The Brain in Love

Dedicated to you, all women, and anyone else who benefits from reading this.

The following is a collaboration of notes and thoughts from my journal after reading several articles and watching TED Talks. My intention is to shed some light onto certain mindsets we, as women, inevitably have or have had. Rather than feel guilty about it, I hope to use the following explanations as tools to understand what is going on inside ourselves. Through this awareness, I think we then have a choice as to how we respond.  If you have ever asked yourself the following questions, please, read on…

Why did he lose interest after I slept with him right away?

Why are my feelings so much stronger after sleeping with him?

Why do I feel obsessed with this guy?

Why do I continue to like this guy who is clearly not good enough for me?

There are 4 chemicals/hormones I think are important to know for what I’m about to explain, so here are some quick little definitions:

Dopamine → “feel good chemical” released with any sense of reward (love, lust, food, drugs)

Oxytocin → neuroscientists call this the “trust hormone,” “bonding hormone,” or the “love drug”

Vasopressin → the “commitment”  hormone that is linked to monogamous relationships

Testosterone → a hormone produced in both sexes, but is much higher in males

Why did he lose interest after I slept with him right away?

Alright, so a guy and a girl meet. Chemically, a lot starts happening, but most importantly, oxytocin, dopamine and vasopressin are being released in both the male and female brain. However, in the male’s brain, one other thing starts to happen when he meets a female in the first initial stages of attraction. When a man is attracted to a woman and partakes in the initial stages of dating or potentially considering this woman as his mate, huge amounts of testosterone are released. Testosterone blocks the effects of oxytocin. So even though his brain is producing and releasing  more oxytocin just like the female’s, the effects that it produces (bonding and trust) are not being evoked due to testosterone blocking it.

So, what hormone is left working in this man’s brain to still make him want to bond? Vasopressin. Vasopressin is released in males during attraction, bonding, and anytime he feels sexually interested in a female. Here’s the catch: the second a man sleeps with a woman in the early stages of relationship, his level of vasopressin plummets. So not only does he have testosterone blocking the effects of oxytocin, but now, the other chemical that was previously giving him the desire to bond with the female, vasopressin, has decreased immensely.

Let’s say the female decides not to sleep with him right away, so in this case the male still has the vasopressin, oxytocin, and testosterone being released in high amounts. Here’s the other catch: the man’s testosterone will begin to regulate itself over time when and only when a feeling of commitment starts occurring. So the woman doesn’t sleep with him right away keeping his vasopressin levels high, while simultaneously the effects of oxytocin come into play because his testosterone levels go back to normal and therefore are no longer cock blocking oxytocin.

Testosterone blocks the bonding effects of oxytocin. Sleeping with a guy right away powerfully decreases the bonding effects of vasopressin. So if you really want a guy to consider you as his potential mate, allow time for his testosterone to go down and don’t suppress his vasopressin.

Why are my feelings so much stronger after sleeping with him?

From everything I’ve read, it seems like oxytocin seems to have to most profound effect of all other hormones (particularly in a woman). It’s no joke that it is called the “trust hormone,” “bonding hormone,” and “love drug.” The love felt when nursing your own newborn baby? Oxytocin. Hugged by your Dad? Oxytocin. Kissed by your husband? Oxytocin. I wanted to use these specific examples because they are situations where there is some level of physical touch. Although oxytocin is released when there is not physical touch involved (simply just thinking about or being around family and friends can release it), oxytocin is released in way higher amounts in a female when there is physical touch, more specifically and most importantly, it has been shown that a woman’s oxytocin skyrockets from sex, especially when she orgasms. Oxytocin also brings forth feelings of trust, which will only play to the female’s disadvantage if the guy she has just slept with is not trustworthy.

So, flashback to the woman who chooses to sleep with the guy right away. Picture the scene: the guy has finished, so the sex is done. (If that’s not the cause nine times out of ten then consider yourself lucky.) Anyways, maybe there is some brief cuddling or a quick exchange of eye contact, the woman probably wishes he would look at her and hold her longer, but he rolls over, looking up at the ceiling with no trace of emotion on his face. The passion that was just there left the room as quickly as he came. What has just happened? His vasopressin has just hit an all time low since first feeling attracted to her; meanwhile her oxytocin is going through the roof. Her desire to bond with this man has just multiplied, while his has just been reduced little to none.

Why do I feel obsessed with this guy?  

I mentioned earlier that in the early stages of relationship, dopamine gets released in both the male and female brain. Dopamine is responsible for the brain’s  “reward system,” even including vices like addiction. Too much dopamine in a relationship can underlie unhealthy emotional dependence. The regions of our brain that light up when we are feeling attraction are the same regions that light up when drug addicts get high or when we eat sweets (or in my case, probably cheese). In a way, attraction is like an addiction to a human being. A drug addict’s withdrawal is not unlike love-struck people craving the company of someone they cannot see.

