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Timeline of a Love Affair

This Is Your Brain on Love continued...

The downside of high dopamine is anxiety, restlessness, and emotional volatility. Such bad feelings are often mixed up with good ones in passionate love affairs. Dopamine plays a role in our ability to concentrate and control our thoughts, so elevated dopamine levels could explain lovers' tendency to focus exclusively on their beloved.

Because low serotonin in the brain is related to obsessive disorder, some scientists think low serotonin is a likely explanation for the way people in love obsess about their beloved.

Falling in love has been linked to hormonal changes, too. Researchers in Italy who studied serotonin and love affairs compared hormone levels of people recently fallen in love and those who were single or in a long-lasting relationship. They found that women who had recently fallen in love had higher testosterone levels than those who had not recently fallen in love, and men in love had lower testosterone than those who had not. Both men and women who had recently fallen in love also had higher levels of the stress hormone cortisol. When researchers tested these people again one to two years later, their hormone levels were no longer different.

The "in-love" stage of a love affair typically lasts six to 18 months, and occasionally as long as three years, says Denise Bartell, PhD, psychologist at the University of Wisconsin, Green Bay. But it does wane at some point. People get used to loving each other, maybe in the same way that people develop tolerance to the effects of mind-altering drugs.

Cuddly Hormones

Something keeps people together after the thrill wears off, however. "At a certain point there's a crossover from passion to intimacy," Bartell says, although, "that's not to say there's no passion in a relationship after that." People keep loving each other in a special way, and they keep having sex.

It seems likely that hormones are involved in intimacy, which psychologists also call attachment. Some research points to oxytocin and vasopressin, hormones thought to give us the "warm fuzzies." These hormones may also play a role in bonding between human mothers and babies. Studies of small rodents called prairie voles show oxytocin hastens attachment in mating voles and may even have the power to make non-monogamous voles act monogamously. But it isn't clear if what's known about voles applies to the love affairs of adult humans.

Breaking Up

If people were simple creatures, the hormonal process of romantic attachment would keep all love affairs going strong after passing through the "limerence" stage. People are not simple, and many couples who were perfectly, blissfully in love a year ago have split up and are seeing other people today.

Love affairs that start with falling in love may be set up to fail. Initially the lovers are in denial about any faults their beloved may have, and they're impervious to logic should anyone else suggest that the relationship may be a bad idea. After "limerence" wears off, certain things become painfully apparent.

Next Article:

What physical changes do you experience when in love?