By Joy Birnbach Dunstan, MA, LPC, MAC
The Chemistry of Love
Remember that exhilarating, dreamy feeling of a new love? You’ve just met Mr. or Miss Perfect, and you can’t think about anything else. A simple kiss sends a tingle through your whole body; making love is magical. Then, as often happens, months and years go by, and one or maybe both of you, would just as soon watch a Seinfeld re-run as wrestle naked between the sheets.
What happens that changes a lusty new romance into an occasional half-hearted marital duty? Contrary to fanciful notions about perfect love, recent research is uncovering evidence that the euphoria of romantic love is truly an altered state of consciousness induced by a potent combination of biochemicals.
When we come into contact with someone who strongly attracts us, our brains become saturated with phenethylamine (PEA), a naturally occurring, amphetamine-like neurotransmitter and several other excitatory biochemicals. In this frenzy of infatuation we see the “love is blind” thinking so typical of the newly smitten.
Have you ever reminded a lovestruck friend that the new partner is a practicing alcoholic, has lost three jobs in a row, and was divorced just two months ago only to be told, “No problem, we can work that out.” This delusional thinking combined with an intoxicating soup of neurotransmitters stimulates libido and mobilizes people to actively pursue lovemaking. With our erotic thermostat set way high, we can’t get enough of our partner. It must be true love.
But like any drug-induced state, over time we develop a tolerance to its effects. Studies show that this passionate bliss usually burns out after about 18 to 36 months. Levels of PEA and related substances begin to drop, and couples either move on to renew the excitement elsewhere or must learn to function without the adrenaline-like boost.
Along with changing PEA levels, sexual desire is strongly affected by a second widely varying chemical, testosterone. Both men and women produce testosterone, although men produce it in much higher quantity. Everyone has a natural baseline level of testosterone, with the so-called “high-T” individuals tending to be significantly more sexually interested and responsive than the “low-Ts.” When a low-T person is with a high-T partner, and they are faced with the inevitable drop in PEA levels, a previously hidden desire discrepancy becomes apparent.
The high-T partner may feel disappointed or betrayed by the diminishing interest of their mate. Low-T partners, meanwhile, are likely to feel bewildered by the loss of their previously supercharged libido as well as pressured by what now seems like an insensitive, pushy partner. Mutual anger, disappointment, and sadness can infuse what was a loving, passionate relationship and further reduce desire with arguments, negativity, and power struggles.
So what does all this basic chemistry really mean in terms of maintaining harmonious loving relationships? Just because the old thrill is gone doesn’t mean the love has stopped. We can’t do much to change our innate body chemistry, but we can accept that we are physically different from one another and learn to honor our differences instead of fight them. Recognizing that much of our sexual passion is rooted in natural body rhythms allows us to let go of the guilt, shame, and blame that might otherwise occur. When the blame-shame game ends, there is an opportunity to focus on learning ways to satisfy both partners’ needs without ignoring their basic differences. The difference in desire is no longer a personal assault, and hope is renewed for a loving partnership.