The Science of Falling in Love – Phase One: Limerence

The Science of Fidelity and Infidelity Series

Molecules of Love: Are you the one?

The initial phase of a romantic relationship is often characterized by infatuation. However, amidst the excitement, there is the embedded fear that the relationship might be headed for a disaster. Whether this fear of loss is real or imagined, the agony of a lover’s heart can take powerful heights. Love can turn to hate, a relationship can become a major stressor, and hostile breakups have detrimental consequences on children.

“These violent delights have violent ends,” warned Shakespeare’s Friar Laurence, and his words are not far from what relationship researchers have observed. Indeed, there are measurable warning signs that precede relationship dissolution.  In order to understand how relationships get wrecked, we first need to understand how couples build (or erode) trust. Essentially, what makes good relationships work?

Can this be real? Is she the one? Is he the one? Can you even really know? These questions have kept many lovers in a daze during the day and awake at night. The answers cannot be revealed through a crystal ball, but only through the careful analysis of some salient patterns that make or break a relationship.

This blog explores the science of how it all starts.

Phase One: Limerence

The Science of Falling in Love

The term “limerence” was coined by Dr. Theresa Crenshaw in her book The Alchemy of Love and Lust, and it describes the initial “cascade” of hormones and neurotransmitters that accompany the feeling of falling in love. Interestingly, not every person can set off this special cascade of hormones, says researcher and author, John Gottman in Principia Amoris; people have to smell right, feel right, and touch right in order for this complex cocktail to be turned on. While this phase is not a necessary phase for marriage, it is expected in our Western culture to experience this rush of feelings. So how does this cascade of hormones toss lovers into such feelings of high?

Here is a breakdown of some of the major horomones responsible for leaving you feel madly in love:

  • Phenylethylamine (PEA) and Pheromones
    Hand-in-hand, these two create the magic moments of “fire sparkling in lovers’ eyes.”
  • Dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA)
    DHEA is a natural aphrodisiac and has also been called the “mother of all hormones.” It increases our cognition, our metabolic rate, and even our immune system. It also may influence whom we find attractive.
  • Oxytocin
    This wonderful hormone is responsible for creating the experience of bonding between mother and child as well as between romantic partners through attachment and pair bonding. It has a crucial role in sexual function. No wonder that, by doing all this, oxytocin provides something all humans crave: feelings of being wanted and loved. Oxytocin contributes to fast and intuitive “System One Thinking” but also brings about poor judgment! Falling in love is a rather apt phrase to describe this process. We are “in a haze” as oxytocin surges in our brain. It makes us have blinders on and we don’t see red flags!
  • Estrogen
    Estrogen in women increases receptivity and willingness to open to her partner’s initiating.
  • Dopamine
    Of course, we can’t leave this one out. Dopamine creates motivation to seek pleasure, anticipation, and the feeling that something really amazing and enjoyable is about to happen. Having too much of dopamine can create its own problems. Therefore, we need serotonin to sufficiently chill us out before we get lost in too much pleasure seeking.
  • Serotonin
    Seratonin is more abundant in women and helps facilitate warmth and sociability.
  • Vasopressin
    Also known as “The Monogamy Molecule for Males,” vasopressin increases possessiveness and motivates warding off rivals. Remember that third person next to Romeo and Juliet’s duo? Yes, Paris was his name.

As enjoyable as Phase One is, it is also short-lived. While some decide to seize the moment and get married in this intoxicating phase, many couples roll over into Phase Two as they look at making a commitment.

So what happens next in Phase Two? A little preview: as oxytocin starts wearing off, the very thing that attracted us to our lover becomes irritating. We begin asking questions such as: Can I trust you? Will you be there for me? Do you have the characteristics to make me happy?

More on this next time.

Are you interested in pre-marital counseling, couples counseling, or marriage counseling? Our therapists at Watershed are trained and experienced in treating relationships, whether they are ready to embark on a commitment of a lifetime or are still in the discovery phase. Our pre-marital counseling and testing services are well-researched and scientifically based. Give us a call today!