The Chemistry of Love
The Chemistry of Love
The Chemistry of Love
When Paul, my future husband, kissed me for the first time, it was sweet and sexy and sort of salty—the way a kiss by the ocean should be, if you had thought to imagine it that way.
We made a date to kiss the next day, which didn't come soon enough. We met again and again after that. We spent hours hunched over pitchers of beer or tall iced coffees, our ankles intertwined, our eyes locked, our faces just inches apart. Quickly, without thought or deliberation, we traded coffee shops and sports bars for his studio apartment. Our tussles were movie-star sexy; sometimes, we'd pop a button off a shirt in our hungry dash to undress. Paul and I tumbled through lust, and then into deep love. For us, there was nothing more than each other; our jobs, families, friends, and personal interests were steamrolled by an overpowering desire to consume each other entirely. We tapped every form of communication to express our passion, filling our days with a barrage of mushy emails, text messages, and phone calls. (If we'd had the means, we would have hired a pilot to etch "I WANT YOU" in the sky.)
Back then, my heart beat fast every day, triggered by the sound of Paul's voice or a glimpse of his name in my inbox. And I couldn't imagine how it would ever slow down. But two and a half years later and six months into marriage, things are different. Though we're still young—both 32—sex is no longer the driving force in our relationship, and the love letters have all but stopped. Sometimes, it seems as if the grand task of making a life together is more important than keeping the fires burning. And there are days when I wonder if we'll end up like our parents, who divorced when they were in their thirties. But most of the time, I feel certain that our deep feeling for each other will persevere, carrying us to retirement and beyond.
Before I place bets on the longevity of my romance, I have to ask: what, exactly, is this thing called love? So far, I've come to learn that as quickly as it strikes, it can also vanish—poof!— leaving nothing more than a lingering heartache. And it’s clear that love's reach is vast: most of us are looking for it, trying to maintain it, or working to get over it. But where does it come from? Where does it go? And can it last forever?
Helen Fisher, PhD, an anthropologist and Rutgers University professor, has made the chemistry of love her life's work. According to her, I'm right on schedule. She says the first stage of romance—the one with all the kissing and love letters—can last anywhere from one to three years. Would I have appreciated our giddy phase just a little bit more if I had known that it was going to end?
While Paul and I are phasing out of the excitement of new love, Sona Mody, 26, and Carl Bartsch, 29, are just getting started. The couple met at the birthday party of a mutual friend, and have been inseparable ever since. As a medical student, Mody doesn't have much free time, and wasn't looking for a relationship. But her connection with Bartsch was too strong to ignore. After three months together, Mody says, "I feel overwhelmed by how much I care about him. We said we loved each other a month in." Though Mody has had serious relationships in the past, she says this one is different. "It's a new feeling, a satisfying feeling. You go to bed content every night. It’s really inspiring."
Falling for each other, as it turns out, is just as much physical as it is emotional. New lovers "get a real surge of dopamine in their brains—in the same area that feels the effects of cocaine and that makes us reach for chocolate," Fisher says. They may also experience a rush of norepinephrine, the chemical that causes the heart to pound and the palms to sweat, she adds. "Infatuation is a state created by nature to get us to meet, mate, and procreate," says Pat Love, a relationship therapist and author of The Truth About Love: the Highs, the Lows and How You Can Make it Last Forever. "It's an altered state. Your brain wants you to pay attention so it gives you pleasure. You’re just flooded with dopamine."
Once in love, our hearts and brains are working overtime. But what draws us to a person in the first place? Abigail Goodman*, a single magazine editor in New York City, has noticed a strong shift in what attracts her to a certain man. Throughout her twenties she bounced from short relationship to short relationship, always pulled towards a specific type: tall and dark, with a big personality. "I used to be attracted to the guy who could hold the room, tell the jokes, command the dinner table," she says. Now 33, Goodman is no longer dating casually, and hopes to find someone with whom she can settle down and start a family. And she understands that he may not be the one she originally imagined. "These days I'm much more drawn to the quiet observer type," she says. "It took dating a couple of those [extroverted] people to realize that they’re usually making up for something else."
