Understanding Dopamine: Love Hormones And The Brain

Medically reviewed by April Justice
Updated February 21, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

Dopamine is one type of neurotransmitter that affects different areas of the brain and governs the pituitary gland. It is associated with feelings of pleasure, motivation, and reward, as well as maintaining movement. Activities that trigger a rush of dopamine cause the brain to assign importance to them, motivating the individual to pursue those feelings. 

The release of dopamine controls what has become known as the "reward system" in the brain. This series of processes is linked to multiple areas that process emotion, direct focus, and reward seeking. The feelings triggered by dopamine include but aren’t limited to, sexual desire and romantic love.

What is dopamine’s relationship with love?

When we experience love, especially early on, the brain releases high amounts of dopamine along with other hormones. The euphoric feeling of dopamine release causes a “high” that has been compared to that of cocaine. Studies show that when people view pictures of their romantic partners, multiple areas of the brain are flooded with dopamine, triggering those euphoric feelings. 

Dopamine is what is responsible for bodily changes associated with attraction, too. When you're around someone you have strong romantic feelings for, you may notice your pulse quicken, your breathing gets shallow, or your cheeks flush. These are all biological processes that are partially caused by increased levels of dopamine. Cortisol and norepinephrine may also be increased, causing us to experience a feeling of urgency and to think frequently about the person we have romantic feelings for. 

Dopamine and searching for a partner

Because dopamine motivates us to seek out things that we find rewarding, it plays a main role in attraction and finding romantic partners.

The continuation of our species depends on our ability to reproduce; therefore, our biology still drives us to find a mate. This is one illustration of why dopamine was designed to elicit feelings of romantic love.

Interestingly, the brain's reward cycle may be triggered in a stronger way when we perceive the person we are interested in as "hard to get." The chase aspect of this type of dating can activate a strong rush of dopamine and perhaps sex hormones as well.

This system can also work against us when we look at it in the larger context of dating in modern times. With the advent of the internet and dating apps, which have presented us with more options for potential partners than ever before, our reward system has the potential to be sidetracked by every new opportunity.  

This might give you a clue about how the brain pathways work when it comes to such associations. Knowing the underlying neurobiological process at work when you're attracted to someone can help you determine whether you truly want to pursue a relationship with them or may perhaps just be influenced by a temporary influx of brain activity. 

Dopamine in early relationships

How we feel love is influenced by our hormones

Dopamine appears at an all-time high when we're first pursuing the initial stages of a relationship with someone in whom we're very interested. This high level of dopamine makes new love feel extremely rewarding, exciting, and worth pursuing over other things. You may feel like you've found your soul mate and like the connection between the two of you is unlike anything else.

There's nothing wrong with these feelings, even though they may lead to less than positive emotions at times. In fact, they are an important part of building the foundation of a long-term relationship. If you and your partner are a good match, this initial dopamine rush can plant the seed for a powerful connection that lasts over time.

Some people may realize once the dopamine “high” wears off that they are no longer as interested in their partner, or they might not necessarily feel as attached.  Others may feel distraught upon discovering they don't feel the same rush that they once did, leading some people to end a relationship prematurely because they perceive this as a negative thing. However, it's normal for the first wave of chemicals that influence love to cool off as a relationship matures to be replaced by neurochemicals that foster attachment and connection.

Neurochemicals in mature relationships

After about six months to a year of being together, dopamine and cortisol ease. Instead, other neurochemicals related to long-term attachment are released- the most notable one being oxytocin. Oxytocin is the same chemical involved in the connection between mothers and infants, meaning it is responsible for parent-infant bonding, as it facilitates bonding and dependability. Known as the "bonding hormone" or the "cuddle chemical," oxytocin is released through many activities, including holding hands and hugging.

Oxytocin’s role is to encourage us to develop trust in the person we're with. This social trust has been a crucial part of survival since the beginning of human civilization and is hardwired into the brain.

The reason ‘love is blind'

Interestingly, along with all the positive feelings that dopamine provides, there are also other neurobiological changes that lower our perception of negative attributes about the object of our affection. There are evolutionary reasons for this so-called love blindness. Your genes don't care whether you and your potential mate have the same taste in TV shows and political attitudes. They are only focused on your compulsion to reproduce. This may be a key difference between physical attraction and aesthetical attraction.

That's why people sometimes tend to look at their new love interest through a near-perfect lens. You've possibly had the experience of looking back at a former crush many months or years later and wondering why you were attracted to them. You can thank the neurobiology of attraction. It's the closest thing we know to a love spell cast by our own brain chemistry.

A word on endorphins

When we experience physical or emotional pain, such as receiving a cut or being rejected by a mate, endorphins are released by the brain to numb the pain. This can cause problems if we're in a troubled relationship. When we are hurt by someone we love, either physically or emotionally, the same endorphins are released. Because of the brain's neuroplasticity, an association is formed between that pain and the release of euphoric endorphins to make you think they are closely related and necessary.

This is one reason why people may end up in long-term abusive or troubled relationships. The brain may associate a reward between pain and pleasure. Knowing this, you can intellectually overcome this association and decide whether a relationship is truly beneficial to you. 

Sustaining a relationship over time

Once the initial boost of brain chemicals or primary hormones wears off, sustaining a relationship with someone we love may take more work and effort. While the initial neurochemical flood bonded you together, at this point, it's up to you and your partner to decide if your relationship is worth building into the future. 

A successful relationship takes communication, support, and compromise and requires both partners to work together to achieve this goal. Falling in love may not take much effort but staying in love and making the relationship thrive depends on both people making the choice to commit to one another. This allows an attachment to grow over time, strengthening the bond.

Getty/MoMo Productions
How we feel love is influenced by our hormones

What about when a relationship ends?

The end of a relationship can be a uniquely painful experience, especially if the relationship was developed over a long period of time and both people still care about each other. This is in part due to the strong bonds that form in the brain. When a relationship ends, especially if the other party ends it, the brain's levels of dopamine and serotonin are temporarily lowered. In addition, stress hormones are raised as the brain tries to restore what was lost. In some instances, this may lead to clinical depression. 

The neural pathways that were established during the relationship are hard to break, and the brain may literally go into withdrawal for a short amount of time. This tendency is what drives some people to try to reconnect with their ex to relieve the pain. However, in time, these connections are lessened, and the brain can restore normative functioning. 

Therapy can help escalate this process for individuals who may be struggling to recover after the end of a relationship. This may be a way to work on stimulating your serotonin levels as well if need be. When your serotonin levels dip too low, this can potentially cause a number of mental health issues, including obsessive-compulsive disorder.

Online therapy for relationships

Every relationship runs into problems from time to time, especially as it matures from the early honeymoon phase into more mature love. Some people are hesitant to seek the advice of a therapist regarding their relationship because they're worried it's admitting there's something wrong or it makes them feel vulnerable. 

However, choosing to pursue therapy, either individually or together as a couple, shows your commitment to making the relationship work despite any obstacles you may be facing. If you’re ready to strengthen your relationship, a therapist can help you learn effective communication skills and better ways to relate to your partner.

The rise in popularity and proven effectiveness of online therapy has made it easier to speak to a therapist with experience in helping couples work through their challenges and difficulties. With online platforms like BetterHelp, you can book sessions online anytime, anywhere with an internet connection. 

Takeaway

Dopamine and other chemicals play a strong role in our understanding of love and relationships, from the initial “honeymoon” phase to long-term commitment. While there are other, equally important factors at play, understanding the biology behind our emotions can help us understand ourselves and our partners more thoroughly.

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