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The Brain in Love

Romantic love is associated with the early phases of a relationship – the ‘falling in love’ stage. This love is based on attraction and is characterized by euphoria, focused attention, and obsessive thinking about the person. These symptoms are attributed to increased levels of certain neurotransmitters – specifically dopamine – which have the same effect on the body as amphetamines.

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. We feel good and will continue to seek this behaviour. Early-stage love, like any addiction, is more about the seeking and reward process than the actual behaviour, drug or person.

When we meet someone whom gets our romantic attention our hopes rise – the seeking begins! We often daydream about how much better life will be with this person. One may even feel that, “I’ve known this person all my life.” And, unconsciously you have.

Our earliest relational experiences (parent-child) program whom we are drawn to and how we act within relationships. Idealized (or not) images of caretakers form in our childhood psyches. Jung termed this emotionally laden view of mother and father the ‘parental imago.’

When we are initially attracted to someone we do not know the total picture of the other person and this void is filled with hoped-for qualities we wish we had or that unconsciously remind us of our parents. Through this projection, we end up creating an ideal image of our partner that is more about fulfilling our needs/hopes than about accepting our partner for whom they truly are.

We may choose contrary to this parental template, picking a partner who is the opposite of a parent. However, even in this seemingly differing choice, we are still selecting a partner based upon the early parental imago.  “Maybe this time I’ll get it right [with my parent]!?”

Jung advised, “So long as a positive or negative resemblance to the parents is the deciding factor in a love choice, the release from the parental imago, and hence from childhood, is not complete.”  We need to consciously look at what we are hoping to receive from (e.g. security, adventure) and give to (e.g. someone to look after) a potential partner.

At between six months to three years into the relationship we begin to see flaws in our partner. We feel disappointment, frustration and resentment. We may be saying, “You’re just like my mother/father!” Bingo. Now what?

If the falling in love stage was more about getting our needs met, being cared for and experiencing euphoric feelings, then the relationship most likely ends. If, during the falling in love stage, friendship, compassion and commitment accompanied the romance, then the relationship moves to compassionate love.

Compassionate love is the endorphin stage – with oxytocin as the key neurotransmitter. Its presence in the body decreases pain, producing feelings of well-being, and promotes bonding & commitment between people.

One significant key to long-lasting couples is the ability to activate those dopamine-producing regions of the brain through trying new activities, setting date nights, missing and looking forward to our partner, and spending time looking into each others’ eyes.

Helen Fisher is doing great neuroscience research on relationships/love.

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