It is finally over; the month of love and cheesiness. February is the month when being single suddenly means you’re going to die alone, pink is the new black and most people want a little piece of the romantic action! every single year, we have to prepare ourselves for getting overwhelmed by vomit-inducing gestures, annoying love songs and overly commercialised heart-shaped stuff, because apparently on Valentine’s Day “all you need is love”. That’s right people — who needs food or shelter when we have our craziest of emotions to keep us warm? Before you decide that I’m being too cynical, consider the fact that “crazy” is a more accurate description of love than most people would like to believe. So let’s fix that.
“Your heart sweats, your body shakes, another kiss is what it takes”: a wonderfully steamy little line from Robert Palmer’s “Addicted to Love”. This sums up perfectly the pulse-racing, stomach-tightening, breath-catching phenomenon that is desire. Desire or lust is the first stage of falling in love. Research suggests that the identification of a potential mate and the altering levels of hormones it causes within us can give us the physical symptoms of desire and aid the bonding process that leads to the further stages of love.
Lusting after someone is a very primal instinct where we want nothing more than simple sexual gratification. It is believed that we initially evolved this desire to motivate us to seek out partners for reproduction. When we are attracted to someone it triggers the release of testosterone and oestrogen, increasing our sexual desire and driving us to seek union with the object of our affections. When this task is achieved (which is lot easier said than done) it causes the release of further bonding hormones, which play an important role in the next stage of falling in love: attraction.
Attraction, also known as obsessive love, involves the reward hormone dopamine which helps deepen the bond between partners. Dopamine is our brain’s treat to itself; increased levels of this hormone are associated with excess levels of energy, loss of appetite and euphoria. Sound familiar? Those little butterflies you get, never being able to sit still, always having a massive smile on your face. Increased levels of dopamine occur when we see our lover or even just think of them. Love is usually referred to as a drug as these high levels of dopamine can be addictive. They lead us to be anxious and unsettled when we can’t see or be with our partner and therefore are no longer receiving the regular ‘hit’ of dopamine we’re used to. This is the same mechanism through which drug addictions act; an addict becomes dependent on the high levels of dopamine released by the continuous intake of particular drugs. In a way, we’re all truly ‘addicted to love’.
Finally, the stage of attachment is the bond that keeps couples together long enough for them to have and raise children. This is largely controlled by two hormones: oxytocin (‘the cuddle hormone’) and vasopressin. Both are released by men and women after sex (in the case of oxytocin, release is after orgasm in particular), strengthening the bond between them and deepening their feelings for one another. The more sex a couple has the stronger their bond becomes. So sex without love – not so easy after all!
No matter how sceptical about love you might be, there is no denying it – love is one awfully powerful emotion! Just to put things into perspective, the symptoms of attraction are said to be similar to the effects of cocaine and codeine put together. And yet, an experiment once found that if you meet a complete stranger, reveal intimate details about your lives for 30 minutes and then stare into one another’s eyes without speaking for 4 minutes, you will most likely develop a deep attraction for one another after a mere 34 minutes. In fact, two of the subjects in the original experiment later got married! For such a violent emotion that is capable of messing with your head, heart, sleeping and eating patterns, it turns out falling in love is dangerously easy…
Jess Reynolds & Donah Sabbagh