What if I were to tell you, that you’re not in love, and that your brain is just experiencing a surge of dopamine? Doesn’t sound too romantic or resemble the mushy fairy tales of happily ever after that we’ve all grown up with. But the fact of the matter is, you cannot deny the chemical changes that occur in the brain when it comes to love. Contrary to popular belief, your brain is your biggest sex/love organ.
According to American anthropologist and human behavior researcher, Helen Fisher, there are three different mating drives in the brain and all three intertwine to create love. Each is associated with different neurochemicals and each produces a different set of feelings and behaviors.
First, there is lust which is characterized by the craving for sexual gratification. Lust was evolved to motivate individuals to seek a range of partners. The primary hormone at play is testosterone, and the higher the amount of testosterone one has, the higher his/her sexual drive is. It’s interesting to note that men with high baseline levels of testosterone marry less frequently, have more adulterous affairs, and divorce more often.
The next mating drive is romantic attraction, which emerged to drive men and women to focus their mating energy on just one person at a time. Romantic attraction is characterized by feelings of exhilaration, and intrusive, obsessive thoughts about the object of one’s affection. The chemical at play here is dopamine, also referred to as the pleasure chemical. Elevated levels of dopamine result in focussed attention and can cause one to concentrate relentlessly on positive qualities of their mate and overlook negative traits. The elevated levels of dopamine is also associated with craving and addiction – a blissful dependency when love is returned, but a painful, sorrowful craving when one’s love is not returned.
The third drive is attachment which is responsible for bonding and commitment between two individuals. This drive was developed to enable our ancestors to live with a mate at least long enough to rear a single child through infancy together. The hormones at play are vasopressin and oxytocin, also known as the “cuddle hormone”. Oxytocin increases trust and affectionate feelings. Attachment is characterized by feelings of calm, security, social comfort and emotional union.
Now that you understand the three primal drives, it’s important to note that lust and romantic love are associated with different constellations of brain regions. In other words, lust and love are not the same. You can have lust with someone, but that does not necessarily lead to attachment and bonding.
However, love can start off with any of these three feelings. Some feel strong sexual attraction, have sex first and then fall in love later. Others fall head over heels in love (romantic attraction), then climb into bed (lust). Others slowly grow deeply attached to someone they have known for months or years, and then feel drawn to have sex.
Understanding the science behind your feelings can help shift your perspective when it comes to falling in love. For instance, you may not want to write off that person you are compatible with because you don’t feel initial “sparks” (ie: lust), as it’s possible lust can grow through time. You may also want to be realistic about what chemistry really means. Just because someone desires you, it doesn’t mean the person will bond with you to create a deeper attachment. Love really is a complicated concoction of chemicals at play, and when that mixture is just right – where chemistry, compatibility and timing are harmoniously aligned, it is then where the possibility for a budding romance can really thrive.
2 Replies to “The 3 Mating Drives That Cause Love”
Thank you for this summary of the three mating drives in the brain offered by Helen Fisher. I am very interested in the research that explains how chemicals in our bodies impact our emotions.
Another fascinating book on this subject is The Female Brain by Louann Brizendine, M.D. She points out that 99% of the genetic coding for males and females is exactly the same. It’s the 1% that makes us different from one another. We are hardwired for romantic attachment. Isn’t that amazing?
If you hug your partner for 20 seconds, oxytocin is naturally produced in your brain and it triggers the trust circuits in your brain. Dr. Brizendine advises not to hug your partner unless you plan to trust them. Good to know!
I look forward to more gems from you, Amy!
Hi Mary Lou,
Thank you for the book recommend, I’ve read it and it’s one of the books I refer to often.
I also enjoy Esther Perel’s work. If you haven’t already, take a read of her book Mating in Captivity.