No longer an ideal for philosophers and poets, modern science has defined love as an emotional attachment that connects us across time and space. Not only that, we’ve proven its existence through its effects on our brains and bodies.
When we know that we are loved, we are healthier on a physiological level. Our stress hormones are lower, our blood pressure is normalized, and we live overall longer, happier lives. When you’re not the only person responsible for your safety, your brain can reallocate a vast amount of resources to more than just satisfying immediate needs.
But real, enduring love is not the same kind of love that movies teach us to expect. Overwhelming feelings, love at first sight, sharing your bed with your best friend where everything is effortless and easy: yes, these experiences exist. But they rarely, if ever, last.
This kind of temporary love goes by many names: limerence, eros, “in love”, the honeymoon stage, passionate love. Stories have been told about it for thousands of years, and in our story-driven society we might feel that there is something wrong with our lives if our relationships aren’t like this all the time.
When we’re in the middle of these emotions, our brains are releasing wild amounts of hormones that make everything feel okay. Dopamine, the excitement hormone, and norepinephrine, a type of adrenaline, get released in amounts shockingly similar to a cocaine high. And serotonin, the hormone that is released with actual happiness, gets decreased. Without that other person to make you feel high again, you’re miserable.
Since this kind of state is not very helpful for survival, our brains are wired to shut it off after they feel that we’ve been given long enough to have children (usually between 18-24 months). And since this rarely happens in both partners at the same time, it leads to that dreaded moment where one partner, still fully in love, gets told: “I love you, but I’m not in love with you anymore”.
Love That Lasts
But real, lasting love has been found in many couples – some of whom have been together for over 60 years. And without exception, couples who have found this kind of love say the same thing. The emotional connection they share is deeper than any passion they’ve experienced elsewhere, and their sexual relationship is more satisfying than any fling.
If it sounds too good to be true, it’s not easy. Our brains adjust to the excitement hormone, dopamine, incredibly fast. Anything that was stimulating once – sports, sex, romance, gambling, travel – quickly loses its luster, needing more and more intensity to give the same amount of emotion.
Thankfully, there is one thing that blocks our brains habituating (getting used) to dopamine: oxytocin. When we are emotionally vulnerable and authentic with another person, our brains flood with this bonding hormone meant to keep us attached together. And with enough oxytocin being released, we no longer such a massive amount of stimulation to feel joy again.
This is why love has the power to make everything seem new and magical again, as if we were children.
Where Things Go Wrong
But for many of us, relationships are a source of more pain than good. What little vulnerability we are capable of is only possible with the highs of a new relationship promising endless possibilities. As a result, we feel like our partners don’t really see us, don’t really accept us, and we consistently have to put aside our needs for theirs.
“If I do everything right – if I am good – I will be loved. I will get the things I need, and I will be finally happy. …But for some reason, what I give is never enough for the people I want in my life.”
Constant self-sacrifice eventually breeds resentment and frustration. Even if the relationship started out magically, we end up stuck in a loop of “come here, go away”. An endless cycle of craving space, pulling away, then chasing after a partner who isn’t as available as we’d like.
If this sounds familiar to you, you have what’s called an insecure attachment style.
Attachment styles are deep subconscious beliefs taught by our childhood about ourselves, other people, and the meaning of love itself.
When we believe something subconsciously, we contribute to making our beliefs come true. We turn a blind eye to the partners who would be good for us, and chase after the people who can be provoked into hurting us the way we’re used to being hurt.
If you’re ready to:
- get off the emotional roller-coaster of your past relationships
- break free from the same tired fights that come up over and over again
- open up to being loved for all parts of yourself
Then read on, and be gentle with yourself about what you discover.
The first step towards change is understanding.