Learn how hormones influence your perception of your partner at different stages throughout your relationship.
Love is deeply rooted in our primal brain system.
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 passionate relationship started to fade 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 current boyfriend, Diego. But even in my relationship with Diego, I faced trying times. I experienced changes in my feelings toward him, which I later found out was due to a health issue that was effecting 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 we feel the way we do with our partners, and why our feelings change and evolve over time. 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…
Stage 1: Pre-commitment (lust and attraction)
In the pre-commitment stage, there are an overwhelming amount of hormones at play. Testosterone and estrogen drive lust and desire. Dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin create attraction. These hormones overlap and influence your perception of your partner at different stages throughout your relationship. This is what makes love so unpredictable; hormones can alter your perception and feelings!
Lust (the desire for sexual gratification) is the very initial phase in dating. The evolutionary basis for this stems from our need to reproduce, a need shared among all living things.
Testosterone and estrogen are the two driving hormones behind lust. Testosterone increases libido in both men and women. The effects are less pronounced with estrogen, but some women report being more sexually aroused around ovulation, when estrogen levels are highest.
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.
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. Let me explain…
During the early stages of a relationship, there is a moderate amount of stress due to fear or dislike of anything new and 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. Our 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.
These three intense hormones intertwine and greatly influence our relationships in its beginning stages. I know that when I first began dating my boyfriend of 4 years, I was obsessed. I remember thinking to myself, “If he asked me to marry him today, I would say yes.” This was only 6 months after meeting each other. Think about that –– 6 months!
It is believed that the pre-commitment (lust and attraction) phase typically lasts anywhere from 18-36 months. Let that sink in for a minute. That means we experience these mood-altering hormones for up to 3 years with our partner. 3 years! Most people marry before they have the chance for these hormones to ware off and for the love goggles to come off!
Learn more about the pre-commitment (attraction) stage of a relationship.
Stage 2: Commitment (attachment)
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 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. However, 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.
Learn more about the commitment (attachment) stage of a relationship.
Knowledge is power. 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.
This is part of a three-part series:
Part I: How Hormones Control Our Dating Lives
Part II: Am I In Love?
Part III: Are We Wired To Be Monogamous?