I will be honest with you: I do not believe in lasting love. Perhaps this sounds cynical. However, I am suggesting actually that it is our obsession with perfection and permanence in love that is our root cause of our suffering in relationships. I believe that there is a virtue in relinquishing our attachment to perfection and permanence, without compromising the possibility for longevity in our romantic relationships.
I want to focus on the impact that these two neurotransmitters have on the types of love we experience, and by extension, the types of relationships we cultivate. I will also end the article with a suggestion on how to mediate between these two different types of neurotransmitters, so that the relationships we ultimately have with our partners are as fulfilling as we would like them to be.
When levels of the dopamine neurotransmitter in our brains are high, we often experience this as a rush of energy, pleasure, confidence, increased motivation to do things, sexual desire, and less self-consciousness. The experience of falling in love for the first time, what many people retrospectively speak of as "puppy love," can be partially attributed to the release of the dopamine neurotransmitter in the brain.
Many things affect levels of dopamine. "Extreme" sports such as hang gliding, mountain climbing, and bungee jumping spike up our levels of dopamine. The use of stimulant drugs such as methamphetamine, cocaine, and even caffeine (of which coffee is the most famous source) also increase levels of dopamine in the brain. The thrill and euphoria associated with these sports and drugs are directly related to the spike in levels of dopamine that they instigate.
The flip side to these things is that dopamine is also the neurotransmitter most implicated in the experience of addiction. For example, if you drink coffee, you may already understand how difficult it is to give it up. While coffee is often associated with many positive things (increased energy, increased ability to work, sustain attention, have good conversation, etc.), it is actually physically addictive, in part because of the effects of caffeine on the dopamine system in our brains. Part of the reason why people engage in extreme sports and stimulant drug use is because the experience of "reward" that comes from the spike in dopamine levels is so intense that when the dopamine levels begin to crash, we often experience equally intensely the symptoms of withdrawal, such as lethargy, anxiety, aggression, frustration, and anhedonia (an inability to experience pleasure from other sources), which inevitably lead to a wish to repeat the experience to feel the positive effects again. People who have engaged regularly in extreme sports report bouts of depression after the euphoria subsides, and people who abuse methamphetamine and cocaine (often smoking/snorting these drugs repeatedly in 15 minute intervals) often find these experiences so intense and pleasurable that it develops into a full blown addiction and pathology, endangering their lives and their relationships with others.
Let's face it: New relationships also tend to have this effect! Often, we are so driven by our lust for our new partner, our imagined thoughts of bliss that come from "being with someone forever," that we have increased self-confidence, energy, and sexual excitement even simply by thinking about them, or receiving their phonecall. Like the abuse of stimulant drugs, which affects our dopamine levels in similar ways, we sometimes start to neglect our other friends, our work, and everything else, simply to be closer to the object of our love. Many of the patterns of behaviour that come from exploring new relationships (such as checking our phone incessantly to see if they have text messaged, or calling them every 15 minutes, or literally jittering in obsessive and paranoid thoughts wondering if they like us as much as we like them) are not unlike the patterns of behaviour exhibited by people addicted to certain substances.
Chemically, both the thrill of new relationships as well as the indulgence in stimulant drugs have analogous effects in stimulating dopamine levels in the body. They both propel us to states of heightened confidence, sexual motivation, energy, excitement, and both give us this party illusion, false hopes that they will never end. However, as our relationships develop, we became habituated to their company, and hence, it seems to take more and more of the same person to reach the same level of stimulation necessary for the experience of the high. We wax nostalgic for how we felt at the beginning of the relationship, when everything was exciting and mind-altering, when everything was "perfect" and nothing seemed to be wrong. When a relationship loses its original "high," this is when people start engaging in disturbing patterns of behaviour, such as passionate argument, physical abuse, and cycles of breaking up and getting back together. These patterns often come from our ambivalence about a relationship that has lost its thrill, and our addiction to the "cocaine" of the early dopamine high that our relationship used to embody.
Just because all this happens does not mean that I believe that pursuing a new relationship is "wrong," but only that, if we are truly to seek longevity in our relationships, we must move from a "dopamine-based" motivation in seeking relationships, into an "oxytocin-based" motivation.
People sometimes joke that chocolate is a good substitute for love. There may be a chemical basis for this! The low-levels of caffeine in chocolate increase our dopamine levels (which, as I mentioned earlier, is implicated in feelings of mild euphoria), while other chemicals and fats present in the chocolate actually stimulate the body's production of other "feel-good" neurotransmitters. One of them is oxytocin.
Oxytocin is another neurotransmitter and is also a hormone, associated with the experience of love. Unlike dopamine, oxytocin is associated with stability, lowered anxiety levels, calm and trust, in contrast to the wild and feverish excitement of dopamine. Also unlike dopamine, which correlates with increased blood pressure, oxytocin actually decreases blood pressure, or at least tends to veer blood pressure toward equilibrium.
The first brush with oxytocin usually comes in our infancy; both mother and child release huge levels of oxytocin in the experience of childbirth and breastfeeding, which bond them to one another. Oxytocin levels in our bodies are also measurably high when we are in the company of close friends. And most importantly for this Valentine's Day article, oxytocin levels are measurably high between loving couples who have been together for a long time.
It seems odd that a hormone so associated with long lasting romantic love can be found not only exclusively in romantic relationships, but in our relationships to our parents and our friends! This goes to show that our ability to experience love in our romantic lifes is at least partially contingent on our commitment to deriving social support from a variety of sources, not just one single person. When we have positive relationships with our family and friends, we are freer to explore romance beyond the escapist addiction to dopamine-surged beginnings. We are freer to give and receive love from a partner if we already feel an abundance of love in our lives.
There is nothing wrong with the experience of dopamine-love, of course. I believe that throughout our relationships, it is important to engage in activities with each other that increase both our dopamine levels as well as our oxytocin levels. We can pick up a sport together, make love with each other, go on a holiday together, etc. All of these activities help us in increasing our levels of stimulation (dopamine) while being vulnerable together in a shared activity helps bond us in our unique relationship to one another (oxytocin). However, one of the fundamental delusions we have about relationships is this: The more time we spend together, the better. Often, what we need in relationships as often as we spend time together, is learning how to spend quality time apart. This, for one, helps to temper some of the experience of being carried away by our "dopamine addiction."
We need time and space apart, not just physically, but psychologically. We need time to breathe, time to devote to the other relationships in our life; our families, our work, our friends. Often, we are so preoccupied with deriving our One, our Only, our All, our Everything from our Relationship (with capital "R") with our partner, that we forget that we are composed of a lot more than just our sexuality. Every relationship is as much defined by the moments we are together as by the moments we are apart.
Just as in a healthy diet, we need a variety of sources of nutrition (fruits and vegetables for vitamins/minerals, whole grains for carbohydrates, lean meats/beans/nuts for proteins). Similarly, in a healthy diet of human relationships, we need a variety of sources of social interaction, with family, with friends, with work colleagues, with ourselves, and of course, with our partners.
Because, let's face it: If we only eat meat, we will get really sick.
Happy Valentine's Day!
Malaysia-born and Singapore-bred Shinen Wong is currently getting settled in Sydney, Australia after moving from the United States, having attended college in Hanover, New Hampshire, and working in San Francisco for a year after. In his fortnightly "Been Queer. Done That" column, Wong will explore gender, sexuality, and queer cultures based on personal anecdotes, sweeping generalisations and his incomprehensible libido.