The Science of passion

New relationships often run hot with passion, but then cools over time, leaving partners to wonder what happened. The answers, however, can be pursued by turning to the dispassionate tools offered by neuroscience.  

Dr.  Jessica O’Reilley (PhD) is a Toronto-based sexologist who has spent her career exploring the science of passion.

“There are two phases of love, passionate love and attachment love,” says O’Reilly. “During passionate love, your brain is in overdrive being flooded with chemicals, the feel-good chemicals, which are cued by the hypothalamus and the pituitary gland. You get this boost of adrenaline, serotonin, norepinephrine, and dopamine; and as these chemicals spike, you are filled with this piercing energy.  Serotonin fills you with self-confidence, dopamine essentially makes everything feel pleasurable and norepinephrine provides endurance.  You are basically experiencing a high, not dissimilar from a drug user, but like any good high it cannot last.  It makes you irrational, your mood is unsteady and you don’t make good decisions.”

But for those addicted to love, the rushes from these powerful chemicals can become less impactful over time, but hope remains for the relationship to progress to a stable pair-bond, attachment-driven love, which is powered by its own cocktail of neurochemicals.

“This is a bit of an oversimplification, but passionate love is marked by a different set of chemicals during the next phase, of attachment love, the chemicals at work are oxytocin, and vasopressin.” 

The chemicals that are more active during attachment love have long been known as the bonding hormone experience by a parent when bonding with his, or her, child.  

Turning to an interesting animal experiment for insights, prairie moles subjected to suppressed levels of vasopressin were more likely to abandon their young.

For humans, creating the stimuli for the release of these attachment-love driven neurochemicals can take some effort, and may be a reason why long-term relationships can be equally challenging yet satisfying.

“You don’t activate this chemical simply by getting along,” says O’Reilly, “you active these chemicals by novelty, unpredictability, anticipation, fear of the unknown, curiosity, nervousness, challenge, and fear of rejection.”

From additional animal studies, we know that dopamine levels are twice as high when anticipating the reward compared to actually receiving the reward. In a romantic relationship, it is important to keep creating challenges, having the uncomfortable conversations and even mimicking the stimulus received during the earlier passion-driven stage.  

O’Reilly explains how at the beginning of a relationship, a partner may feel nervous about rejection, which leads to anxiety. This motivates new partners to focus on actions that will make them seem more interesting, but these actions are less sustainable in the long term, meaning the cooling of passionate love is not just neurochemical but also behavioural.

Behaviour, however, is taught, and in western culture we have been conditioned into believing the myth of soulmates, a behavior that is not seen in eastern cultures.  

“For instance, in India, you often hear of arranged marriage, which is not somebody delivered to your door as westerners sometimes erroneously believe, but parents and families getting involved in finding a partner.  So it is not a matter of …that night I saw him from across the room, instead you develop that spark over time, and you grow to have that spark if you actually work at the relationship, so they seem so much more inclined towards investing in relationships because it is practical.”

What O’Reilly has gleaned from studying successful relationships that come from a variety of cultures demonstrates that there is a common thread. In other words, couples that stay together long term are effectively able to resolve and move on from common marital disagreements and issues.

It is worth considering that the neuroscience of romantic love could potentially be applied to other areas of our lives as well.

Credit: Benedict Campbell

For example, do we get a chemical rush when we fall in love with our new job, only to see that passions fade as the long-term realities set in? Employers try to make the employees feel comfortable by giving them everything they need, and to communicate effectively with them, only to be jilted by employees who leave for that hot new start up.

O’Reilly sees many parallels between those two sets of behavior.

“For employers, providing perks is important to show gratitude, which is characteristic of attachment, but it is very important to create opportunities for employees to take personal risks if you want them to stay.” 

Owing to this behavioral overlap, O’Reilly often finds herself working with executives and their partners, and found that an employees’ home life can have a big impact the business. Employees struggling at home often have a higher degree of absence from work, while affairs between co-workers can become huge distractions for companies.

Another type of relationship that runs hot and cold is that which exists between sales professionals and their clients.

O’Reilly noted that “the more time you spend with clients, the more your charm wears off, so how do you keep the relationship fresh?”

The advice she offers to sales professionals and their clients is similar to what she would offer romantic partners: show appreciation by doing something unexpected, show your adventurousness, even talking about the things that scare you.  Essentially creating scenarios where tension and anxiety can run high.  Romantically speaking, good passion-producing activates are those that get your adrenaline up and doing it with your partner is key.  Similarly, changing up the corporate work routine by introducing new challenges can cultivate an employee’s passion for his, or her, job long-term; which naturally extends into team building and work culture as well.

Regardless of the type of relationship it is, keeping things interesting takes work, but your brain will likely enjoy the rewards of your efforts.