Science-backed research shows what happens in our brain during the 3 stages of falling in love: lust, attraction, and attachment.
How long does it take to fall in love? This question has puzzled people for centuries, and in this article, we'll explore the science-backed research that reveals what happens in our brain during the three stages of falling in love: lust, attraction, and attachment. Love is deeply rooted in our primal brain system, and understanding the hormonal influences on our dating lives can provide valuable insights into our relationships.
How Long Does It Take to Fall in Love: A Guide to Understanding Our Hormones and Relationships
If I were aware of how much our hormones influence our dating lives, I would have made different choices. When I fell madly in love with my first boyfriend, I wouldn’t have said yes to his marriage proposal after three short months (!), or when my fiery and passionate relationship began fading into monotony, I wouldn’t have seen it as a red flag and dumped him immediately.
I don’t regret anything. Every relationship was a learning experience and brought me to my fiance, Diego. But even in my relationship with Diego, I faced trying times. I experienced fluctuations in feelings and emotions, which I later found out was due to a health issue that was affecting my hormones. As soon as I corrected the issue, my feelings of desire and love for him came rushing back.
I wish there would have been a guide to tell me what was going on when my feelings started to shift and change in my romantic relationships. So, I am writing this guide for all of those people who want to understand why our feelings for our partners change and evolve over time, and ultimately, how long it takes to fall in love. I have learned, based on research and personal experience, that dating can be distilled into two distinct phases: pre-commitment and commitment. During these two phases, hormones influence our relationships in unimaginable ways.
The Stages of Falling in Love and the Signs You're Falling in Love
Lust: The first stage of falling in love
When you begin falling in love, there are two hormones that drive lust: testosterone and estrogen. Testosterone increases libido in both men and women. The effects are less pronounced with estrogen, with some women reporting more sexual arousal around ovulation when estrogen levels are highest. The evolutionary basis for why testosterone and estrogen are so strong in the initial stage of falling in love stems from our need to reproduce, a need shared among all living things.
- Driven by hormones: testosterone and estrogen
- Testosterone increases libido in both men and women
- Estrogen's effects are less pronounced; some women report more arousal around ovulation
Attraction: The second stage of falling in love
There are three neurotransmitters that drive attraction: dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin. This is where things get interesting. First off, lust can occur without attraction, and vice versa. Attraction happens in the brain pathways that control “reward” behavior, which explains why the first few weeks or months of a relationship can be so exhilarating and all-consuming. Dopamine, adrenaline, and serotonin take over the brain system, inducing a cascade of effects, such as sweaty palms and rapid heartbeat. This is the truly love-struck phase. When people fall in love, they experience events such as insomnia, loss of appetite, and obsessive thinking. Let’s look at this group of neurotransmitters individually.
Dopamine, also known as "the feel-good chemical” is responsible for the high we feel when we do something daring, like skydiving, or the satisfaction we feel after we play our favorite sport or eat our favorite meal. Dopamine drives attention, motivation, and addiction, and is driven by novelty and mystery.
2 Norepinephrine & Cortisol
When in love, cortisol and norepinephrine have been shown to increase. Why? Well, it appears that stress is the trigger for a quest for pleasure, proximity, and closeness. During the early stages of a relationship, there is a moderate amount of stress due to fear of the unfamiliar. In other words, it can be stressful not knowing what’s going to happen in your relationship. You feel so content, you don’t want anything threatening your current state of bliss. Your body’s natural response is to enter into a physiologic state of alertness that may help overcome neophobia. This state of alertness is accompanied by cortisol and norepinephrine.
Serotonin is the most important chemical in love. It is responsible for literally changing your thought patterns. It diverts your mind and bounds you to think of your love and nothing else, setting you on a path with the end goal being to fall in love. You actually experience lower levels of serotonin when in love; this is because serotonin decreases when the other two chemicals (dopamine and norepinephrine) increase.
- Driven by neurotransmitters: dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin
- Attraction happens in the brain pathways that control “reward” behavior
- Dopamine, adrenaline, and serotonin take over the brain system, inducing a cascade of effects
Attachment: The third and final stage of falling in love
Attachment is the final stage of a relationship, forming powerful bonds that enable couples to raise children together. The transition from lust and attraction to attachment is grounded in brain physiology, where amphetamine-like substances begin to drop and the endorphin system takes over, giving partners a feeling of safety, stability, tranquility, and peace.
People couldn't possibly stay in the lust and attraction stage forever. It is unstable and not a good basis for child-rearing. The attachment phase enables mating, pair-bonding, and parenting (respectively). It is characterized by feelings of calmness, security, social comfort, and emotional union. Important in this stage are two hormones released by the nervous system, which are thought to play a role in social attachments. As feelings of attachment grow, the production of oxytocin and vasopressin grow as well. Oxytocin is released by both sexes during orgasm and promotes bonding when adults are intimate. The theory goes that the more sex a couple has, the deeper their bond becomes. Vasopressin is an important chemical in the long-term commitment stage. Its role in long-term relationships was discovered when scientists looked at the prairie vole.
- Attachment forms powerful bonds that enable couples to raise children together
- The transition from lust and attraction to attachment is grounded in brain physiology
- Oxytocin and vasopressin play important roles in social attachments
So, how long does it take to fall in love?
Falling in love can happen as quickly as 2-4 weeks. When I asked one friend how long it took her to fall in love with her boyfriend, she responded, "22 days." She elaborated, "I kept a log of our dates because I had a feeling he’d be special and I’d want to remember our first dates. It was a day or two after our first kiss (which…took a while!) that I knew I loved him. We said I love you to each other on January 24th, which is exactly 22 days after our initial date."
The first two stages, lust and attraction, otherwise known as the honeymoon phase, can last anywhere from 6 months to two years. During this period, it is normal for the lovers to be in a completely blissful state of being, which can be exhilarating but can also make partners unaware (or avoidant) of potential red flags. Not all red flags are threatening to the relationship; they can actually create an environment for the relationship to deepen as the couple will have to work through a conflict together.
Following the honeymoon phase, the couple will move into the third and final stage of a committed partnership: attachment. It is normal for the fire and passion to cool during this stage, however, you can be proactive in keeping the fire alive by seeking out new and novel activities such as traveling, learning a new skill, or meeting new people together.
These intense love hormones intertwine and greatly influence our relationships. When I began dating my fiance, I fell in love hard and fast. I'm not one to be overly dramatic, but one could argue I fell in love at first sight. My first memory of him parking his motorcycle, slowly pulling off his helmet, and seeing a huge smile form on his face still makes my heart flutter. Fast forward three months from that first date, and I remember thinking to myself, “If he asked me to marry him today, I would say yes.” Think about that – 3 months!
So, yes, falling in love can happen fast. It can be joyful, exhilarating, and sometimes even scary. But when you are aware of how internal stimuli, such as hormones, impact your relationships, you can navigate your dating journey with confidence and ease. You can decide to let your love hormones take over and enjoy the ride, knowing that a more mature, stable love is waiting a couple of years down the road. And when you transition from lust, desire, and passion into security, safety, and peace, you can embrace it and enjoy all of the tranquility that mature love brings.