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'Lust can make us dumb': Northland experts break down the science of romantic love

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Lynn Schwarzkopf remembers the excitement, "the lightness in your heart" she said, recalling meeting her husband, Erik.

The Duluth woman felt it again when she talked about their date with a friend. And again when Erik texted her.

Rebecca Davenport has been with her partner for about six years. There are times that he drives her "crazy," but there's something right about their union. They have chemistry, she said, and they both knew it right away.

What these women experienced is common for people in the early stages of romantic love.

There's lust, attraction and attachment, according to Dr. Ashley Thompson, assistant professor of social psychology at the University of Minnesota Duluth.

Lust is physiological arousal and sexual desire. It's "the animalistic urge," Thompson said. Sex organs (ovaries and testes) secrete estrogen and testosterone in both men and women, leading to a heightened libido.

Next is attraction — interpersonal, emotional or intellectual closeness.

When this occurs, the brain releases feel-good hormones dopamine, norepinephrine and serotonin. Think: Butterflies in your stomach. And when you're feeling twitterpated, "fight or flight" hormone norepinephrine may be the culprit of sleep and appetite.

This hormone-fueled combo shuts off rational behavior / the brain's prefrontal cortex.

It can also explain sweaty palms, dilated pupils, racing heart. This reaction is why people historically believed love centered in the chest, said Dr. David Plude, licensed psychologist at Arrowhead Psychological Clinic in Duluth.

He works with couples who want a healthier relationship, during pre-wedding counseling, or those who have started to fall out of love.

While we see great things during the early stages of romance, new relationships are incredibly powerful. Some red flags don't stand out because we're seriously "under the influence of all of these chemicals," he said. That means poor decision-making and impulse control. Dopamine goes up, and serotonin can go down, leading to obsessive thinking.

"Lust can make us dumb," Plude said.

How we act when we're attracted to someone can differ from person to person. We can hold eye contact, avoid it, we can seize, stammer, or trip over our words.

You may try to generate physical contact with a non-threatening, subtle touch, said Dr. Shevaun Stocker, professor of psychology and human behavior at the University of Wisconsin-Superior.

"It's not uncommon for people to touch themselves, their face, their arm, as a way to draw attention to themselves for the person they're finding physically attractive," she added.

Those are short-term, quick behaviors and from there, it can manifest differently depending on the age group and how they communicate, Stocker said.

These love chemicals have the added bonus of a reduction in emotional judgment, fear and depression, according to the National Center for Biotechnology Information.

And some of our behaviors are in tune with traits of mammalian courtship, such as gesture mimicry, motivation to win our preferred partner, possessive mate guarding.

And if you're crushing on someone and can't focus, that's because this stage is linked to imaginative thinking, thoughts of the future, and replaying positive experiences with the apple of your eye — all prompting more dopamine release in the ole noggin.

This courtship phase typically lasts one to six months, so look alive, lovers.

Last but not least is attachment: pair bonding predominant in longer-term relationships, with partners, parents, siblings, friends. The chemicals at work are vasopressin and "the cuddle hormone" oxytocin, linked to comfort, calm and well-being.

We feel this during any sexual contact, not necessarily just during intercourse, Thompson said.

And oxytocin is also released during childbirth and breastfeeding.

If you want a boost, look into the eyes of a loved one when you're hugging them. You might find you'll want to hold it longer. "That feel-good pathway gets activated, and all of those reward triggers make us want to maintain physical intimacy," Stocker said.

You can feel lust and attraction with suitors, or attraction and attachment with family, but all three need to be present to be classified as romantic love, according to Thompson and research by Dr. Helen Fisher at Rutgers University.

This whole experience is "tribal," Thompson said.

Romantic love activates the hypothalamus, an area linked to craving, needing, wanting — the same area activated when addicts use cocaine or when we eat a lot of sweets.

Stocker doesn't see love as hitting the criteria for physical and psychological dependencies to constitute the term "addiction." But in a metaphorical way, it is in the same domain, she said.

Feelings of love occur far below cognitive processes, and research suggests this doesn't stop after a breakup, Thompson said. Because these chemicals and emotions are so primal, you don't have as much control over them. That means more difficulty when you lose them.

During a breakup, the body experiences withdrawal from the feel-good neurotransmitters and hormones, said Debra Schroeder, social psychology professor at the College of St. Scholastica. We miss that dopamine, so we're more apt to seek reward with one-night stands, drugs or even texting exes. But this doesn't help, she said.

We do feel better, faster than we realize. We don't give enough credit to our psychological coping skills that help us recover, Stocker added.

In more than 20 years working as a clinical psychologist, Plude said, he has observed that the reasons couples fall out of love most often are resentments and unresolved conflicts. Also, unhealthy or abusive behaviors, drugs, alcohol, gambling, excessive work, emotional eating or shopping are misery stabilizers that force withdrawal from one another.

Schroeder suggested acknowledging the emotional and physical loss of a romantic partner, seeking support from friends and other creative forms of consolation.

"Get some hugs, cuddle some babies, as those help us to release oxytocin, too," she said.

Though we can't hop in a time machine to test these theories, the cause of our chemical reactions is evolutionary, Thompson said. Feelings of love were beneficial to forming partnerships for raising offspring and for survival.

Also, we work better as a social species, and a lot of attraction and relationship mechanisms ease that interaction, she said.

It can be complicated, but don't give up, Thompson said. Love is one of the best things a human can experience.

Learn about it, ask for help and try to be the best person you can be with your partner, said Plude, who has been married to his wife for 23 years. "Relationships can be tricky, and they can be hurtful at times, too. But don't let that stop you from seeking."

Melinda Lavine

Lavine is a features and health reporter for the Duluth News Tribune. 

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