If you’re looking for the ‘science’ behind relationships and emotions, the first person you should google is Helen Fisher. She’s done amazing research into the biology of love and attraction. After extensive studies, Fisher believes humans evolved three core brain systems for mating and reproduction: lust, romantic attraction, and attachment. Depending on the person, love may start out with any of these feelings. Each drive instructs sexual desire and mating differently. Each involves different neurochemicals in your brain.
Lust is animal attraction, your desire to have sex with any semi- appropriate partner. Driven by the sex hormones testosterone and oestrogen in both males and females, lust involves cravings for sexual gratification and biological horniness. Romantic attraction makes you focus on a particular partner and occurs when you are truly love-struck and can think of little else. The three main neurotransmitters involved in this stage, backed by science, are; norepomephrome, dopamine, and serotonin. Attachment is the bond that keeps partners together long enough for them to have and raise children. The two major hormones involved in this feeling of attachment are oxytocin and vasopressin.
The different experience could manifest in the following ways: experiencing a strong sexual attraction, and having sex first and then falling in love; falling head over heels in love before climbing into bed. Or slowly growing deeply attached to someone, after knowing the person for months or years prior to having sexual feelings towards him/her/ze/hir. Each of these roads to love and attraction are perfectly valid and right. The path is personal and individual and, according to Dr. Fisher, depends on your biology.
No matter what path you take, each stage triggers powerful chemicals, which flood the body. The pleasure we get from sex is largely due to the release of dopamine, a neurotransmitter that activities the reward center of the brain. Sex drives up dopamine in the brain and pushes you over the threshold toward falling in love. When flooded with dopamine, you “bury” the things you don’t like about your object of affection. Instead, you focus on what you adore. Intense energy, elation, mood swings, emotional dependence, separation anxiety, possessiveness, craving, and above all, obsessive thinking take over your brain. This is all completely normal! Orgasm brings on a rush of oxytocin and vasopressin, which generates feelings of trust and attachment. Your body is telling you how to feel versus your mind.
The emotions your body chemicals trigger serve different functions. When lust, romantic attraction, and attachment combine, you’re able to mate, bond, and parent (if you choose). Fisher believes this evolution happens for several key reasons:
- The sex drive or lust evolved to encourage you to seek a range of partners. By figuring out what type you like and don’t like, you are better able to know when the ‘right’ one enters your life.
- Romantic love evolved to enable you to focus your mating energy on just one at a time. It’s a refinement of lust. That may be why it is easy to confuse lust and love. Through her research, Dr. Fisher concluded that it is a fundamental human drive, “like the craving for food and water, and maternal instinct, it is a physiological need, a profound urge.” (The Sex Contract and Anatomy of Love) Romantic love comes from the primitive emotional centers of your brain and involves the brain’s self-reward system, which is why we like being in love.
- Since romantic love by itself is not sufficiently anchoring for long-term, cooperative child-rearing, attachment evolved to enable you to feel a deep sense of union. When you have reached the attachment phase, you tend to feel calm, secure, and comfortable. It’s quieter than love and lust but no less powerful.
A majority of long-term relationships, of all kinds, lose much of the desire or lust that was once felt at the beginning of the relationship (usually felt most during the first two-years of a relationship), when love was unchartered and new. Having sex in a long-term relationship, involves more security and less novelty, therefore, it is not uncommon to experience a diminished level of lust.
Dr. Fisher came to a conclusion that your brain cannot maintain this revved-up state for long. “Many of us would die of sexual exhaustion if romantic love flourished endlessly in a relationship. We wouldn’t get to work on time or concentrate on anything else except the person we were infatuated with.”
The realization that a relationship or marriage no longer supplies the charge it formerly did, is then an invitation to reinvigorate your relationship: avoid predictability in favor of discovery, novelty, and opportunities for deepened intimacy and pleasure. If you have reached that ‘quiet’ stage of attachment, beyond lust and romantic love, make sure you: take care of your overall health and sense of self, communicate your needs, understand your sexual response cycle (and your partners) and do not rush things along, work through any repressed anger or resentment, and build intimacy and trust through shared experiences, creative exploration and making more eye contact (in and out of the bedroom).
Helen Fisher has done some great work to help us understand why we behave how we do when it comes to lust, love, and attachment. No matter what stage you are at with your partner(s), it’s important to live, laugh and – most of all, love.
Sexology International, like all of our work, is for people of all sexual preferences and all forms of gender expression, including people whose identity is something other than male or female. As such, we like to use gender-neutral pronouns. More recently accepted alternatives include words like “ze” and “hir” or the universal pronoun “they.” Throughout our work, we will be doing our best to use alternative pronouns, such as “they,” whenever gender or plurality is unimportant. In doing so we hope it helps everyone to feel included in the discussion and that it inspires you to think outside of traditional sex and gender binaries.