March, 2016 / Author:

218-10-what-is-love-the-chemicals-behind-a-complex-human-experience

“Even as he ascends to your height and caresses your tenderest branches that quiver in the sun,
So shall he descend to your roots and shake them in their clinging to the earth… All these things shall love do unto you that you may know the secrets of your heart, and in that knowledge become a fragment of Life’s heart.” Khalil Gibran, The Prophet

One of the most sought-after parts of the human experience, love is the basis of epic mythology, stories, legends and countless country songs. Whether well understood or elusive, shunned, suffered for or basked in, love plays a central part in human life, emotion and instinct.

Winnipeg counsellor and therapist D’Arcy Bruning-Haid describes it as something people just want. “Everyone wants just to be loved for who they are, seen, acknowledged, celebrated, connected,” she says. “Everyone should have that in their lifetime, many many times.”

This sense of being loved can come from friendship, romance, family relationships, community, work, strangers and people we’ve just met. It can be surprising or long-standing and stable. It is, in the bigger picture, the glue that holds people together and fosters growth.

Scientists studying love have honed in on the romantic bit. They’ve found three stages as it operates in the brain bio-chemically. “Time and time again when I talk to individuals about approaching love with will and intentionality, I hear the fear expressed that this will bring an end to romance,” writes feminist bell hooks in All About Love: New Visions. “This is simply not so. Approaching romantic love from a foundation of care, knowledge, and respect actually intensifies romance.”

With knowledge, the transformative experience of romantic love can be approached with some insight about what is going on. In a North American culture that doesn’t teach many skills for intimacy, this can help navigate one of the deepest parts of human experience.

Stage one

“The first stage in a love relationship is a sense of infatuation, where one puts all of one’s hopes and dreams (into the person) and can actually just see the best in them. It’s that euphoric energy,” says Bruning-Haid.

This stage of love is described by researcher Helen Fisher at Rutgers University as lust. The first stage of lust involves a craving for sex. Jim Pfaus, a psychologist at Concordia University, says lustful sex spurs the production of opioids within the body, which act like heroin.

Stage two

The second stage, attraction, means honing in on a mate. Chemical reactions are set off inside the body, including increased adrenaline, dopamine
and hormones that create many of the sensations and states of mind we associate with falling in love. Feelings of exhilaration and intense focus on the object of one’s affections have been compared chemically with mental illness. Dr. Donatella Marazziti at the University of Pisa studied serotonin levels in 20 couples who’d been in love for less than six months. She found that the same brain mechanisms that cause lovers to think constantly about one another corresponded to the low serotonin levels in obsessive-compulsive disorder.

Interestingly, the brains of people in love also resemble those of people on cocaine in that dopamine levels are equally high. Dopamine’s a stimulant that gives a feeling of ecstasy and energy. Familiar to those in the throes of love will be feelings of not being hungry or needing as much sleep, and intensely focused attention that can pick out the smallest details in a new relationship to feel ecstatic about.

Along with these dopamine and serotonin roller-coasters, adrenaline levels increase during the initial crush phase, resulting in a fast-beating heart and other flushed signs of excitement. Bruning-Haid says, in amidst this natural chemical brew, lovers tend only to see the good in their partners while minimizing faults. It could all be seen as a part of nature’s plan to get people bonding.

“As you get to know the person, and you get to know who they are, and the projections of love get a little bit clearer, you start to get to see the person in the full capacity, and sometimes you really like what you see, and sometimes you don’t really like what you see,” she says. “That moves you into another stage of love.”

Stage three

This next stage is about incorporating the shadow, says Bruning-Haid, which is defined as all the parts of someone that don’t seem loved or loveable—maybe they think they aren’t worthy or have trouble opening up certain parts of themselves. “You start to recognize that they have their fears, and their worries, and their idiosyncrasies,” Bruning-Haid says. The opportunity is to build the relationship deeper, allowing people to see and be seen, and be loved for who they truly are.

