A couple of years back I’m in the Metropolitan Museum in New York with friends, and my buddy Jake comes up to me with a big grin.
“Hey, Guess what?” he says….
“I think I’m in love,” (I’m a life coach so people tell me this sort of thing)
“Wow, Jake, that’s great, but I didn’t even know you were dating anyone.”
“I know! We met last night in the bar, right after we all split up from dinner.” he said, and walked into the next exhibit room.
Yep, that’s right, you get it, what Jake was feeling wasn’t love, yet. It might eventually turn into love, but it wasn’t love yet. Over the past two decades, researchers have figured out that there are four distinct ‘biological stages’ that make up what we call love. The stages are often called different things, but for our purposes, we are going to refer to them as fascination, dating, falling in love, and true love.
Let’s look at each in more detail:
You get it; you sense them, you almost feel them from across the room. Your body tenses, your heart starts to pound, and your palms begin to sweat, (Anxiety) all before you’ve even said hello. As they cross the room coming closer, your pupils dilate and you experience a type of tunnel vision, and suddenly just as you start to speak, your mouth goes dry. In the romance novels this instant response is sometimes called chemistry.
Its how you know you’ve just met someone possibly important for your future life. In fact, many women I talk to will not even entertain the idea of dating a man without having experienced this initial response. This is what Jake was feeling. As nice as all that is, there is a rub: unfortunately, none of this has much to do with real love. This is about sexual attraction. Those feelings he experienced—the racing heart, sweaty palms, and dilated pupils—are caused when your body releases norepinephrine, the ‘fight-or-flight’ hormone. Its job is to get your attention and prepare you to investigate further…or run. The next phase is when the investigation occurs.
I use the term dating as a type of catchall. It’s a simple word for a complicated process. When you’re dating, your brain is tries to determine if this person is someone you’d like to fall in love with. This is important, and risky business. During the dating phase, your body changes thing up on you and releases different hormones now, 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 may also be released as she kisses, cuddles, and actually becomes intimate. Men, on the other hand, release vasopressin, which increases as he kisses, cuddles, and thinks about becoming intimate with her. And his testosterone spikes 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 that magnificent sensation called ‘falling in love’.
Falling in love
Researchers in Italy have recently discovered that when you fall in love, your hormones go absolutely crazy. Your stress hormone, cortisol, skyrockets leaving many people finding it difficult to eat or sleep. Conversely, your happiness hormone actually decreases in activity. Counterintuitive as this might seem, most people indicate that during this time they actually feel irrationally happy. As it turns out you feel happy because part of your brain, the amygdala, actually deactivates itself. That is the part of your brain that would otherwise be sounding the alarm because your stress hormone is so high. (Think, Danger Will Robinson)
Your anxiety is high and your happiness is low but it doesn’t feel that way because the part of the brain that should be telling you to run and hide has taken a short vacation. And, if that’s not bad enough, London researchers also found that your ventromedial prefrontal cortex has deactivated itself during this time as well. That’s the part of the brain that does all the judging for you. So no judging yourself or the other person. (That’s why “love is blind.”) During this time, you can’t possibly see your lover for who they truly are. But, since you’re not judging yourself either, you’re pretty happy with your life.
Of course, for anyone who has fallen in love, you already know that this doesn’t last forever.(Whew!) Sooner or later, your brain settles down and returns to your relatively normal stability. When this occurs, alas, some couples break up, while the best ones move to the next phase.
This is the phase of relative stability. It feels like most of the neurological excitement has settled down. But actually, brain scans show a dramatic shift in brain activity in this kind of love. Last week there was decreased neural activity; this week you have 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 images of the each other. In other words, while judgment does return, the couple chooses to focus on the good images. They choose to look at the things they love and not those little irritating idiosyncrasies that make them roll their eyes. 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 level of love. Not only is it found in the more evolved brain, but also when practiced, you are more empathetic and caring.
So you can see now that what Jake was feeling was not quite love, yet. But it was the beginning of a wonderfully glorious adventure that grew steadily and continues today with a marriage two years ago and a beautiful daughter Katherine.
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Frank Hopkins is a certified Professional Coach (CPC) and certified by the Institute for Professional Excellence in Coaching (iPEC). He is a certified Master Practitioner (ELI-MP) of the iPEC proprietary assessment tool, the Energy Leadership Index and offers seminars on Energy Leadership. He maintains memberships in the International Coaching Federation (ICF) and the Institute of Coaching (ICPA).