Written By: Amber Hollingsworth, LPC
“I love you, but I’m not in love with you.” I’m sure you have heard this before (maybe even said it yourself!). Unfortunately, most of us aren’t taught about the nature of relationships and we end up having unrealistic expectations. There are actually stages in relationships. This fact isn’t self-evident and I only learned this because of my professional training. The first stage called “Infatuation” is what most people think is “LOVE.” But truthfully, it’s more like an addicted state! When you “fall into infatuation” with someone, you get lots of exciting brain chemicals (dopamine, serotonin, adrenaline). An individual in the infatuation stage has increased dopamine and decreased serotonin. The increased dopamine creates a strong feeling of desire, and the lowered levels of serotonin results in obsessive thinking. This combination of chemicals is very strong (almost impossible to resist). It’s the same chemical process involved in addiction. In the infatuation stage, we think about the person all the time! We scheme on how we can “run into them” in the hallway, or “happen” to be in the same grocery store they go to at the EXACT time they always go there, we start dressing nicer, and want to be around any reminder of the person (ie: Facebook stalking). Individuals in the infatuation stage also have decreased need for sleep, food, and their fear reactions are inhibited. This means the person will take risks they normally would take. In this state, we magnify the positive attributes of the other person and minimize any negative attributes. Indeed, love is blind. When we see “love” portrayed on television or movies, we are actually seeing infatuation, but most of us come to believe this is what love is. However, attachment happens when oxytocin is released in the brain, which is triggered by skin to skin contact. In general, women’s brains release slightly more oxytocin from skin to skin contact than men, which is why women tend to get more attached after sex than men.
Somewhere between eight and twelve months into a relationship, our dopamine and serotonin levels start to go back to normal, and we lose some of that obsessiveness. The individual will start to regain interest in outside hobbies and activities (like friends, football, shopping, etc..) This can put a big strain on a relationship, as it doesn’t always happen to both individuals simultaneously. Translation: one person starts to want to spend time with friends or activities outside of the relationship.
Often the other individual is upset by this change, and can develop feelings of jealousy, fear, and anger. Although this can feel confusing and frustrating, it is a natural stage in relationships called differentiation. Nature uses these stages to trigger the necessary feelings involved in making babies and then raising babies. Think about it… If we never got out of the infatuation stage, we would have a hard time going to work, the grocery store, or caring for our children. Most of us have romanticized beliefs about love, which leads to lots of dissatisfaction, disloyalty, and even divorce.
If you’re in a long-term relationship with children, likely you won’t have that same obsession driven, sex crazed feelings toward your partner. This doesn’t mean that you aren’t “in love” with them. In the beginning of our relationships hormones and neurotransmitters run the show, by making us want to be around the other person constantly and have LOTS of sex! When this isn’t the case anymore, many people begin to think that something is wrong with them, their partner, or the relationship. In a long-term relationship, you are going to have to work to keep those feelings going. Having a healthy sex life is a good way to keep the fun chemicals/feelings flowing. I tell couples in long term relationships, “it’s action before feelings.” Meaning, you are going to have to start the actions of intimacy first and then the feelings come. If you have been thinking that something is wrong with your relationship, it’s important to realize that the grass isn’t greener on the other side. Just because you don’t have feelings of infatuation, doesn’t mean you aren’t in love. Every couple (no matter how fabulous, smart, sexy, or successful) will experience these stages if they stay together long enough. If you want to rekindle those exciting emotions, then you are going to have to put in the work. Valentine’s day may have come and pass but you can still take the steps necessary to build physical and emotional intimacy! If you’ve been together for a long while, then you are going to need to take those action steps to make the feelings happen!