There was one guy in particular in high school who I couldn’t stop thinking about. He was funny, always smiling and had this easy way about him like he was confident without really trying. I told my friends I liked him and the word got around, and I couldn’t believe it when he came up to me in front of my locker and said, “Hey.” That’s all it took – well, one dinner date later and I was head over heels.
First loves are amazing, and they’re also bittersweet. That guy broke my 18-year-old heart. Love hurts!
But there’s such a positive side to it, most of us keep searching. We don’t give up that easy – nor should we. I certainly didn’t, and I have a fantastic husband (most days) and a five-year-old son, so two boys filling my life just fine.
There is hard science behind love. In its infancy, it’s that almost overwhelming feeling that takes your breath away and makes your heart beat like you’re in the final Olympic heat for the 100-meter dash. Crazy love! There is also a physiological response to love that can work to our advantage and to our health.
That feel-good rush of love
Falling in love, when you can concentrate on little else, causes our body to release a flood of feel-good chemicals. It’s what makes our palms sweat, our cheeks flush and our hearts race. Oh the euphoria! Levels of these substances, including dopamine, adrenaline and norepinephrine, increase. To spell it out, dopamine creates feelings of euphoria while adrenaline and norepinephrine are behind a rapid heart, restlessness and overall preoccupation that come with experiencing love.
Sexual wellness experts at Loyola University Chicago Stritch School of Medicine (SSOM) have studied the physical responses to love to better understand why we act the way we do and how falling in love can lead to good health with a long-lasting relationship. In times of rising divorce rates and high expectations of marriage, it’s fascinating science.
Why relationships make us happy
In fact, MRI scans show that love lights up the pleasure center of the brain. So when people fall in love, blood flow increases in this area of the brain, which is the same area linked to obsessive-compulsive behaviors. Experts say that love truly is blind in the early stages. We idealize the other person and only see what we want to see, skewing our perception of reality.
Not everyone can be as charming and attractive as George Clooney, now can they?
When a third party weighs in on our romantic partner of choice, it can be more helpful than we realize, bringing an objective and rational perspective.
We all know those stomach butterflies that comes with the excitement and passion of early love start to fade. But it’s how you keep the fire stoked that makes the difference.
There are three phases of love: Lust, attraction and attachment. Lust, as you can imagine, is a phase driven by hormones where we experience desire. With attraction, blood flow increases to the brain’s pleasure center. We become fixated on our partner. This fades during the attachment phase because the body develops a tolerance to the pleasure stimulants.
While that sense of high, crazy love fades, attachment is gold. Humans are social animals programmed for attachment. We find partners, some of us have children and nurture them to independence and success to repeat the cycle.
Attachment leads to good health
When attachment happens, endorphins and the hormones vasopressin and oxytocin flood the body to create an overall sense of well-being and security that make for a strong, lasting relationship.
We know that people who have strong social ties are healthier. They feel more connected and supported, both which counter all the negative effects of day-to-day stress. And stress, loneliness and isolation have been shown to dampen immune system response, making people more prone to illness.
The person who has the most impact on our health, then, is our spouse or closest friend to whom we’re most attached. So if we feel secure and happy in our marriage, we are going to experience the added bonus of good health. But we’ve got to work at it and keep the joy and the passion alive and well.
Science has revealed the key to lasting, fulfilling relationships: Kindness and generosity. You thought I was going to say remembering birthdays and holidays like Valentine’s Day with stand-out gifts and tokens of fondness. Those are good – and I like fresh flowers delivered just as much as the next woman – but it’s about the daily kindnesses.
A kind word of encouragement, a gesture, a hug, paying attention to and participating in a conversation, taking an interest in the activity of a spouse in a positive way – all those details can strengthen your bond.
Give a little, get a lot in return
New York psychologists John and Julie Gottman are considered top experts on what makes relationships work. They run the Gottman Institute, which is devoted to helping couples build and maintain healthy, loving relationships based on scientific research.
John Gottman first set up “The Love Lab” in 1986 with a colleague at the University of Washington, bringing newlyweds into the lab and observing how they interact with each other. Researchers then hooked the couples up to electrodes to talk about their relationships, its challenges, and a positive memory, while measuring their blood flow, heart rates and amounts of sweat. They checked in with them six years later to see if they were still together.
They were able to put the couples into two groups: The masters, still happily together, and the disasters, who were either broken up or chronically unhappy but still together.
Looking back at the data from six years earlier, the researchers saw notable differences between the two groups. The disasters looked calm during their interviews, but the electrode findings showed they were actually in full flight or fight mode, just while sitting next to their partner talking about their relationship.
The masters were calm and collected, inside and out. They had, Gottman suggested, created a climate of trust and intimacy that made them more comfortable and relaxed.
Gottman later linked that bond of trust and intimacy to kindness. Every time your partner makes a request for connection – to join them for lunch at a restaurant, for example – the partner doesn’t just accept the invitation or dismiss it, but interacts and has a conversation about the restaurant or what they could do after lunch as well or any number of exchanges in a kind and attentive way. It’s all about meeting your partner’s emotional needs. Kindness breeds kindness.
It doesn’t mean you can’t get angry, because you should express and share your feelings. But it’s all about how you express your anger. It’s not exploding and then giving them the cold shoulder, making them feel worthless and invisible. It’s trying to see both sides of the picture and working your way to a solution.
Think about kindness as a muscle, the Gottmans advise, that grows stronger in everyone with exercise. Use it and use it often, and your love will grow.
Love, as we all know, takes work. There’s sure to be tears and heartache, but love is something that we need and that we’re all the better off for experiencing it. Science confirms that the feel-good chemicals that result, and the attachment that comes in time, are good for our health, lifting our mood and fortifying our immune system.
So kiss the love of your life a little more often! I’d say that’s more satisfying than any old heart-shaped box of chocolates.
Karen Hawthorne is managing editor at Health eTalk and BelMarraHealth.com. Karen has worked for the National Post, Postmedia News, CBC Radio Vancouver, the Edmonton Journal, the Kitchener-Waterloo Record and the Cobourg Daily Star, reporting on health news and lifestyle trends for over 15 years.