How Do I Know If I’m Following My Heart or My Hormones?

Questioning WomanWhy do we always equate love with chemistry? Because, despite our protests to the contrary, true love is as dependent on any number of electro-chemical reactions and stimuli as sexual intercourse. In fact, scientists maintain that true love stems from an even more complex array of chemistry experiments than any other human life process.

Research psychologists have demonstrated that it takes only about one and a half to four minutes to decide if you like somebody. Only 7% of this response is driven by what a person says. The majority, 55%, is communicated through body language. The tone and speed of the person’s voice accounts for the remaining 38%.

Liking someone can take only a matter of minutes, but falling in love, real and deep romantic love, can take quite some time. To scientists, love is all about different kinds of chemical reactions brought about by the need to procreate. Love is nature’s elegant way of keeping the human species alive and kicking. How do we know it’s love and not just hormones? Staying power!

What are scientists telling us?

Social scientists recognize three distinct phases of love. Each is dependent on hormonal reactions and responses. Which hormones come into play will determine if it’s just a physical attraction or something more: true love. Love can be the most compelling and exciting force on the planet. It can also be as unpredictable as any human endeavor.

Researchers liken the chemical brain reactions of a couple in love with similar events in the brain that occur during episodes of mental illness; crazy, stupid love! In one way, romantic attachments are about making babies. We can subconsciously be attracted to someone because we like their genes. Internally, we believe that we can combine gene pools to produce strong and vibrant offspring.

What other chemical alarms are going off at the beginning stages of a love relationship? Smell is a powerful chemical attractant. We tend to prefer partners that look and smell much like our parents. By studying chemical reactions among participants, scientists can actually determine whether or not relationships are viable and will last.

Is it always about hormones?

Yes, yes it is. Some of the initial outward signs of falling in love include a racing heart, cold and clammy hands, and flushed cheeks. From the very first contact, to finally forming a lasting and loving bond, all people are at the mercy of their hormones and controlled by their body chemistry. Scientists recognize three distinct stages of love or falling in love, each controlled by a different set of chemicals.

What are the three stages of love?

The first of these so-called stages is best defined as the traditional hormonal affliction known as lust. Pretty much all relationships pass through this first stage, where the sexual hormones testosterone and estrogen are most prevalent. Testosterone plays a major role in fueling the sexual drives and appetites of women as well as men.

Once a couple passes through the lust stage, the real work of developing a relationship can begin. If lust driven by a desire for sex is only the first stage of falling in love, what then are the other two stages?

The second stage is attraction, otherwise known as the thunderstruck or love struck phase. During this developmental period in a relationship, the new lovers can think of little else but each other. People may find it difficult to concentrate on mundane tasks. They will often find themselves daydreaming about their new partner. Appetites can fail and sleepless nights may ensue.

All of these reactions are responses to a group of neuro transmitter chemicals call monoamines. Most people have heard of at least one, if not all three, of the major chemical players at this stage of a love relationship. The most common is dopamine, a feel-good chemical that is also produced when a body ingests drugs like cocaine or nicotine.

The heart palpitations and sweating noted earlier are caused by the chemical norepinephrine, or adrenalin as it more commonly known. Last, but not least in this group, is serotonin, a chemical that can literally drive a body towards temporary insanity; crazy stupid love.

Attachment is the third and final stage of a love relationship. Once the craziness diminishes and the stupidity veil is lifted from the eyes of the new lovers, a more stable condition of attachment sets in. The hormones responsible for this more permanent state of being in love are oxytocin and vasopressin. Both of these chemicals promote bonding and intimacy.

Do teenagers have all the fun?

As we might guess, the three stages of falling in love can be felt even more strongly by teenagers experiencing first loves or initial sexual experiences. Raging hormones and bodily changes aside, adolescent brains simply aren’t developed enough to process long-term, deep romantic love.

That’s not to say that teen relationships have no meaning. Quite the opposite is true, but a teenage crush can flame in and out in a matter of days or weeks. What’s remarkable about these examples of young love is the ability of those involved to quickly bounce back from breakups and start all over again.

Whether young or old, falling in love can be an exciting and exhilarating process. As a body grows older, the component parts and concentrations of several important chemical elements, like testosterone, drop off. Menopause in both women and men can sometimes lead to profound changes in how a person feels in a social or sexual context.

These changes are inevitable for us as older adults, no longer so intently focused on producing offspring. But as we grow older, the need for companionship, for meaningful loving and caring relationships, grows as well. We may not lust as we once did but we can certainly love one another as strongly and passionately as ever.