Fisher describes this as the third stage of attachment. Chemicals at this stage are oxytocin and vasopressin. Oxytocin has many functions in human bonding, and is released during activities such as cuddling and orgasm. A fascinating substance, oxytocin increases attachment, raises trust levels, and helps people interpret social cues from others’ eyes, which means experiencing higher levels of oxytocin in a close bond, increasing the ability to read the other person’s emotions.

Vasopressin is also released after sex. A 2012 study of couples published in Biological Psychology reported higher vasopressin corresponded to a sense of security in attachment, greater support of one’s partner, better relationship maintenance, less negative communication, and a larger social network with better interpersonal functioning.

Its role in monogamous bonds has been studied by Dr. Larry Young of Emory University. In his study on prairie voles, who are monogamous, Young found if vasopressin was suppressed, the stable bonds between voles quickly deteriorated and they lost their mutual devotion.
Interestingly, voles have lots of non-reproductive sex, and it’s thought the post-coital release of vasopressin and oxytocin are responsible for their longterm partnerships.

An inevitable part of long-term relationships of any kind is conflict. BruningHaid describes that pivotal moment where someone’s heart gets wounded, and things can go one of two ways. “One, you can go into a sense of deeper love and connection,” she says. That person feels closer to them because they worked through the conflict. Otherwise, people get stuck. If they can’t move beyond their hurt, either the relationship ends, the love dissipates or someone pulls further away .

Bruning-Haid points out there’s not much of a model for working through conflict in North American culture. “Everyone’s kind of in the dark with it. Some are much better than others depending on what kind of role model you got as a family and in your life.”

“Most of us are unclear about what to do to protect and strengthen caring bonds when our self-centred needs are not being met,” writes hooks in All About Love. “When the practice of love invites us to enter a place of potential bliss that is at the same time a place of critical awakening and pain, many of us turn our backs on love.”

In her work as a therapist, BruningHaid has found no matter what someone’s sexuality, the same core stories come up around love, rejection and abandonment. It is working with these that takes loves to its depths and allows transformation to occur. “A healthy relationship is work–it’s work, it’s play, it’s joy, but it is work. People have to learn how to speak their truth, set their boundaries, honour themselves, honour the relationship.”

She says when people are in pain, they need to look at why. If a relationship is abusive or someone can’t get their needs met, or it keeps going in negative cycles, it may be time to take a break, or do some deeper personal work to figure it out. She also suggests looking at whether the relationship is worth being fuelled, and why you are holding on.

Grieving is a key piece when things don’t work out the way we want them to. “The practice of love offers no place of safety. We risk loss, hurt, pain. We risk being acted upon by forces outside our control,” writes hooks.

But for this delicious, life-changing experience, most find it worthwhile.


Larkin Schmiedl is a freelance journalist living in Vancouver, B.C. He loves to write about social and environmental justice issues.

Sidebar

ONE COMMUNITY MEMBER’S EXPERIENCE OF LOVE:

“I’ve found a lot of challenges with navigating relationships because I have a really broad feeling of what love is,” says Jazmin Papadopoulos, a 24-year-old queer Winnipegger. “I have a really difficult time differen- tiating between labelling individuals as just friendship, or just romance or sexual, or all the ways that we cat- egorize based on emotion like that.”

They describe their experiences of love as a sense of intense inti- macy that’s based on a higher part of themself.

“That kind of transcends those traditional boundaries.”

They share a deep spiritual love with their current partner, and a deep intimacy with a friend who’s a former date. “We decided to stop dating, and suddenly had access to this whole other realm of emotion that was so much more fulfilling, and is now one of the most intimate loves that I think I’ve had.”

Papadopoulos defines falling in love as the intense recognition of something in another person, and the myth about love they’d like to chal- lenge is the idea that there’s a finite amount of it to go around. Loving someone doesn’t detract from one’s ability to love a different person at the same time, they said.

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