The Chemistry of Love

Do you feel your teenager is too aggressive or angry?

Spring is here and love is in the air! After a long winter of very cold and snowy weather throughout the country, love hormones are ready for excitement and adventure! The spring season is the time of year when people are ready to stimulate more excitement in their current relationship, looking for a new relationship or coming out of a relationship after experiencing the whirlwinds of the winter challenges. Some challenges include proximity conflicts, agitation in the lack of agreements, not enough sexual stimulation or satisfaction to maintain interest and many more exhausting troubling interactions.

Research shows (Emanuele & Politi; Emanuel 2006, 2011; Emanuele, et al 2006; Fisher et al 2006, 2010; Esch & Stephano 2005; Kendrick 2004), that hormones are clearly at work participating in the moods, excitement, impulsion, and driven motivators that direct your interest for newness or changing the negative patterns in your relationship. Maybe you are looking for passion, romance, lust or attraction. Maybe the consistency of these feelings are weak and you want commitment to keep the stimulation thriving! The mental chemistry of love may endure, fade or change your relationship. Your chemistry actively influences the norms that you cultivate to inspire and maintain your relationship patterns.

The expression of romance is a dance when two people are in step with each other or the synchrony is totally off! It’s like a melody that flows and when it’s off key, it doesn’t sound good. The duet needs practice to discover more harmonious melodic tones. To get a better understanding of the mental chemistry involved in this dance, let’s look at the three stages of love espoused by Helen Fisher who states it as lust, attraction, and attachment. Each stage is driven by different hormones and chemicals.

“Lust” is the first stage of love. The hormones that drive this stage are testosterone and estrogen in both men and women. Women have low concentration levels of testosterone. Men have low concentration levels of estrogen in blood but can be high in semen. It should be noted that women with high levels of estrogen may appear to stereotypically adopt relationship strategies more often associated with men who are in and out of relationships with high frequency. The behaviors associated are flirting, kissing, dating, and having sex. Other behaviors include maintaining a serious affair if in a committed relationship or having a main partner to turn to periodically. Research has shown that women who produce high levels of an estrogen hormone called estradiol perceive themselves as attractive, have a high interest in sex, and tend to mother more children than women with lower amounts.

It is believed that behavior associated with high estradiol levels could have evolved when women were more dependent on men to support them through childbirth and child-rearing. Most modern women tend to rely less on male support for food, shelter, and other resources, than previous generations.

Testosterone in men is a major contributing factor in sexual development and motivation. It is the primary hormone in sexual changes and is directly related to personality, mood, aggression and masculine development. The adrenal glands in men produce the luteinizing hormone (LH), while the follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH) helps produce the actual sperm. This production is at its highest when determining the sex of a fetus in reproduction and in puberty testosterone secretion resumes and it is maintained throughout a man’s life.

The decrease of testosterone in men as they age sometimes turns into estrogen by an enzyme called aromatase. Men suffering from low testosterone levels due to aging might also be suffering from low estrogen. This is to note that testosterone and estrogen are not sex specific; however, the levels of secretion are very different depending on your sex. Also, the concentrations of these hormones have an effect on your cultivated sexual behaviors!

The second stage is “Attraction” which is a time you feel all the emotions that relates to love. You find yourself thinking of that person with high frequency and duration. You want to be with or hear from that person who is always on your mind while you anticipate calls or visits. The literature shows that the main neurotransmitters involved in this stage are adrenaline, dopamine and serotonin.

Adrenaline is also known as epinephrine which is a hormone that is released into blood stream along with cortisol when strong emotions show up causing your heart rate, muscle strength, blood pressure and sugar metabolism to increase. This is the activation of the “fight or flight” response which prepares your body for strenuous activity and in this case “falling in love!” Some may run from these feelings depending on your personality, romantic social values, impulsions and cultivation of how you respond to the strong emotions and chemistry. You start to sweat, feel your heart racing or have a dry mouth at the thought of being with that person, know that your stress responses are working.

High levels of dopamine are neurotransmitters that stimulate desire, reward and pleasure! This chemical can be very intense when reinforced with high frequency in thoughts, emotions and behavior. Dopamine along with epinephrine reinforcement can have addicting effects. The surge of dopamine in a couple’s attraction for one another is seen through one having high energy, less need for sleep or food and increased attention to the details exchanged in the relationship.

The serotonin hormone affects your mood and joins the chemical dance keeping that person on your mind. Serotonin is the chemical that influences or reinforces the idea that you are falling in love. Lust is a temporary surge that cannot sustain itself unless dopamine and serotonin collaborate and frequently support its thrill that leads adaptation to attachment. Lust and love have different brain patterns but for those partners who pursue a goal to be loved by each other move to an attachment pattern that defines their love. It is the difference in seeking a partner and staying with a partner. “Attachment” is the third stage of love. It is the bond that keeps couples together produce children and become a family. Oxytocin and vasopressin are the hormones involved in the feelings of attachment. It’s released by men and women during an orgasm which deepens the feelings of the bond and makes the couple feel closer to each other during and after sex. The attachment becomes deeper with the frequency of sex with each other. This hormone plays a very important role in bonding a mother and child during birth. It is also released while feeding a baby for it is secreted in her brain and breast milk is ready to be served when the mother hears or see her baby. The release of the vasopressin hormone contributes to sustaining commitment. High levels of vasopressin in men and high levels of oxytocin in women are hormones that reinforce commitment in monogamous relationships.

The sex drive is facilitated by lust. Romantic love is the early stage of falling love with obsessing and fantasizing thoughts, feelings and attraction. The bond or attachment stage is the calm and security stage that is felt for a long term partner. Biology and evolution propose that there are several adaptation strategies for falling in love. Religion and our culture propose that humans need to commit to one person for life.

Whatever stage of love you are in as you enter this spring with excitement, know that your mental chemistry participates in how you pick a partner and how you break up. Cultivate your chemistry by examining your relational norms, beliefs, values and practices to determine the skills needed to hone a healthy relationship. Compare this to how you manage your mood, anxiety, avoidance, attention and motivation. Aim to sustain wellness and good health in your quest to keep romance stirring in your long term relationship or aim to stimulate attraction to find a partner with the same relationship goal. Happy Spring!

Cynthia Chestnut is an Approved Supervisor and Clinical Fellow for the American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy. She has Ph.D. in Couple and Family Therapy, Post graduate MFT specializing in Couple and Sex Therapy, and over 20 years of leadership responsibility in human relations, personal growth and professional development. Contact Dr. Chestnut at or twitter @DrCChestnut.

(As published on EXPERT OPINION)