During Romantic Love, Your Brain Acts Obsessed, Depressed, and Stressed

Psychiatrist and Professor

What can scientists know about love by looking at your brain? Quite a lot, says psychiatrist Dr. Gail Saltz. When individuals recall experiencing different kinds of love — romantic, maternal, etc. — brain scan machines (fMRIs) show which regions of the brain activate. As different regions are responsible for the release of different hormones, it is possible to establish biological similarities between romantic love and other emotional states that activate the brain in similar ways. The results are not what you might expect.

We have heard that experiencing lust affects the brain in similar ways as cocaine: a major pleasure hormone (dopamine) is released and it is easy to understand the similarity, though mistaking the effects of drug abuse with what results from romantic love would be an error. What's known as the cuddle chemical (oxytocin), is also released from the brain during periods of romantic love, making partners want to be in close physical proximity to each other. And the intensity of romantic feelings releases a chemical also found during periods of emotional stress (vasopressin). Perhaps for the better, these intense feelings do not last long.

Dr. Saltz recommends a period of waiting before making any lasting commitments to your partner — time commitments, financial commitments, genetic commitments — which gives your brain a chance to adjust to the new, probably less romantic circumstances of your relationship. And while that stability can be a welcome change to the obsession, depression, and stress of romantic love, Saltz has some basic tips for maintaining feelings of romance and passion throughout your longterm relationship.

  • Transcript

TRANSCRIPT

Gail Saltz:  Not all loves are created equal as far as the brain is concerned. Studies have looked at activity in the brain when recalling passionate or romantic love versus say maternal love and finds that different centers definitely are more active. In other words they put people into the functional MRI and they said think about your partner or think about your lover and certain areas lit up. Or they said think about your mom and different areas lit up which is important because different areas are responsible for the release of different neurotransmitters which then come to affect your future feeling states and future behaviors. So during romantic or passionate love what happens from a neurotransmitter standpoint, those chemicals that are released when you have that particular experience? Dopamine goes up. Dopamine is essentially the neurotransmitter of reward. So it is a neurotransmitter that’s released when you have new or novel experience but particularly experiences that are reinforcing like gambling or something that is really addictive. In fact literally addictive it’s the neurotransmitter if you snorted cocaine that is most responsible for wow, that was great and I totally want to do it again. So that is a neurotransmitter that definitely goes up when you are in the throes of romantic or passionate love. And what does that mean for you?

It means that you’re going to feel the sense of being addicted to your partner. And in fact it’s also the neurotransmitter that goes up for people who have obsessive compulsive disorder. Does that mean you’re going to develop OCD? No. But what it does mean is you’re probably going to obsess over your partner. In comes another neurotransmitter that’s called serotonin. It is definitely a neurotransmitter that is active for obsessive compulsive disorder and it means that you’re probably – and for depression. Do you become depressed? No you really don’t but what you do do is a feature of depression called rumination. So you think about your partner over and over and over again in this really obsessive manner. And if your partner is separated from you you’re going to have this longing where you’re, you know, wanting to be with them kind of like you’d want to be with a drug if it was taken away from you and you were already addicted to it. There are changes in other neurotransmitters as well. So if you’re physically with your partner the neurotransmitter oxytocin which is kind of known as the cuddle neurotransmitter and that makes you feel like warm and snuggly and intensely bonded to this person. It is particularly released following orgasm so, you know, if you’re having sex with your partner and things go well you’re going to feel very attached to them, exceedingly intimate with them partially because of that neurotransmitter.

There are other neurotransmitters that actually also change. Vasopressin which has to do with stress level. And so there’s this whole panoply of release of neurotransmitters that make you feel very obsessed, very addicted, thinking constantly about them, very intimately, cuddly, attached and stressed actually. It is a stressful condition to some degree to be really into your partner.

So all of these neurotransmitters can definitely be released in lust, okay. Which I’m going to say is like the earliest stage perhaps. And so that’s why to some degree it can be good to give it a little bit of time before you invest too much in this person because you can go right up into sort of a wonderful addictive neurotransmitter state and not have this be the greatest partner for you. And before you as it were invest your resources, you know, whether we’re talking about emotional resources, financial resources and genetic resources in terms of for example having children. You do want to give that initial blip some time to come down so that you can have some reason over whether this is a good partner choice. In terms of the science to support what is a good partner choice? For the long haul it does seem that having very similar values and to some degree having a lot of similarities in general often leads to a longer term ability to maintain the relationship. And why is that? And I’m not talking now about sexual compatibility. I’m not talking about that wonderful passionate feeling but I’m really talking about just maintaining any relationship. It is easier when you have fewer bridges to cross. So over time as this whole neurotransmitter thing settles out what’s left to be able to maintain your relationship going forward?

If you’re arguing over everything because basically you fundamentally don’t agree on most things that is a challenge. I’m not saying it’s a challenge that can’t be managed and I certainly wouldn’t say for example that opposites can’t attract because they often do. But the question is what do you do with that down the road? If you’re a different religion. If you believe differently in how many should be managed. If you have different goals in terms of family rearing, career aspirations, long term how you want to live your life. These are bridges that have to be crossed with a lot of communication and a lot of compromise. To some degree studies support the less compromise you have to make, the easier. And, you know, that’s very – that’s not surprising, right. That’s easy to understand. So choosing someone with some similarities will make for less compromise down the road. And then the question becomes how good are you and your partner individually at communication, at compromise, at being able to make choices that really aren’t your first choice for the service of some greater good.

The thing about all this neurotransmitter release is it’s very prevalent during new passionate love but it’s difficult to maintain and that’s why, you know, we’re talking all the time about people like it was great at the beginning and then like where did the fire go. And that’s because the state doesn’t tend to remain over time. It may remain for several years actually but to keep the kind of passionate love going that most people do, particularly if they get married want to for life you really have to work at stoking some of these neurotransmitters. So for example I might be telling someone who’s come to me and said, you know, we’re just not, you know, we love each other but we don’t feel in love anymore and how do we keep the fires going? I’m going to tell you to do things like new novel activity because that is going to raise dopamine. And that is going to help keep that whole system in place for you to some degree. I’m going to tell you to have sex more frequently because – and I’m going to tell you how to have better sex so that you could hopefully be having an orgasm with your sex so that you could be releasing some of that oxytocin and keeping that really intimate cuddly bonding feeling together. So looking at these different areas and trying to advise you to do things that raise neurotransmitters in the same way that your brain does automatically when you are first in passionate love.