When Dopamine Met Cortisol: A Love Story

February 6, 2020
Reading time: 5 minutes


The topic of love has been the inspiration for some of the greatest works of literature, music, theatre, film, television, and art in the world. Love is at the root of some of the most memorable moments of history, and while the types of love vary widely, it is a feeling that we all inherently seek and naturally desire.

Romantic relationships, I’m willing to bet, are one of the most talked-about and studied aspects of love. A simple google search for “romantic love” results in an endless stream of podcasts, articles, and books about how to find a relationship or keep a relationship or leave a relationship. There has never been a time where information about love and relationships is more immediate yet finding a partner is harder than ever

In counseling singles and couples alike, I have seen the challenges and difficulties that so many people face when it comes to relationships. When we meet someone new, and then enter into a commitment with someone we aren’t just bringing ourselves—we’re bringing with our stories, illusions, and expectations— many of which we might not even be aware of. Couple that with being on our “best” behavior at the beginning of a relationship, and we have a recipe for a less-than genuine start.

This is why I am encouraging everyone to rethink love in every way. To examine long-held beliefs, to get really clear about expectations, and to discover what love actually is. One of the most powerful ways I have found to do this is to burst the proverbial heart-shaped balloon of love with a touch of science.

New studies out of Harvard on the topic of love have turned up some fascinating results and speak to why it’s so easy to get wrapped up in the throes of new love.

Richard Schwartz, associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, says that, while it doesn’t make you physically sick, it does raise levels of the stress hormone cortisol—a hormone responsible for that “can’t eat, can’t sleep” feeling so often associated with falling in love. This experience of infatuation also turns on the neurotransmitter dopamine, stimulating the brain’s pleasure centers while serotonin levels drop, creating a sense of desperation and obsession.

Put it all together, and you have the formula for that breathless, can’t-eat, can’t-sleep feeling we associate with a new love.

However, they didn’t just set out to study what’s occurring in our minds and bodies during the honeymoon phase. They observed several phases of love—phases that many of us are already quite familiar with.

We all know the feeling of the butterflies wearing off and suddenly seeing the person in front of us for who they truly are. The way they left their shirts on the floor that once felt carefree and cute, is now impossibly irritating. Or maybe the thing they once said they loved about you is now, somehow, the thing about you that they’re trying to change. Whatever the case may be, as the chemicals in our body begin to level out, we are back in reality. For some, it happens quickly, for others, it takes much longer, but when we’re back “to normal,” we’re left with nothing but questions about “how I got here” and about what to do next.

There aren’t nearly as many country songs about the work you need to put in to build a healthy relationship. No one is writing poetry about the mundane moments of love, the ones in which you need to focus back on what kind of partner you are or about how to love your spouse in moments when you aren’t feeling “head over heels.”

Luckily, science is here to help us again.

During the first love-year, serotonin levels gradually return to normal, and the “stupid” and “obsessive” aspects of the condition moderate. This is where most of us get stuck, what brought us together might not be what keeps us together, and our work begins.

The period that follows this one, however, is noted by an increase in the hormone oxytocin, a neurotransmitter associated with a calmer, more mature form of love. This love is less exciting yet more consistent and connective. The steady flow of oxytocin helps cement bonds, brings our immune function back up, and begins to create the foundation for health benefits found in married couples. Long-term partners have been found to live longer, have fewer strokes and heart attacks, be less depressed, and have higher survival rates from major surgery and cancer.

Love itself may be arguable, changeable, and relative to each of us—but science is not. When it comes to rethinking our beliefs and approaches to love, it becomes clear that that new love phase we have all been conditioned to chase is not actually the prize it’s cracked up to be. It may serve to bring us together, but it is not what keeps us together.

For those who are single and dating, this knowledge of what is happening biologically can help with easing the anxiety and, oftentimes, distressing nature of very-new relationships. And, in the event it doesn’t work out, understanding that so many of the feelings you’re having are simply as a result of chemicals bouncing off one another—a dance which will inevitably end whether they stay or leave.

For those who are trying to rekindle the spark of those early days, understanding this science can help you greatly in cultivating those first feelings of elation. If we know that spikes in cortisol and dopamine are significant players in the creation of “butterflies,” then we can seek out experiences that will bring those two chemicals to the forefront. Planning dates to zipline, watch scary movies, or just do something neither of you has done before we engage these parts of your brain and voila! You’re swimming in an (almost) identical sea of love.

No matter where you are in your journey of love, the truth will always remain the same: healthy relationships are built on friendship, trust, and a sincere dedication to our own spiritual growth. All three of these things take time.

A successful relationship is a continuous process involving transformation for each person individually, for the couple together, and for the world. Relationships are forces that support not only your own spiritual path but also a shared vision of having a higher spiritual goal and greater purpose together of bringing more Light and love into the world. The mistake we make is that we think to find love guarantees eternal bliss. We believe that the chemical experience of the new love phase is what we’re supposed to feel all the time—and I’m here to tell you, it isn’t.

The real work—and the real relationship—begins after we fall in love.

Whether you’re looking for a relationship, are in a relationship, or ending a relationship, I invite you to rethink the love in your life. A loving partnership is something we all deserve, it is our birthright, but the onus is on us to do the work to manifest it.



My new book, Rethink Love, is out next week. You can pre-order it now and begin your journey to creating the love that you desire. There’s even a special gift waiting for those who do reserve their copies in advance!

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