Additionally, believe it or not, your physical body initially reacts to attraction and the potential of love the same way it does to stress. It releases two stress hormones called norepinephrine and cortisol. Cortisol is the same hormone that is released in “fight or flight” situations. The result? You feel giddy and energetic (norepinephrine and cortisol) and euphoric (dopamine). Unfortunately, when your body’s nervous system releases these stress hormones, particularly cortisol, levels of serotonin, a neurotransmitter, become depleted.  Lower levels of serotonin are linked to people with obsessive compulsive disorder. Lower levels of serotonin (especially in combination with the higher levels of dopamine and oxytocin I mentioned earlier) may explain why we concentrate on little other than our partners during the early stages of a relationship,

Why do I continue to like this guy who is clearly not good enough for me?

I think this part of what I am writing is important because not only does it give insight to why you do this, but it will also put things into perspective the next time you painfully observe your friend torturing herself over a guy that just. isn’t. fucking. worth it. Reflecting on my own experiences, the advice I give to friends is advice I probably wouldn’t have taken at some point in my past. In other words, it is easier from the outside looking in, but try for a moment to put yourself in their shoes with all these chemicals and hormones in their brain going absolutely haywire.

Anyways, back to answering the question of why you choose to be with a man against your better judgement. Your friends can point out countless traits about this guy clearly indicating he is an asshole, or just not for you. Even you see the red flags. Maybe there aren’t  even red flags, but intuitively there is something telling you he is not the one. So why, against your better judgement, are you still so infatuated with him?

The following are two major pathways in your brain. The first pathway is from the nucleus ambiens to the prefrontal cortex. Known as the “positive emotions pathway,” it is responsible for the regulation of critical thinking, self-awareness, and rational behavior. The second, known as the “negative emotions pathway” between your nucleus ambiens and amygdala is responsible for assessing those we are romantically involved with. Of these two mentioned pathways, falling in love shuts down one of them. Can you guess which one?

The negative emotions pathway is shut down. Your ability to assess your potential mate is deactivated. “When we are engaged in romantic love, the neural machinery responsible for making critical assessments of other people, including assessments of those with whom we are romantically involved, shuts down.” Essentially, this is the science backing the ancient proverb “love is blind.”

So, in short, there you have it. Basically, the female brain falling in love is shooting out dopamine, oxytocin and vasopressin like fireworks, all the while shutting down a neural pathway in your brain critical to making an accurate and important judgement call. To me, this is what I would consider the neuroscientific explanation behind the “rose colored glasses” of love.

The Dependency Paradox

I recently read  Attached by Amir Levine and Rachel S.F. Heller. The book discusses dependency and love from a biological and anthropological perspective. This need we feel to depend on our mate is a primal trait embedded in our genes. Our emotional brain was handed down to us from ancestors whose need for reassurance of their partner’s availability was necessary for their survival. Fairing alone once made humans susceptible as prey.

 All humans also have an “attachment system,” which is a biological mechanism in our brain specifically responsible for creating and regulating our connection with our romantic partners. Based on behavioral patterns from this system, all adults fall into one of three categories: anxious, avoidant, or secure. I fall into the anxious category.  Particularly at the beginning stages of a relationship, I am hypersensitive to any signs of rejection or loss of interest from my partner and I need reassurance. For example, if I text him in the morning and he doesn’t respond immediately, I will feel anxious and obsess over the matter all day, only feeling relieved once he responds. Then I might also play the game of “he took four hours to respond to me so I’m going to wait this amount time to respond to him too.” I have “highs” (he text me!) and “lows” (he hasn’t text me so he’s lost interest/something must be wrong). I can confuse what those elated “highs” really are by wrongly labeling that emotion as passion and excitement for this newfound love. And that panic I get when, in an instant, I think something has gone wrong is my attachment system at work (the “low”).

However, most people are only as needy as their unmet needs. The more effectively dependent people are on one another, the more independent they become. In other words, there is a healthy level of attachment or interdependence on your partner. That is not to confuse interdependence with co-dependence. Having your partner constantly address your insecurities and using your partner in a way that impedes on his/her own independence and growth as an individual is unfair and selfish, and by no means to me is what I consider love.

I’ve learned there is no shame in telling your partner their reassurance is one of your basic needs. This is called having a “secure base.” A secure base is the knowledge that you are backed by someone who is supportive and whom you can rely on with 100 percent certainty and in times of need. As someone who has an anxious attachment system, if I don’t have that secure base (not just in my partner but closest friends), I will find it much harder to maintain focus and engage in life fulfillingly.  

That is not to say I (or anyone else with an anxious attachment system) needs reassurance all day, everyday. It’s actually quite the opposite. If I have that solid reassurance in the beginning stages of my relationship, the obsessive question of “does this person want me or not” isn’t there to torture me. I feel secure and can go about my day (and life) with a healthy mindset. Scientifically speaking, my attachment system is still there and always will be, but isn’t constantly triggered or activated because my partner has given me that clear secure base. The key is to communicate these needs of mine to my potential partner early on. Based on his response or how he behaves afterwards will be a clear indication of whether or not he feels comfortable acting as my secure base and fulfilling my intrinsic attachment needs. By paying attention to his response, I then get to make the decision of whether or not he is the right partner for me. Knowingly staying with someone who will not meet your needs is consciously choosing to set yourself up for unhappiness and heartbreak. Don’t let him set the pace, or tell yourself it will happen naturally, or when he is ready. Communicate who you are and what you need.

