The Chemistry of Love


Many people mistakenly think that sex is the most powerful force pulling us into relationships. Romantic love, a biological urge distinct from sexual arousal, is actually more powerful. The desire for romantic love can be more powerful than the will to live and much stronger than your sex drive.

Love produces some of the most powerful drugs on earth, and it all happens in our own brains and without ever taking a pill. So when we talk about the important role that chemistry plays in picking a partner, we’re actually on the mark.

In Why We Love, Rutgers University anthropologist Helen Fisher (2004) writes about the distinct neural mechanisms of romantic love, which differs greatly from sexual attraction. Brain-scan studies show that romantic love activates places in the brain with a high concentration of receptors for dopamine, a chemical tied to motivation, euphoria, and addiction.

Yes, this chemical is the same one that gets triggered by certain stimulant drugs. So when you go through a breakup and the supply of chemicals is cut off, you actually go through a type of withdrawal, and this is why it can be so hard to let go of someone you’ve loved.

When we do find someone we click with, we want to believe it will last forever, and for a lucky few it will. Unfortunately, science tells us that for the vast majority of couples, this feeling will only last from one to three years. After that time, we (hopefully) begin to appreciate our commonality, rely on communication, and relax in the compassion of our relationships.

Additional studies by the University of San Francisco and professor Rebecca Turner show that another brain chemical, oxytocin, also gets released, but this usually happens after couples have been together for a while (Turner et al. 1999). A rise in the level of oxytocin comes from being touched. It makes us want to be physically close, and not just sexually. It heightens the feeling of bonding and can increase intimacy and receptiveness.

The research also shows that oxytocin appears at higher levels in women who are involved in committed relationships. The presence of this chemical also helps us to understand why men tend to feel more intimate after sex, for that’s when their oxytocin reaches its peak.

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These chemically based changes won’t diminish your capacity for love. Think of them more as additions to what you already have. Feeling completely connected and cared for is really what intimate relationships are all about.

Even though your sexual desire may decrease in intensity, your natural need for a romantic connection will continue for many years to come.

Brain chemistry may get love started, but the real keys to lasting relationships are found in your heart and soul.

Here are some tips for using your natural brain chemistry to enhance your intimacy.

Bedtime cuddling helps sustain long-term intimate connections. If you or your partner needs space for sleeping, ask if you can snuggle before you shift to your own side of the bed. Those who engage in this activity also have more active sex lives.If you have a TV in the bedroom, get it out. Couples who have no TVs in the bedroom have more sex and greater intimacy. If you’re a nighttime reader, put down your book and just be with your partner. You’re going to cuddle more if there are no distractions, and that can only lead to a deeper connection. It doesn’t mean you can never read or watch TV in bed. Just get out of it being a habit.

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Adapted from Emotional Fitness for Intimacy

Copyright © Barton Goldsmith, Published by New Harbinger Publications. All rights reserved, used with permission.

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