In his book, The Science of Love, Robin Dunbar observes the intensity of the ‘peculiar phenomenon’ of falling in love. Dunbar asserts that, since falling in love occurs in every culture, there must must be a biological function involved in why we actually fall in love (Dunbar 8).
One such function is the hormone oxytocin. Oxytocin is secreted by the pituitary gland and is perhaps best known as the neurotransmitter and hormone that promotes bonding and love between mother and child. Sociologist Victoria Pitts-Taylor points out in a chapter, “The Queer Biology of Kinship” from her forthcoming book, that when a mother makes her offspring feel safe and content, oxytocin is released in the brains of both mother and child. Both are chemically rewarded by their interaction, increasing the likelihood of repeating that behavior, fostering maternal bonding. Oxytocin makes a mother want to snuggle and nurse her baby. Nursing in turn, produces more oxytocin inducing a blissful sense of relaxation and of being in love with the infant.
Oxytocin is abundant in people in love as are other chemicals. Dunbar notes that the snuggling and hugging common to romantic love increases the oxytocin levels of the couple. Just seeing your lover is enough to cause more dopamine to flow through the brain. Dopamine produces a happy, get-up-and-go feeling, “providing very much the same pick-me-up as a shot of cocaine” (Dunbar 40).
For such passion to culminate in orgasm further enhances attachment because as Pitts points out, “For monogamous mammals, a key mechanism is thought to be the release of oxytocin in orgasm…,which is thought to initiate a cascade of effects in the brain leading to pair bonding” (Pitts-Taylor 11). The increase in post orgasmic oxytocin is significant, as shown by Diane Ackerman in her book, A Natural Historiy of Love: “Men’s oxytocin levels quintuple during orgasm…and women have even higher levels of oxytocin during sex ” (Ackerman 163). These higher levels of oxytocin promote a greater sense of attachment, which leads to more hugging and snuggling that in turn leads to the production of more oxytocin. Pair bonding is continually reinforced, furthering the couple’s attachment to one another.
Happy couples are not of much literary interest, however. Conflict that compels the reader. A quote by Denis de Rougemont’s study, Love in the Western World in Ackerman’s book reminds us that history doesn’t bother recording satisfied and happy lovers. “Romance only comes into existence where love is fatal, frowned upon, and doomed…not the fruitful contentment of the settled couple, not the satisfaction of love, but its passion. And passion means suffering,” (Ackerman 108). The chemical rush associated with new love, De Rougemont notes, cannot last much past three years: “After that, couples develop a different, quieter form of companionable love. For the love to stay tantalizingly hot, it has to be fueled with new perils” (Ackerman 109).
Some people become addicted to love chemicals, and subconsciously create perils to set up another fix. The ‘make up sex’ after an argument or separation stimulates a cocktail of chemical reward. Ackerman confirms the reality of addiction to love: “Because ‘speed’ is addictive, even to the body’s naturally made speed, some people become what Michael Liebowitz and Donald Kleing of the New York State Psychiatric Institute refer to as ‘attraction junkies,’ needing a romantic relationship to feel excited by life. The craving catapults them from high to low in an exhilarating, exhausting cycle of thrill and depression. Driven by a chemical hunger, they choose unsuitable partners, or quickly misconstrue a potential partner’s feelings” (Ackerman 165). Attraction junkies self medicate the depression resulting from their failed relationship by falling in love again. Liebowitz and Klein think such roller coaster rides are caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain that creates a craving for phenylethylamine (PEA). PEA causes us to feel an increased sense of well being and incredible excitement. When Liebowitz and Klein gave attraction junkies antidepressants, the craving for PEA quieted and those patients were able to move on to healthier relationships (Ackerman 166), suggesting that the cure is evidence of the addiction.