In my own past, I have made the mistake of staying with a man who was not right for me because it filled me with fear knowing there was pain to come should I choose to leave him and move on. A study has shown that the same region in your brain that lights up when you break your knee is the same region that lights up when you are experiencing heartbreak. In other words, you brain equates separation from a partner the same way it does physical pain.

I would not wish heartbreak on my own worst enemy; the excruciating sense of loss can almost feel unbearable. However, if you really want to fulfill your highest potential, you must know there is sometimes inevitable pain involved. Facing those uncomfortable situations head on is tough, but if you choose to do so, you walk away not only with a sense of empowerment, but above all, love for yourself in that moment you chose to grow because you left behind what no longer serves you.

My Own Additional Note On Love and Spirituality

After reading through this, you might be thinking damn I am going to keep men at an arm’s length. That is not why I wrote this, nor do I want anyone reading it to make that conclusion. In fact, my hope is quite the opposite: to empower women through this self-awareness to make the right choices with the right men. To add to that, I hope that anyone taking this knowledge with them will never use it as a tool to enable and justify their neurotic behavior. To clarify that point I am trying to make, I never want a woman to think:

Oh, well because I know my dopamine is making me crave this man or because I know I have all this oxytocin pumping through my veins, it’s totally understandable that I am making these bad choices to continue to be with (or pursue) someone who isn’t deserving of me” or “it’s okay I’m giving this guy so many chances, I have a neural pathway deactivated in my brain that’s hindering my assessment of his character.”  

Rather, I hope a woman will think:

Okay, I know this _______________ (fill in the blank with whatever chemical or hormone) is causing uncontrollably strong emotions, irrational thoughts, or poor judgement, so rather than act on them, I’m going use this awareness and take a moment to truly make the best choice that will provide my life with the healthiest and happiest long term outcome for myself.”

I am not perfect. Anyone who knows my history will recall a sad track record of unhealthy relationships. What I have chosen to continuously work on in this past year is finding a point of recognition where I’m like okay, here is where I went wrong, let’s work on this. I do not my beat myself up over my mistakes. Guilt does nothing but immobilize you in a moment that has already passed.

The following is a mistake worth mentioning. You say okay, I am cutting this guy out of my life because he does not treat me well and I deserve better. I have also let this guy know I am cutting him out of my life because here are my standards and this is how he has not met them. You did it! Right? Here is the breaking point: if you make that decision and verbalize it, stick to it. Some of the following are ways you are making the conscious choice to not stick to it:

  • Blocking him on social media and then unblocking him (attention-seeking)
  • Cutting off contact but then reaching out with a text message (desperation to seek out the high he once gave you)
  • Flirting with him when you are in the same social setting and then being cold (playing games)
  • Succumbing to his attempts to get you back (he texts you whether it be immediately after you cut him off or time has passed and you proceed to text back, feeling elated and relieved, maybe even with a false sense of new hope)

These, amongst others things, are you going back on your word and are completely demoralizing yourself. If you go back on your word, you are a part of the problem. You are not sending him “mixed messages” by any means because the message you are sending is very clear and it is this: you are allowed to treat me in a way that does not meet my standards. Why are you allowed to? Because I am demonstrating through going back on my word that I may have moments of strength and clarity where I tell you “I won’t be treated this way because I deserve better!” followed by weak moments that I let you back in. Doing this is only of detriment to yourself, and quite simply, cruel. Not to mention, it is a disservice to other women in his future because you have now showed him it is okay to treat a woman poorly and get away with it. Why would you subject the person you love more than anyone in the world (yourself!) to mistreatment from a person who does not value who you are and what you have to offer? If reading this right now feels empowering to you, then hold onto that feeling next time you know a moment of weakness is coming on. It’s sometimes easier said than done. Trust me, I know.

On a bright note, I want you to know that in many of the studies I have read about, there were tons of people in long term relationships who reported happiness and satisfaction in their partner and themselves. One of these studies particularly looked at activity in dopamine-rich areas of the brain. They compared couples that had been married for over 20 years to couples who were falling in love. The couples married for over 20 years that reported feelings of love and fulfillment had the same intensity in these dopamine-rich areas of the brain when compared to new couples who were falling in love. The change in love from the younger couples to older couples was essentially a shift from passionate love to compassionate love. In other words, the reward and passion are still activated as loving relationships proceed, but the constant craving and desire that are often inherent in early romantic love often lessen.

Yes, it can be beneficial understanding our brain and the effects these chemicals and hormones have. However, at the end of the day, I believe our souls have innate logic and wisdom that is present at any moment should you choose to truly quiet your mind and listen. How do you listen? You pay attention to how what your gut is telling you. Ten times out of ten it will be right. If you truly aren’t getting a clear message, ask for the advice of your close friends and family and be open to what they have to say because it won’t always be easy to hear. From there comes the struggle to muster up the strength to walk away from an unhealthy romantic situation. You dig for that strength until you find it because you know at heart  you deserve to feed your soul the energy that sustains it in the best way possible.