Julia floated up to me with a big smile, “Guess what?” she said.
“I think I’m in love,” she replied.
“That’s great, but I didn’t even know you were dating anyone.”
“I know! We met yesterday,” she said and flitted away.
You’ve probably guessed that what Julia was feeling was not love. It might eventually turn into love, but it wasn’t love yet. Over the last 20 years, researchers have discovered four distinct biological stages that make up what we refer to as love. These stages are often called different things, but here, we are going to refer to them as attraction, dating, falling in love, and true love. Let’s look at each in more detail.
You know the feeling; you sense them from across the room. Your body tenses, your heart starts to race, and your palms begin to sweat, all before you’ve even met them. As they come closer your pupils dilate, but you experience a type of tunnel vision, and your mouth goes dry.
This instant response is sometimes called chemistry. You know you have just met someone important. In fact, many women I talk to will not entertain the idea of dating a man without this initial response. This is what Julia was feeling. But, unfortunately, this has very little to do with real love. This is about sexual attraction. Those feelings you’re experiencing—racing heart, sweaty palms, and dilated pupils—are caused when your body releases norepinephrine, a fight-or-flight hormone. Its job is to get your attention so you can investigate further. The next phase is when the investigation occurs.
I use the word dating as a type of catchall. It’s a simple word for a complicated process. When you’re dating, your brain is trying to determine if this is a person you’d like to fall in love with. As I explain in a moment, falling in love is a rather risky business. During the dating phase, your body releases different hormones, specifically dopamine and oxytocin for women, and dopamine, testosterone, and vasopressin for men.
Dopamine is released in both men and women when they are excited about the potential of winning the reward of love. Oxytocin in women is released as she begins to trust. It can also be released as she kisses, cuddles, and becomes sexual. Men, on the other hand, release vasopressin, which increases as he kisses, cuddles, and thinks about becoming sexual with her. And his testosterone goes up each time as he “wins” her attention and approval. If all goes well, these hormones reach a type of tipping point. On the other side of that tipping point is the glorious sensation we call falling in love.
4. Falling in love
Researchers in Italy discovered that when you fall in love, your hormones go haywire. For example, your stress hormone cortisol skyrockets. That’s the reason many people find it hard to eat or sleep during this time. Also, your happiness hormone actually decreases in activity. This is counterintuitive; most people indicate that during this time that they feel deliriously happy. But the reason you feel happy is because part of your brain, the amygdala, actually deactivates—that’s the part of your brain that would otherwise be sounding the alarm because your stress hormone is so high.
So even though your anxiety is high and your happiness is low, it doesn’t feel that way because the part of the brain that should be telling you that has taken a vacation. And, if that’s not bad enough, London researchers also found that your ventromedial prefrontal cortex has deactivated during this time as well. That’s the part of the brain that judges yourself and the other person. (Now you understand the saying, “love is blind.”) During this time, you can’t really see your lover for who they truly are. But, since you’re not judging yourself either, you are quite happy and content with your circumstances.
Of course, for anyone who has fallen in love, you already know that this is a temporary phase. Eventually, your brain must return to homeostasis, or relative stability. When this occurs, some couples break up, and others move to the next phase.
5. True love
This is the phase of relative stability. It feels like neurological excitement has settled down. But actually, brain scans show that love takes a dramatic shift. Where once there was decreased neural activity, now we see an overabundance of it. That’s one of the reasons we see more breakups after the hormones wear off. Here is where critical judgment returns.
However, couples that stay together have one thing in common: the ability to maintain positive illusions of the other. In other words, the judgment may come back, but they choose to focus on the good. They choose to look at the things they love in the other person and not those little irritating foibles we all have. Although your brain is busier than ever, this is a more grounded love that shares neural activity with morals, compassion, and unconditional love. Neurologically speaking, this is a higher love. Not only is it found in the more evolved brain, but when it’s practiced, you become more empathetic and caring.
What Julia is feeling right now is not quite love yet. But it may be the beginning of a wonderfully glorious adventure.