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The Chemistry of Love – Real Love Versus Infatuation

So what is this thing called love? In 2006 National Geographic Magazine released a study on LOVE: The Chemical Reaction. It’s interesting that I saved the article until today to help couples understand the difference between real love and infatuation. The content is still applicable and valid today. The work that has been done by […]

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Real Love Versus Infatuation

So what is this thing called love? In 2006 National Geographic Magazine released a study on LOVE: The Chemical Reaction. It’s interesting that I saved the article until today to help couples understand the difference between real love and infatuation.

The content is still applicable and valid today. The work that has been done by scientists, bio-chemists, psychologists, psychiatrists, social workers, and marriage and family therapists, nearly 15 years ago, has only reinforced what was written in the article in 2006. Essentially, it revealed that scientists discovered that the cocktail of brain chemicals that sparks romance is totally different from the blend that fosters long-term attachment.

As a practicing psychotherapist for more than 42 years, I would have to agree that nothing has changed with one exception. We now know and understand more about real love vs infatuation. However, that doesn’t mean it’s still an enigma that people, particularly young folks keep falling into the trap unconsciously with repeated patterns of broken dreams and broken hearts.

The questions were:

  1. Does passion necessarily diminish over time?
  2. How reliable is romantic love aka infatuation?
  3. Can marriage be good when the libido is replaced with friendship, or even economic partnership, two people bound by bank accounts, even if both have separate ones?

Romanticizing Love

The milieu of our culture reflects love in illusionary forms. Disney stories and movies, like Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, and so on, left us as children to believe that “one day our prince will come” and we will live happily ever after. Coupled with this are movies that had and still have happy endings, like An Affair to Remember, Love is a Many Splendored Thing and more recently, Hallmark Love Stories all that highlight romance with happy endings. At least now we have movies that reveal not so happy endings and the complications of relationships as seen in Love Actually and LaLa Land. In both we see how some work and some don’t.

Songs like I Can’t Live if Living is Without You by Harry Nilsson reflect codependency while others, more recently like The Scientist by Coldplay and You Broke Me First by Kate McRay appeal to the younger generation and reflect the results of post traumatic effects of break ups. Songs we listened to from the 40’s like Nat King Cole’s Smile When Your Heart is Breaking and Barbra Streisand’s The Way We Were until now remind us of the pain of broken hearts. Not unlike Dante’s Inferno, unrequited love is a circle of hell.

We are a culture that loves happy endings and tend to invest unconsciously into infatuation with high hopes that it’s the real thing. Too often it’s not, and we end up hopelessly believing to be in love with the wrong guy. Just for the record, women don’t have the exclusive market on the illusion of love. Men are easily susceptible to infatuation as well.

The Chemistry of Love

Anthropologist Helen Fisher traced the specific chemical pathways when people fall in love. She discovered that when each partner looked at each other, the parts of the brain linked to reward and pleasure light up, not unlike drugs and obsessive compulsive behavior indicating that infatuation is a chemical reaction causing excitement and pleasure. She further suggests that pair-bonding is ultimately driven by the mating instinct, wired into the most primitive part of the brain. It has nothing to do with real love! Yet, we fall prey to infatuation that is more likened to addiction than real love.

Biologically speaking, the reasons romantic love fades may be found in the way our brains respond to the surge and pulse of dopamine that accompanies passion and makes us believe it’s the real thing, not unlike the response we feel from drugs or any compulsive behavior that produces a high. According to studies worldwide, passion usually ends unlike in long-term relationships where love is real. Oxytocin is believed to be abundant in both partners.

Oxytocin that is the “feel good” chemical that makes couples feel connected and experience a secure attachment. It is the same feeling when holding a baby, a puppy, kitten or meditating.

Thomas Lewis from the University of California at San Francisco’s School of Medicine hypothesizes that romantic love is rooted in our earliest infantile experiences with intimacy in the first stage of development when the task is to figure out if this is a safe universe.

Erik Erikson, social psychologist, in his book, Eight Stages of Man says the first stage, 0-9 months is to learn trust vs mistrust. This is determined on the mental health of the mother. Can she adequately provide the nurturing and bonding required to achieve trust?

We take these infantile experiences that remain tucked deep in our neurology and limbic system, the seat of our emotions, through adulthood bringing them into our relationships unconsciously. The familiarity we experienced as early as the first nine months of our lives can predict our choices in partners as well as our personal growth and development.

As we mature, it lays the foundation for each developmental stage that follows. It determines so much of our psychological and emotional development, as well as features of our personality and mental disorders. Not unlike building a home, if the foundation is good and solid, the house will be strong and survive wear and tear. If the foundation is weak, the house will not sustain the test of time.

Biochemists say the feverish stage of love typically burns out after a few years. Why? Perhaps the brain can’t maintain the intense neural activity of infatuation. (National Geographic, 2006).

What does this mean? The Importance of a Conscious Relationship

Hedy Schleifer, master couples counselor and founder of EcCT, (Encounter-Centered Couples Transformation) suggests we choose our mates to give us the biggest nightmare, then fire them for doing exactly what we hired them to do. This of course is an unconscious process we unwittingly choose. It’s so important to be conscious of our choices and maintain consciousness and attunement in our relationships.

My book, I HATE THE MAN I LOVE: A Conscious Relationship is Your Key to Success teaches couples how to create and maintain consciousness through the art of presencing that most couples don’t even know about. Each chapter provides tools, skills, rituals and principles to show couples how to cleanse the relational space that has become polluted over time. The goal is to reconnect and create a secure attachment and have relational maturity.

The Good News: Infatuation Can Develop Into Lasting Love

This is not to say that infatuation can’t develop into lasting love. Michael Vincent Miller, PhD argues it can also be the beginning of real love. We are all capable of lasting love. It takes empathy to wipe out defensiveness and learning how to work on a relationship if we desire the outcome of lasting love.

It’s very possible and highly probable to create and maintain relational maturity that provides the essence of a secure attachment. It takes a big fat “YES” from each partner to enter into couple’s therapy where they can find the resources and skills to practice on their own. It takes commitment, perseverance, courage and an open mind. Falling in love leads to many disappointments, disillusions, unhappiness and heartbreaks.

The good news is that it doesn’t have to be that way. Like any ailment that needs attention, relationships on the brink or even when partners think it’s too late, can be restored and even capable of reaching a higher level of intimacy. Romantic love/ infatuation is wonderful, but no matter how fulfilled you may feel in the beginning, nothing compares to the real thing—true love!


Joan E Childs, LCSW is a renowned psychotherapist, inspirational speaker, and author. For more information on how to create and maintain a conscious relationship, order Joan’s new book, I Hate The Man I Love: A Conscious Relationship is Your Key to Success.

This article first appeared on joanechilds.com

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