible for evoking our ‘fight-or-flight responses when facing acute threats. It helps regulate vital functions, like our blood pressure and glucose levels. Elevated norepinephrine provides a stimulant effect.
As you can see, the cocktail of these hormones contribute to making us feel giddy, euphoric, and ‘so in love’ that we struggle to focus our attention elsewhere. We’re high on life, and we’re high on the other person.
Similarly, the process of falling in love mimics another dangerous pattern: the spiral into addiction.
Cravings, withdrawal, loss of identity, damage to other elements of our lives- these risk factors are associated with both love and addiction.
After The Excitement Settles
Unfortunately, all excitement has an expiration date. No matter how alluring the situation, we eventually adapt to our circumstances. That’s why new clothes lose their luster and new cars lose their appeal. The novelty wears off, and we are still left with ourselves.
Love and relationships are no different. If the experience of falling in love produced long-term positive results, 40-50% of marriages wouldn’t end in divorce. We wouldn’t have thousands of songs crooning about heartbreak and rejection playing on the radio.
After the ‘initial excitement’ starts depleting, the dynamic can become increasingly complicated. Some may fear commitment to the other person, and they start withdrawing from their mate. Others, terrified of rejection, might start clinging incessantly to their partner, desperate to prove their loyalty and desire.
This tango often begins a vicious pursuer-distance relationship pattern. As one person desires to become closer, the other responds by holding back and even moving away.
This dynamic becomes even more complicated when falling for a narcissistic partner. As we know, narcissists are self-seeking. They value their needs above anyone else’s, and they inadvertently use people as pawns to fulfill their grandiose fantasies.
The unsuspecting partner often doesn’t understand these motives in the beginning stages. After all, he or she is still high on the cocktail of neurotransmitters. He or she sees the other person as this magical and fantastic rescuer. The narcissism looks like confidence; the grandiose behavior is deemed ‘unconventional’ rather than downright alarming.
It’s easy to reframe critical flaws as ‘cute quirks.’ It’s easy to overlook obvious red flags as we try to wiggle our way back into the comfortable bliss of la-la-land.
If attachment starts happening, our body releases oxytocin and vasopressin.
Oxytocin is often deemed as the ‘cuddle hormone.’ During sex, our bodies release it during climax- which helps partners feel connected after finishing. Additionally, a new mother’s body releases it to connect with her newborn via breastfeeding and childbirth.
However, oxytocin also has a dark side. In studies examining how party drugs like MDMA impact functioning, excessive oxytocin can cause users to radically dissociate from their environments and act recklessly. It can also help reinforce positive feelings towards people we already love (even if those people aren’t healthy for us).
Vasopressin can be classified as a ‘commitment hormone.’ Research shows that fewer than 5% of mammals are monogamous. In examining prairie voles, vasopressin supports the animal in ‘reforming’ polyamorous tendencies to mate with one partner.
Interestingly, two studies reveal a link between vasopressin abnormalities and autism. Though this research is preliminary, researchers are continuing to examine how vasopressin relates to human social interactions and connection.
When Love Is Traumatic
Up to 8% of Americans experience posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) at some point during their lifetimes. PTSD is a complex disorder that can impact both an individual’s physical and emotional health. While treatment is available, there is no cure for this condition.
Relationships can be traumatic. Ending relationships can be traumatic. And, yes, falling back in love can be traumatic. To solidify these statements, one college study found that a staggering 95% of respondents reported being rejected by someone who was deeply in love with them.
When we encounter obstacles in our romantic relationships, our passion intensifies. However, it intensifies with desperate ferocity. We become frustrated and agitated. We act out with manipulation or passive-aggression. We behave like children with whining or complaining or pouting around- hungry for attention and hungry for a solution.
Even if we know the other person cannot fulfill our needs, we do whatever we can to salvage the relationship. For many, the fear of heartbreak or loneliness evokes far more terror than the thought of remaining in a miserable dynamic.
Drug addicts follow this same pattern. They do whatever they can to maintain predictable homeostasis. When the drug is unavailable, they experience acute withdrawals and intensified cravings. They act out with aggression or impulsivity to restore what they have lost. Even if they want to quit (and many drug addicts do), drugs seemingly have an ironclad grip on their souls.
Intimate Partner Abuse
Classic Disney films and cheesy romantic comedies capture love like it’s the ultimate dream come true. They don’t capture the fact that 1 in 3 women and 1 in 5 men have experienced physical violence by an intimate partner.
They don’t capture that domestic violence hotlines across America receive over 20,000 calls each day. Oh, and they definitely don’t show that over 19 million women and 5 million men have been stalked at some point during their lifetime.
These statistics don’t even take into account the many emotional symptoms associated with narcissistic abuse including:
- Name-calling, belittling, and criticism
- Patronizing and condescending your behavior
- Public or private embarrassment
- Threats, dictatorship, and/or direct orders
- Financial control
- Monitoring and controlling your whereabouts
- Emotional outbursts
- Sexism or racism
- Using manipulation or guilt-inducing tactics
- Trivializing or gaslighting (denying that something happened)
- Isolating you from friends, family, or social interactions
- Displaying indifference or anger towards your needs
- Denying your feelings
Any combination of these symptoms can result in destroyed self-esteem, spiritual agony, and heightened fear and shame.
Of course, escaping this abuse isn’t simple. After all, we still experience those feel-good hormones when our partners engage in hoovering, love bombing, or cognitive empathy. For a moment, everything still feels right in the world, and we hold onto hope that we can “go back to a sense of normalcy.”
The Dark Neuroscience Behind Falling In Love
Like it or not, love comes down to science, and science comes down to all those teeny-tiny hormones. The neuroscience behind falling in love isn’t meant to evoke fear. It’s meant to evoke knowledge and curiosity about how we behave.
It’s also meant to evoke recognition that a solid relationship requires elements of honesty, respect, transparency, and friendship. These dynamics will keep the relationship going strong after the biochemical rush wears off. If your relationship lacks these components, it’s likely that your relationship will ultimately fail.
If we can learn about how our bodies and minds react to attachment, we can learn how to best protect ourselves from potential danger.
- Pine, A. Shiner, T., Seymour, B., & Dolan, R. (2010). Dopamine, Time, and Impulsivity in Humans, Journal of Neuroscience, 30 (26) 8888-8896.
- Scaccia, A. (2017). Serotonin: What You Need to Know.
- Rogers, K. (2018). Norepinephrine, Encylopedia Brittanica.
- Marriage & Divorce. American Psychological Association.
- Wu, K. (2017). Love, Actually: The Science behind lust, attraction, and companionship, Harvard University: The Graduate School of Arts and Sciences.
- Kettlewell, J. (2004). ‘Fidelity gene’ found in voles. BBC News.
- Bremner J.. (2006). Traumatic stress: effects on the brain. Dialogues in clinical neuroscience, 8(4), 445-61.
- Fishere, H. (2016). Love is Like Cocaine, Nautilus Issue 033.
- Statistics. NCADV.