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.
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
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
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
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