The first and most important word that should be remembered when talking about love, is love itself. Love is something that can be felt and described with our ears. There is not some mushy substance that supposedly exists inside of us when we are in love. When we speak about love, there are two distinct kinds: the love that we feel for our spouses or significant others and the love we feel for ourselves. We are not talking about some abstract, spiritual concept of love but rather we are talking about a very specific kind of love that fills our heart and causes it to beat faster and stronger than it would if the love were just some “feel good” emotion.
The fact is, love is such a fundamental necessity in everyone’s life to survive. To actually find true romance and love in our romantic relationships we have to activate two brain areas; the brain areas associated with experiencing love and the brain areas associated with sharing. Everyone has different experiences and desires with love, but the one thing that all humans share is the need to share love. Love has different definitions but everyone needs love to survive.
When we speak of romantic love the brain is thinking about two things: the “love hormone” and the “partner desire.” The “love hormone” is what makes us want to have romantic relationships and the “partner desire” is what makes us yearn for romance. In order to have the “partner desire” we must stimulate the brain with the “partner desire.” When we talk about having romance and the “romance hormone” we are stimulating the brain’s pleasure centers; and when we stimulate the brain with the “romance hormone” we are activating the reward pathway of the brain which is located in the mid-brain and is responsible for activating the “reward centres” in our brain.
The other brain area activated during romantic love is the reward pathway; and it is this pathway that provide the “rewards” associated with giving, receiving, and forgetting. The figure 1 in this equation is you. You see, the more you give or receive or even forget, the more dopamine is released into your brain, and the more dopamine the more you enjoy yourself and remember your partner. And this is where the problem lies in the fact that when you have too much dopamine you have a hard time saying no, and therefore you end up using the addictive qualities of the “reward centres” to satisfy the “reward” pathway, making you have an “addiction” to romance and making you crave more of it.
Therefore, when we talk about oxytocin being the true love molecule we have to understand that there are differences between oxytocin and dopamine. Oxytocin is not associated with any reward pathway, it’s only associated with attachment. The other thing that is important to understand about oxytocin is that while it does cause a rise in dopamine, it also causes a drop in cortisol. Cortisol is the hormone that prepares our bodies for sleeping and is the one that causes us to wake up in the morning and our heart rate to increase, which is how we get through our day and through the entire night.
In a nutshell then, the two main elements involved in the process of Romantic Attraction (making/receiving love) involve oxytocin and the reward pathway, which are both linked to each other and work in different ways. For example, when we are engaged in a romantic relationship, our brain is constantly being activated by the notion of bonding, which means that you are always thinking about your partner and what they look like. However, this is not the case when you are not in a romantic relationship and you are in fact in a stable and non loving relationship. Your brain is thinking about the possibility of receiving oxytocin when you receive the reward (your partner), and you are therefore not likely to receive the emotional benefits from the relationship.