Most of us know what it feels like to fall in love — but what many people don’t know is there are specific biological mechanisms behind the wacky things going on in your brain and body. Today Dr. Melissa Lem broke down the science of what happens when you’re riding that rollercoaster of love!
Stage One: Lust
Lasts: A few weeks to months
The Lowdown: You know you’re in lust when you fixate on your lover’s looks and bedroom skills—and not much else. Hormones are the major chemicals that come into play during the lust stage.
Testosterone: For men the main culprit is testosterone, which boosts your sex drive and increases your aggressiveness when you’re chasing after your partner for a hook-up.
Estrogen: In women, estrogen also ramps up your libido, conveniently peaking during ovulation when you’re most fertile.
Watch out for: Risky business. Being in lust is like being a teenager again! Hormone surges can impair your judgment and lead to risky behaviours like unprotected sex, so keep your biology in mind and try to play safe.
Stage Two: Attraction
Lasts: 1.5 to 3 years
The Lowdown: During this love-struck stage you spend most of your time obsessing and fawning over every little thing about your lover. There are three major chemicals that come into play in the attraction stage.
Dopamine: the “pleasure chemical” is the same neurotransmitter released by drugs like nicotine and cocaine — making you blissful and energetic with a reduced appetite and need for sleep.
Norepinephrine: a “fight or flight” chemical causes those excited physical symptoms like alertness, sweating and a pounding heart.
Serotonin: the “obsession chemical” plummets to levels commonly seen in people with obsessive-compulsive disorder—which is why lovebirds can’t stop thinking about their one-and-only. Low serotonin also explains why “love is blind,” because it suppresses the part of your brain used for judging your partner.
Watch out for: Love addiction. Love is literally like a drug for some people. When dopamine levels eventually drop at the end of the attraction stage they experience withdrawal symptoms like boredom, restlessness and depression. This sends them out in search of a new relationship for their next hit!
Stage Three: Attachment
Lasts: several years to decades
The Lowdown: You know you’re in the attachment stage when you feel more calm and secure. There are two majorly active chemicals during the attachment stage.
Oxytocin: the “cuddle chemical” is a bonding hormone released during touch and sex — so the more physical contact you and your partner enjoy, the greater your connection. It makes you more trusting and less anxious, and triggers a surge of feel-good dopamine.
Vasopressin: the “monogamy chemical” is also liberated when you get busy. People with higher vasopressin levels tend to be more supportive, work harder on maintaining their relationships and communicate better. Not only that, studies show that men with longer versions of the vasopressin receptor gene are more likely to be married, while those with shorter ones are more likely to be bachelors!
Watch out for: You’ve lost that loving feeling. Divorce rates typically peak around the fourth year of marriage, which is often when the attraction stage ends. When those neurotransmitters dip many wonder if their partners have changed for the worse — but often it’s their own brain chemistry that’s changed. So renew your attraction by seeking out new experiences with your lover — a natural trigger for dopamine release — and, of course, cuddling as often as possible.
Important Note: Although the three stages of love can occur in any order, this is the most common pattern. Enjoy the ride!