The science behind love: what are the different stages of love?
Words: Steve Morrissey
The popular song may say that love is a many-splendored thing, but in fact it can be divided into three distinct phases, according to a leading US anthropologist. Dr Helen Fisher, Research Professor at Rutgers University in New Jersey, explains that each of these is governed by human biochemistry. So it’s hormones, not cherubic little cupids, that determine desire, cause lovesickness or make us ready to settle down.
A respected name in the field of human evolution studies, Fisher stresses that the stages don’t follow a prescribed formula. People fall in love in all sorts of nuanced ways: a large helping of lust, a pinch of attraction and absolutely no attachment, for instance; or maybe no lust, lots of attraction and plenty of attachment. The order isn’t set in stone, either. Attachment could come first (out of a sense of duty, say) and lust last. So, while it’s possible to rationalise love in biochemical terms, as Valentine’s Day looms again it’s nice to see that the human heart still has the final say.
The simplest of the lot and often the one we have least control over, lust is the body’s signal that its reproductive system is ready to go. Testosterone and oestrogen are the two hormones involved, with testosterone the main driver in men (it’s present in the female libido, too, but to a lesser degree) and oestrogen at work in women.
We’re talking about the not-sleeping, not-eating phase of love. No wonder we’re lovelorn and confused: the body is awash with neurotransmitters called monoamines – among them dopamine, with its addictive feel good effects. Meanwhile the bloodstream is flushed with noradrenaline (also known as norepinephrine), the chemical responsible for the “sweaty palms” syndrome that gets our hearts racing and makes our mouths dry. To borrow from Beyoncé, this ingredient of the love cocktail is the most likely to drive us “crazy in love”.
The UK divorce statistics may suggest that modern society isn’t interested in long-term commitment. But think of the anguish that a failed relationship causes and it’s clear that attachment still matters. In terms of the chemical reactions at work, the hormone oxytocin helps us to form lasting relationships and builds feelings of empathy, trust and calmness. It’s released in the mother during childbirth and breastfeeding, and in both sexes by the act of lovemaking. To this can be added vasopressin, another hormone that is thought to encourage bonding.