Love is one of the most important elements of our human existence. It is vastly written about in novels and in poems, is sung about in all sorts of music genres, is the topic of many movies and serves as central inspiration for art of various forms. It compels some of the most intense emotions and is perhaps the most sought-after experience in the course of a lifetime. But, what is it that makes love quite this important?
There are some obvious reasons that love is such a point of focus. For instance, no one wants to experience loneliness, and having a partner to experience new things with is enjoyable. In fact, there are probably thousands of reasons that can be cited to try to explain why love matters so much, but it turns out that the primary reason relates to our brains. Love causes the brain to have a whole array of reactions that explain why guys like Shakespeare spent the better part of their careers portraying the pain and strife of love: It’s biological.
In recent years, studies have been conducted that take pictures of the brain’s activity while participants are shown photos of their spouses versus photos of friends, acquaintances and even strangers. What the study found was that, even after decades of being together, couples that reported still being in love had the brain activity to back it up. Specifically, high levels of dopamine, a brain chemical or neurotransmitter associated with the positive feeling of reward, were detected only when the study participants were shown images of their spouses. On the other hand, dopamine was not produced when viewing photos of friends, acquaintances or strangers. In other words, romantic love has long-term value and reward on a completely biological level. Romantic love quite literally causes our brains to function differently indefinitely.
Love also causes several less-pleasant brain activities that relate to feelings that we might describe as lovesick. When we are in love, especially newly so, our brains typically experience greater production of stress hormones like norephinephrine. Have you ever found yourself unable to eat or struggling with the feeling that your heart is going to jump out of your chest? Not only can this feeling occur as the result of love lost, but it can also occur in response to being in love. These feelings relate to fear; specifically, fear of losing the love that you have acquired, and they can contribute to a crazy-in-love feeling.
Another shift in our brains as a result of being in love relates to a brain chemical or neurotransmitter called serotonin. If you or anyone you know has ever taken medication to help reduce anxiety, that medication generally acts to help your brain keep more serotonin. Serotonin is sharply related to anxiety and being in love actually causes us to produce less of it, making the likelihood of experiencing anxiety greater. If you’ve ever been in a relationship where you feel that you’re being controlled or that your partner is obsessing, it most certainly relates to serotonin. In short, love can cause us to act in all sorts of irrational ways. Love is powerful beyond measure and our brain activity quite literally proves this.
The good news is, long-term couples seem to have more regulated levels of norephinephrine and serotonin while continuing to have heightened dopamine levels, the neurotransmitter that actually helps love to feel good.
Some quick tips for maintaining dopamine (and love): Eye contact is the most powerful way of maintaining deep connection. Think of a mother and infant gazing into one another’s eyes — this occurs to establish a bond between mother and child. Similarly, romantic connection is maintained with this very-valuable eye-gazing. Next, you’ve probably heard you should maintain a healthy sex life in order to keep love alive. What you’ve heard is true! Longer-term relationships typically result in decreased frequency of sex, which is normal; research is also varied on how much sex is enough sex, but I’ll just say that if you can’t remember the last time you had sex, it’s definitely been too long. Oxytocin, most commonly known as the love drug, is produced during sex and is crucial to keeping romantic love alive.
Beyond that, unlike the complicated nature of our brain in love, quite simply, maintain love by being kind, focusing on your partner’s best traits instead of their worst, supporting one another and continuing to experience new things together.
Love is complicated but it is pretty amazing too, so if you’ve got it, enjoy it, respect it and protect it. Your brain will thank you.
Kristina Furia is a psychotherapist specializing in issues and concerns of the LGBTQ community in addition to depression, anxiety, substance abuse and other mental illnesses. Her private practice, Philadelphia LGBTQ Counseling, offers both individual and couples sessions (www.lgbtphillytherapy.com).
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