According to Fisher, like attracts like. "People tend to fall in love with someone of the same ethnicity, age, socioeconomic background, intellectual ability, level of attractiveness, and religious values," she explains. But subtle factors also affect who we choose as our mate. "I think we are unconsciously attracted to people who are chemically unlike us," she explains. "For example, a person who is high in dopamine is also curious, creative, and outgoing. That person is more likely to fall for someone who is high in testosterone, who is more likely to be conscientious, a scheduler, and a planner. This creates more variety in babies and brings a greater array of parenting skills to the family."
Finding your chemical opposite happens naturally, Fisher says, so no need to put it on your soul mate checklist."When you walk into a room, you immediately weed out the ones who don’t look right, who are wearing the wrong clothes, etc.," she explains. "You then talk to those remaining and learn about their values, interests, and background and make the next cut. But in the end, you are attracted to someone because of their chemistry."
But even great chemistry doesn't always yield a successful relationship. Martina Russo*, 41, was married for five years before she and her husband separated. Though the split was challenging, she was eager to try again, and feels that the lessons she learned from her first marriage have helped her navigate her next relationship successfully. (After four years of being single, Russo remarried last year.) "I am much more respectful of my current husband’s feelings," she says. "With my ex, I was quick to place blame, and was not at all interested in how he got into his various messes. Now, I’m much more respectful. I know that I have to figure out a way to honor my spouse’s desires even if they're different than mine."
Second chances like Russo's aren't uncommon. "We can love more than one person, just the way we can love more than one child or more than one friend," says Pat Love. "The key is knowing that infatuation isn't love. If you’re expecting to stay on that high without having to put forth effort, you’re going to go through that revolving door throughout your life."
But sometimes, divorce may be unavoidable. Over a period of 45 years, Fisher conducted a worldwide study of divorce in 58 societies. "If you’re going to break up, it’s usually around the fourth year of marriage," she says. From an evolutionary perspective, "that's how long a couple had to stay together to raise a child through infancy."
With my entire married life looming ahead of me, I strive to avoid that revolving door, to break my familial cycle of divorce, and to commit, with all my might, to the promises I made at the altar. So I tend to listen especially hard to anyone who has a successful marriage. Susan and Rich Novie, who live in New Jersey, are nuptial superstars. They have been married for 40 years, and they still like each other. A lot. Susan attributes their healthy relationship to a number of factors: flexibility, a strong sense of humor, and a willingness to do things both together and apart. But ultimately, she says, it's about a commitment to sharing a life with someone. "We look at marriage like a team," she explains. "You go out there and face the world together. You fight battles, winning some and losing some. But through it all you never split up the team." At 60 and 61 respectively, Susan and Rich don't feel the zing of young love. But their romance continues to grow as they transition into the later stages of their lives. "It's more like a comfortable love," Susan explains. "Sometimes you'll get a mini-tingle. But this love is more like a familiar easy chair. It feels good. You sit on it and you know what you've got."
In a long-term relationship like the Novies', Fisher explains, "romantic love comes and goes, but the predominant feeling that remains is one of deep attachment. Romance may be rekindled when the couple does something novel together, like go on vacation." Pat Love attributes a successful marriage to the commitment both parties make not only "to the relationship, but also to the institution of marriage." And though sexual attraction may seem to play no part in a very long-term relationship, some believe it’s always there. "The lust state becomes more a quality of being than an intense figure in the relationship," says Michael Eigen, a psychologist and author of Lust. "There's a world of romantic experience that opens up with just being with another person."
Today, as I rest somewhere between the dopamine-infused excitement of new romance and the familiar easy chair of a mature relationship, I remind myself that one stage is not better than the other. Sure, I sometimes miss the fierce pulse of our courtship (although Paul and I still pop a button now and again). But I wouldn't trade the comfortable current of support that flows within our two-person family. I wouldn’t give up the satisfaction of truly knowing someone and of being known myself. And I wouldn't let go of the big plans we have for our future. "We know how to court, how to get married, how to be newlyweds," says Love. "But the next step is learning how to be a couple when you’re not experiencing the thrill of the chase. Couples that have been together a long time will tell you that infatuation pales in comparison to long-term love."