OK, time to return to “The Neurotransmitters of Love,” or “Ruby, Don’t Take Your Dopamine to Town.” So where does love go? And again, I mean that wild, manic, “I get sick just thinking of you smiling at somebody else” kind of love. Because sooner or later, it does go. Well, hold on. To say “go” implies that love will, at one point, be gone. For some couples, that’s true. For others, it’s not. For accuracy’s sake, I’ll say sooner or later, love will fade. It may signify the end of your partnership, or it may not, but it’ll fade. For centuries, we have wailed, “Why?”
There may be a chemical answer. Romantologists now speculate that the fading of that disruptive and utterly intoxicating love is for our own good—it just wouldn’t be healthy for us to stay in this dopamine-soaked zone for an extended period of time. Put simply, said one whitecoat, “if the chemically altered state induced by love is akin to a mental illness or a drug-induced euphoria, exposing yourself for too long a time could result in psychological damage.” In other words, that wise body of yours may simply reach a point where it says, “Enough already. That’s it for the super-hot, super swoon. We gotta bring back some sanity here.” Chemically speaking, this cooling off occurs as that exciting flood of dopamine is slowly replaced by a cooler hormone known as oxytocin. This stuff is to bonding and nurturing as dopamine is to love letters and all-night mattress-thrashing. In successful long-term relationships, it’s now believed that each partner sports an abundance of oxytocin.
Conversely, with all the long-term relationships that don’t work, it’s thought that there may be a problem with the supply of oxytocin—that the couple in question “hasn’t found a way to stimulate or sustain oxytocin production.” Maybe they’re not interested in this peaceful, calmer phase of the relationship. Maybe they’re so strung out on that good, good dopamine, they just gotta dump the awesome god/mighty goddess who has somehow become yesterday’s news and try to find a new ticket to the rollercoaster.
So there it is. The first stage of romantic love appears to be dominated by the euphoric neurotransmitter dopamine. But all good things, especially those involving ecstasy, must end. Sooner or later (and often not in harmony with the other partner), the body fades out of the “wow, you make me feel like Superman/Shakespeare” phase, and levels off into the calmer, saner plateau of love dominated by oxytocin, the bonding hormone.
It all puts a chemical spin on the old classic gag where the couple puts a bean in the jar every time they make love during their first year of wedded bliss, then pulls a bean out every time they “do it” for the rest of their union. The punch line being, of course, that most couples never quite empty the Love Jar, filled to the brim as it was in the days of wine, roses and dopamine.