Love must be one of the most talked about subjects, and indeed, longed-for emotions on Earth. But there’s a lot of mystery about it and no one is quite able to define it. You see, it’s more than a feeling. And the brain’s chemical reaction to falling in love can equally apply to falling out of it.
With all the different societies, religions and beliefs that exist around the world, there’s still one thing that unites us: love. Indeed, the customs and traditions revolving around romantic unions can vary wildly from one culture to the next. Whatever faith a person subscribes to, the need for romantic companionship appears to be universal.
For example, a study was conducted by biological anthropologist, Helen Fisher, more than two decades ago. She found that among 166 societies, there was evidence to support the existence of romantic love in 147 locations. And it was no matter of mere formality, either; we’re talking burning, passionate love.
Additionally, Richard Schwartz is a couples therapist and professor at Harvard Medical School. He has long studied the evolution – and sometimes failure – of love alongside his wife of four decades, Jacqueline Olds. He said of Fisher’s findings that, “there’s good reason to suspect that romantic love is kept alive by something basic to our biological nature.”
In further studies, Fisher observed via functional MRI (fMRI) the brain activity of subjects experiencing romantic love. Data was collected from 2,500 college students’ brains while looking at pictures of someone close to them. This was later compared to data from the same students looking at images of non-romantic acquaintances.
The research showed that brain activity increased when the students saw images of people they had romantic feelings for. More specifically, the activity occurred in areas of the brain abundant with dopamine. Dopamine is, of course, the chemical that makes us feel pleasure, and it operates along four significant channels in the brain.
However, two areas of the brain in which the fMRI detected activity were the caudate nucleus and the ventral tegmental regions. The caudate nucleus is the part of the brain responsible for reward detection and expectation. What that essentially means is that we learn to recognize when particular behaviours or actions will trigger a specific outcome.
The ventral tegmental region was actually identified by James Olds, father of Jacqueline, when she was a child. In association with the caudate nucleus, the ventral tegmental part of the brain is connected not only to pleasure and focussed attention, but motivates us in the pursuit of reward acquisition.
“We know that primitive areas of the brain are involved in romantic love,” Jacqueline Olds, now a professor at Boston’s Massachusetts General Hospital told Harvard Medical School’s On The Brain newsletter. She added, “These areas light up on brain scans when talking about a loved one. These areas can stay lit up for a long time for some couples.”
Furthermore, it’s when the chemicals related to the caudate nucleus are released that we feel all the sensations of falling in love. For example, our cheeks may become flushed, palms might become sweaty, our hearts can start racing and we experience all the sensations of passion and anxiety connected with seeing someone you’re attracted to.
In the early stages of romantic love, our brains increase the production of cortisol. Cortisol is the body’s natural chemical that governs our anxiety, in particular our “fight-or-flight” response in a crisis. As the brain produces more cortisol, the chemical serotonin, a key contributor to feelings of happiness, becomes overwhelmed.
Depleted serotonin levels create an imbalance. Schwartz described this disparity in romantic bonding as the, “intrusive, maddeningly preoccupying thoughts, hopes, terrors of early love.” In other words, it’s what causes us to become infatuated with someone, sometimes to the point of obsession. But there’s something else that happens in the brain, too.
At this point, romantic love looks like a feeling of panic. But in addition to the increase in cortisol and depletion of serotonin, the brain releases dopamine, the compound that, as Olds characterized it, “gets the reward system going.” What that does is turn those anxieties into a positive experience, similar to the buzz of drinking alcohol or taking drugs.
As romantic relationships progress, other chemicals come into play. For instance, vasopressin and oxytocin are substances that are associated with maternal states such as pregnancy, mother-child relationships and breastfeeding. The production of oxytocin during intercourse and its intensification with bare-skin contact escalates the bonding experience and deepens connections after sex.
While oxytocin – the love hormone – promotes feelings of ease, peace and safety, vasopressin plays a more long-term role. Oxytocin is more prevalent in mating, while vasopressin kicks into action throughout stable relationships. Some believe it’s why the early feelings of excitement fade when security develops. Yet, there’s even more to it than that.
The rush of positive feelings that develop in the early stages of a relationship overwhelm negative ones. That means feelings of, for instance, judgement and fear also become suppressed. Most people have heard the phrase “love is blind,” well, it could be due to the brain’s inability to critically assess a romantic partner. Your mind can’t find fault in them.
However, over time, these surges in chemical activity in the brain will level out. As Schwartz described, “The passion is still there, but the stress of it is gone.” Love, which triggered all the brain activity in the first place, then provides relief from the the anxiety it initially caused.
That’s not to say that the pleasure and reward regions of the brain stop activating over time. While they continue to function, the intensity of lust and longing in the early stages of a romantic union often subside. Even so, the love has grown deeper and surpassed the initial excitement of romance.
However, that doesn’t mean desire disappears. Fisher was involved in further research that looked at the brain activity of couples in long-term marriages. What her study group learned was that dopamine was still active in the brain in the same way as new couples. They concluded that it’s possible for anxieties to disappear without affecting the presence of passion.
