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Sex + Relationships

Love, chemically: A recipe for disaster or happiness everafter?

Feeling jilted?
 
Burn his pictures! Blast “Hopelessly Devoted” at deafening volumes! Laugh and cry simultaneously!

And march forward with dignity, sister, because this temporary dark spiral isn’t your descent into madness. When the rage subsides, you can blame those pesky hormones.
 
The Chemistry of Love

 
Start with butterflies, rose petals, frequent tears and sappy music. Combine euphoria with despair, madness with melancholy. Promptly set all contents ablaze so that no logical human can see through the smokescreen—and voilå!
 
You’ve got love. Or rather, love’s got you.
 
Freud called the potent four-letter condition a “psychosis of normal people,” while Roman stoic philosopher Seneca put it as “friendship gone mad.”
 
As documented by average chocolate sales on Valentine’s Day, society’s obsession is far from over.
 
“Love is absolutely fascinating because it holds so much mystery,” says relationship therapist Shelley Spencer-Hellmich. “What brings two people together who seem to just fit? I do believe there’s a bit of destiny involved.”
 
Fairytales aside, fast bonding between some couples can seem too perfect to be coincidental. Dr. Heather Rupp, an Assistant Scientist at The Kinsey Institute for Research in Sex, Gender, and Reproduction in Bloomington, Indiana, attributes this phenomenon to the same forces that wreak havoc on us monthly: hormones.
 
“You could actually say that love is a drug for the brain,” says Rupp. “Hormones behind romantic feelings can be extremely powerful.”
 
The heavily infatuated undergo a series of internal chemical reactions (consider early love a tumbling of hormonal dominos).
 
Oxytocin, a hormone that fosters bonding, is triggered by simple romantic actions: a flirty smile, a passionate gaze (love at first sight?), a warm embrace.
 
Dopamine, the brain chemical responsible for feelings of reward, is then released.

First comes ecstasy and extended gratification, Rupp says.
 
But often a darker symptom may manifest, commonly associated with abuse of drugs and alcohol—addiction.
 
The Science of Sadness
 
“The pathetic calls and texts are the most embarrassing part,” says Kaitlyn*, a junior at Purdue University. “I can’t rationally explain my behavior throughout my last break-up.”
 
The psychology major recalls a heady rush the night she met her ex-boyfriend, Sam*.
 
“It was electric,” she says. “We made intense eye contact several times throughout the party, and then finally he approached me.”
 
Effortless conversation led to a phone number exchange and passionate kiss.
“I started to fall that night,” she says, “and as I kept seeing him, the feelings intensified.”
 
Blissful months passed. Then one day, Sam grew distant. Phone calls maxed at five minutes. Lame excuses undermined dinner plans.
 
And then came words all lovers dread: “I don’t think I can be in a relationship right now.”
 
“It was devastating,” Kaitlyn says. “I know it sounds crazy, but I felt physically ill. I couldn’t eat, could barely sleep. I wanted to shake my doctor and ask, ‘What the heck is wrong with me?’”
 
The diagnosis?
 
Dr. Helen Fisher, author of “Why We Love: The Nature and Chemistry of Romantic Love,” says, to put it simply, love makes people go nuts.
 
“You’re feeling intense romantic love, you’re willing to take big risks, you’re in physical pain, obsessively thinking about a person and you’re struggling to control your rage,” she told the Wall Street Journal in 2007. “It’s possible that part of the rational mind shuts down.”
 
In an academic essay titled “Love Lost: The Nature of Romantic Rejection,” Fisher writes that most heartbroken individuals experience an intense grieving process, starting with protest—picture the iconic young John Cusack holding a boombox above his head and blasting sappy music below his beloved’s window—and ending in resignation and despair, which often occurs inside a dark, stuffy bedroom covered in slimy tissues.
 
“These two phases of romantic rejection…are caused by the activity of severing conjoining brain systems,” she writes. “Among them is dopamine. This natural stimulant plays a key role.”
 
Of the emotional damage, she notes, “The rupture is too horrible to comprehend.”
 
Some psychiatrists believe the protest response is a basic mammalian mechanism that activates when a social bond is broken, Fisher writes.
 
Consider a puppy that cannot find its mother—pacing, whining, pacing, whining—or a baby rat with the same problem—often too mentally aroused to fall asleep, as observed by scientists.
 
The heightened anxiety has a biological purpose, Fisher writes: to raise dopamine further and incite alertness and energy to search or call for help.
 
When eventual frustration kicks in, tender feelings quickly fade out. Extra energy provided by increased, sporadic dopamine converts to something darker.
 
“Love and hate are connected in the brain,” Fisher writes. “In short, when people or other animals begin to realize that an expected reward is in jeopardy, even unattainable, centers in the prefrontal cortex signal lower regions associated with rage—and trigger fury.”
 
Then comes the resignation phase, writes Fisher, where “new forms of torture” are introduced. Hopelessness and despair characterize an ex-lover’s quiet grieving.
 
When the brain realizes the “reward” (meaning more dopamine) is long gone, the hormone-making cells decrease production—resulting in a level lower than when love began. Meanwhile, short-term stress suppresses serotonin, the “happy hormone.” Depression is the short-term outcome.
 
Making Love Last: What we can control
 
Though heartbreak is never completely avoidable, Dr. Terri Orbuch, nationally known as “The Love Doctor” on radio and television appearances, believes lasting love—long after ocytocin and dopamine return to normal—is perfectly attainable.
 
She offers five simple guidelines:
 
1. Partners set realistic expectations.

“Do you wish he had rippling abs and a million-dollar bonus? Or that she was a football fanatic and perked up at 2 a.m.? Sure you do, but how realistic is that?” she says. “Having unrealistic expectations leads to frustration and my study found that frustration is the main reason relations fail.”
 
2.Partners do and say small things often.
 
In my study, couples who gave affective affirmation (compliments, help, support, validation) to each other regularly were the happiest and most stable over time,” she says. “Men crave affective affirmation more than women, because women typically get it from people other than their partners.”

3.Partners practice the 10-minute rule.
 
Couples need to talk to each other at least 10-minutes a day, about something other than work, family, who is going to do what around the house, or the relationship,” she says.
 
4. Partners mix things up.

“Relationship ruts can lead to unhappiness,” she says. “If you want to get out of the rut and add more passion into your relationship, the best way to do this is by implementing change. The changes can be small, but they have to upset the routine enough to make your partner sit up and take notice.”
 
5.Partners manage their disagreements effectively.
 
“All relationships have conflict or disagreements,” she says. “It is how you handle or resolve the issues that is important for staying together over the long haul.”
 
*names have been changed
 

Sources
 
Shelley Spencer-Hellmich, relationship therapist
Dr. Terri Orbuch, author and radio show host
Junior at Purdue University
Dr. Heather Rupp, The Kinsey Institute
http://www.helenfisher.com/downloads/articles/Article_final_JRS_06.pdf

Danielle Paquette is a junior (2012) at Indiana University studying Journalism, French and Human Sexuality. Fueled by caffeine and passion, the 20-year-old aspiring reporter adores Eurotrips, sand volleyball and Blair Waldorf's caustic wit.
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