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There are several kinds of love. When we are first attracted to someone, the brain is producing the hormone testosterone for males and estrogen for females, as well as the chemical nitric oxide. All love behaviors suggest a neurological basis for attachment.

However, when we are in a state of infatuation, we experience intense, passionate love and obsessive thinking about the person we love. These thoughts resemble the behaviors of a person with obsessive-compulsive disorder, which is generated by the neurotransmitters epinephrine, norepinephrine, dopamine, serotonin and phenylethylamine (PEA).

When we want to be more connected to another and foresee our lives being entwined with those we love, the hormones oxytocin and vasopressin are at work. The feeling of being in love mostly involves the effects of oxytocin.

We detach when there is an end to a relationship due to divorce, death or when the person we love decides he/she no longer loves us. These losses create deficiencies in serotonin and endorphins. When a friendship ends, we are disappointed, but when a love ends, we feel more desperate, dejected and abandoned. Some people actually experience a deep depression.

Both men and women exhibit similar brain activity when these chemicals become activated. Recent studies show that men may fall in love more easily than women, and they may suffer more when close relationships don’t work out.

People who are in love are under the influence of dopamine, which makes them feel the emotions of exhilaration. The other neurotransmitter, PEA, resembles the effect of amphetamines and a person feels more energetic. It affects our mood and energy which is similar to those reactions of stimulants. Dopamine and PEA combined may explain why people who fall in love feel so optimistic and energized.

Scientists who study evolution find that the rise and fall of passion in a relationship may be a functional part from a reproductive standpoint. When a new baby is born, the mother’s love and attention usually shifts to her infant. This is perfectly normal, but passion for the lover soon returns.

Passionate love is experienced by humans all over the world, but culture may influence how people bond. Fifty percent of people from India and Pakistan, where arranged marriages are commonly practiced, said they would marry someone when love does not exist, while only 5 percent of Americans said they would. 

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Being in love affects how we make decisions about another person. We are more likely to make impulsive decisions when we are in love which can have long-lasting effects. These impulsive decisions often affect the course of the relationship because we lack information about the true nature of the person we believe we love.

Impulsive decisions cause us to miss the red flags that warn us trouble is coming down the road. For example, a person who is overly attentive may turn out to be possessive and controlling. A person who is often out of money for social events may later turn out to be financially irresponsible not only with his money, but also with yours. Or, someone who is quick to anger later shows uncontrollable rage from childhood abuse.

Unfortunately, when people fall in love, they do not show their flaws, which is why having a long engagement is more conducive to having a lasting, healthy relationship. Having a longer courtship allows more time for our true personalities to be revealed and more time to curb our impulsive behavior.

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Dr. Lynda M. Gantt, Ph.D., is a licensed marriage and family therapist in Santa Maria.

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