So, if long-term love is attainable from initial attraction, what is it that makes people fall out of love? While most seem to desire a monogamous, lasting relationship, it doesn’t always work out that way. After all, almost half of marriages end in divorce. What happened to make the early spark fade away?
Love can be a complex thing. And while falling in love can happen completely out of the blue, falling out of it is more likely to accumulate over time. When love happens it can give a sense of euphoria for weeks, even months, or perhaps years. However, a relationship’s demise can be almost imperceptible.
Of course, there may well be arguments but, just because you fight with your partner doesn’t mean you no longer love them. Likewise, they might have habits that you find annoying. And those habits could gradually grind on your nerves until you feel like you’re about to explode. But what if it’s more than that?
Just like falling in love, there are multiple emotions that can be attached to its demise. For instance, your partner may have done something to anger you, and while you’ve vowed to put it aside it nevertheless festers. Or maybe there’s a resentment that will result in a sudden and unexpected confrontation.
Or perhaps there’s just no emotion at all. There’s no hate, but there’s no love either. In fact, there’s just an overwhelming sense of apathy. Of course, it’s natural that emotions in relationships change over time, but having no feelings at all for a partner can’t be a good thing.
However, it’s already been established that our heads play a big role in matters of the heart. So what happens in the brain when we fall out of love? Well, according to an article printed in the scientific journal Review Of General Psychology in 2015, our minds are just as equipped to deal with a breakup as they are falling in love.
The study was written by J.C. Barnes of the University of Cincinnati, Florida State University’s Kevin Beaver and Brian Boutwell of Saint Louis University. They present a theory that people have a coping mechanism in their brains when romantic feelings fade. They call the theory the “mate rejection module.”
The idea of the mate rejection module is not a new one. Indeed, for many years evolutionary psychologists have put forward an idea that a human’s ability to terminate one relationship and ready themselves for a new partner improves their reproductive success. In fact, humans aren’t necessarily programmed to have one partner for life.
For instance, polygamy is the norm in some societies even today. Whereas in others it hasn’t always been easy to be granted a divorce. Even in less formal arrangements, the emotional stress of switching partners can sometimes be difficult. But in their report, Barnes, Beaver and Boutwell presented a theory.
In their study, the authors suggest there are two processes the brain goes through when falling out of love. The first is what they refer to as the “primary mate ejection.” That, in lay terms, means making the decision to separate from a lover, or “reject a mate.”
The second part of brain activity when dealing with a breakup the report’s authors identified as the “secondary mate ejection.” This is when the emotional aspect of rejection is processed. Eventually the hurdle will be overcome, clearing the path for a new romantic venture. But the writers made a remarkable observation.
Barnes, Beaver and Boutwell found that there may be considerable differences between men and women when processing these states of mind. For instance, if a partner has cheated, the man or woman may respond in a different way, taking into account how severe they consider the deceit to be.
Men are generally less forgiving toward infidelity should their significant other have sex with another man. The reason for this is that, throughout history, men are less open to the idea of raising another man’s child. However, women are more sensitive to emotional cheating, or their man falling in love with another woman.
A man’s emotional infidelity, in a woman’s eyes, renders him untrustworthy in providing support for her or their offspring. However, it will depend on her circumstances as to whether she “ejects” him. For instance, is she financially able to provide for herself and any dependants? Does she have a network of family and friends to support her?
However, to fully understand mate ejection, Boutwell and his co-authors looked closely at studies of the brain’s behavior when falling in love. In particular, they paid particular attention to the studies that showed similarities between the brain’s channels active when in love, compared to activity during addiction.
Indeed, the areas of the brain mentioned earlier that are responsible for reward and expectation do not only function in matters of the heart. The chemical reactions can, in fact, also be triggered by eating or consuming alcohol or drugs. It’s then that the phrase “drunk on love” starts to make sense.
The connection between romance and addiction might also help explain the pain someone suffers during a breakup. Moreover, it could be why stalkers have such difficulty processing their amorous desires. Additionally, it could throw light on why “mate ejection” may feel something like trying to give up drugs.
However, as with drug withdrawal, primary and secondary mate ejection is a process that takes time. Once the feelings of love have been overcome the brain will again be ready to make romantic connections with someone new. But what if you’ve invested too much into a relationship to give up on it?
“Falling out of love might just mean that the honeymoon phase is ending,” psychiatrist Dr. Susan Edelman told lifestyle website Elite Daily in October 2018. “And that’s O.K. How can you focus on work when you’re obsessed with your partner?” But just because the initial butterflies and fireworks have subsided doesn’t mean the relationship is over.
As Dr. Edelman explained, “Many couples do remain in love over a lifetime. There are ways to increase dopamine levels to keep the romance alive, such as doing new and exciting things together or giving your partner some space to miss you.” Indeed, the key to rekindling a romance, or even kickstarting one, is communication.
So, if you feel some distance setting in between you and your partner, ask yourself – and your significant other – if there’s anything you can do to reignite the spark. You might just rediscover the drunk-on-love feeling of when you first met. On the other hand, it could be a sign to move on to something better.