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Head over heels: The chemistry of falling in love

Oceanside Star, Published: Thursday, February 10, 2011

When Charles proposed to Lady Diana Spencer, he was asked, “Are you in love.” He replied, “Yes, whatever that means.” Thirty eventful years have passed since this proposal and perhaps today Charles could better answer the question.

Romantic or passionate love is the love associated with the early phases of a relationship. It’s commonly called ‘falling in love.’ This love is based on attraction and is characterized by euphoria, mood swings, focused attention, and obsessive thinking about the person.

When we fall in love, there is a sense of urgency and anxiety. Our heart races, we can’t sleep, appetite is less, and our palms sweat. These symptoms are attributed to increased levels of certain neurotransmitters, molecules which help transmit messages from nerve cell to nerve cell.

These so-called love molecules, specifically dopamine, have the same effect on the body as the family of drugs called amphetamines. They act like adrenalin, stimulating the flight-or-fight or stress system while at the same time overriding the logical thinking part of the brain.

Um, that’s sounding a lot like love. Oops, I mean falling in love!

Researchers at the UCLA Integrated Substance Abuse Program found that any pleasurable activity can raise the levels of brain dopamine. When seeking food, dopamine levels rise by fifty percent. With nicotine, alcohol or sexual arousal, levels double. With cocaine or a bungee jump, they triple.

Romantic love-at-first-sight really does happen. Syracuse University professor Stephanie Ortigue found that it takes just one-fifth of a second for the euphoria-inducing molecules to flood the brain after setting eyes on a certain person. A certain person? When we meet someone whom immediately gets our romantic attention our hopes rise. We sometimes are emotionally charged even without talking to them.

Our hopes come from the need to fulfill unmet childhood needs. We unconsciously see traits, either physical or other, that remind us or are the complete opposite of our parents. We unconsciously say, “Maybe this time I’ll get it right? Maybe this time I’ll be able to get my needs fulfilled.” Our dopamine levels rise.

At the same time, we are also attracted to repressed qualities of our self that were wounded during childhood. We unconsciously say, “Maybe this way I can be adventurous, responsible,” or whatever other trait we unconsciously wish to be but have not made real. Dopamine levels continue to rise.

However, between six months to three years into the relationship we begin to see flaws in our partner. They’re not so great after all. One soon feels disappointment, frustration and resentment. You may find your self saying, “You’re just like my mother!” Bingo.

The romantic myth, the intoxicating hope that your partner will meet the impossible task of fulfilling past and current needs fades. Fantasy changes to reality. We are less pleased and down go the levels of our feel-good molecules. Now what?

Next week, we’ll find out what happens at this turning point in relationships.

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Diane Hancox, MA, CCC provides counselling services to Parksville, Qualicum Beach, Nanaimo and Vancouver Island.