Poems have been written on it, people have given their lives for it and in many people this little word evokes the grandest of emotions, but Suchitra Bajpai Chaudhary finds out that love is nothing but a chemical reaction

"The moment you have in your heart this extraordinary thing called love and feel the depth and delight, the ecstasy of it, you will discover that your world has been transformed."

J Krishnamurti

So you have fallen in love, Cupid's guided missile-like arrow has struck and triggered off a series of responses ranging in intensity from mild obsession to pure insanity. When the person who is the object of your affections happens to be with you, strange things happen. Suddenly music plays, a spontaneous burst of fireworks embroiders the sky, star dust falls all around you, your heart beats just that little bit faster and your breathing turns shallow. You feel more than perfectly fine but you also think you may be feeling dizzy.

Yes, you may be going insane and that's perfectly okay. Love does this to you, particularly when it is freshly brewed. Poets, writers, playwrights, seers and dreamers all over the world have had us believe all along that this emotion is something out of the ordinary, and it turns the ordinary in us to something very special. True perhaps.

Also true that love is identified as one of the emotions central to our lives as human beings. Emphasising the significance of this emotion in our lives, US-based love coach Robin Gorman Newman, founder of www.LoveCoach.com, says: "Everyone wants love in their lives. What is life about without it? We want to be fulfilled in our relationships, personal, professional, and certainly, romantic. Love feels good. It gives meaning and depth to our everyday existence. It makes you want to wake up in the morning.

Falling in love can be a euphoric state. When you are able to connect with someone at a heartfelt level,
and know that it's mutual and real, it's like an elixir.

"Romance is wonderful. A glance. A touch. With the right person, it means everything. Self-love is important too. You need to practise self-care and be in a positive place so that you can recognise and invite true love into your life. Otherwise, it could be right under your nose, and you won't seize it," But despite all these eloquent thoughts on this speeding-train-without-brakes like emotion which we believe is centred somewhere deep in our heart, there is a new breed of people who are slowly but surely washing off the pink patina over love and revealing it to be a mere concoction of brain chemicals you have no control over.
Stop the music, I want to know more about this bleeding-in-the-wash theory, you say?

OK, here we go. Scientists have worked on some very logical, fact-based deductions that have kind of de-mystified the entire process of falling and staying in love.

When the chemicals kick in
They say love is nothing but a chemical high, a very 'head-y' thing as opposed to a heart experience.
A cocktail of chemicals in your brain suddenly soars and makes you keel over with its collective might.
In several tests carried out on willing human subjects, biochemists have been able to prove that all of that floaty feeling is nothing but an interplay of chemicals, hormones, enzymes and pheromones in our body and that feeling of being in love can be reduced to an equation as simple as a+b =c.

So much for stars in our eyes. These days, you would be advised to see your opthalmologist immediately. Floaty or floaters? Better determine that. And while you are at it, don't return his call till the doc has agreed to see you.

US-based licensed psychotherapist and relationship coach Toni Coleman explains exactly what happens when two people 'fall' in love. "Falling in love requires two people to have some measure of the right physical, emotional and intellectual chemistry. Physical chemistry is that immediate attraction we feel when we meet someone for the first time. It is often mistaken for "love", when in fact it is only one piece of the attraction needed to form healthy, intimate relationships.

The chemical that is involved in physical attraction is called phenyl ethylamine or PEA, which is a naturally occurring substance found
in the brain. It has the properties of a natural amphetamine that both stimulates us and increases our physical and emotional energy. This
is where the feeling of being "high on love" comes from.

But she warns that this can be
short-lived or very transitory. "When physical attraction is the sole basis for a relationship, it will eventually wither and die as the chemical high that comes with it lessens over time and repeated exposure."

The three important stages of love
For a moment, deglaze your mind about that instant high. Think with your left brain. Truth is we pass through different stages of love. Dubai-based health psychologist Melanie Schlatter elaborates on the three important stages of love viz. infatuation, attraction and attachment. In every stage of love, there is a different chemical interplay in our body and the concentration of one or the other determines which stage we are in.

"According to the research of Dr Helen Fisher, research professor in the Department of Anthropology, Rutgers University, there are three stages of love/ infatuation/lust, attraction, and attachment which are driven by different hormones and chemicals.

"The first stage is an almost unbearable attraction towards a person which is driven by the hormones testosterone and oestrogen in males and females respectively.
"The second stage, attraction, is the phase of love where people claim that they can think of nothing else but their love interest. It is associated with three chemical neurotransmitters – adrenaline, dopamine and serotonin.

Increased levels of adrenaline in the blood are responsible for activation of the primary stress response. Physically, this manifests as increased heart rate, shortness of breath, shaking hands and knees, dry mouth and hot sweats.

"Dopamine can also be found in increased levels in the brain, and it is commonly associated with the feeling of intense pleasure and bliss when thinking about, and being in, the new relationship – a feeling akin to taking a banned substance. People also describe heightened levels of energy and alertness (enabling you to talk together for hours on end!), less need for sleep and lowered appetite.

"Serotonin is regarded as one of the most important chemicals in the context of love, and is often responsible for your beloved to keep popping into your thoughts. This phase is also responsible for instigating the obsessive like nature of our thoughts regarding the new love interest. Indeed, one research study showed that serotonin levels of individuals newly in love were very similar to the low serotonin levels observed in obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) patients. One component of OCD is clinically characterised by intrusive and repetitive thoughts.

"The immediate release of all of these neuro-chemicals can be initiated from the most simple acts – such as eyes meeting, or hands touching. From this point onwards, the individuals can become almost addicted to the feeling of the chemicals, which have been released, and thus the attraction develops rapidly with each person seeking more and more contact from each other in order to experience that feeling. This phase is known to last between six months to three years, and many people will seek out something in a partner that they may not have had as a child – stability, protection, warmth and so on.

On the contrary, at this time, it is also often said that common sense 'goes out of the window', because, due to high levels of 'chemistry' and the elation it provides, it often means that our predetermined list of attributes in a partner (physical, social class, financial, level of education, etc,) are ignored. For instance, instead of seeking out security or stability, people may be attracted to the danger or sense of adventure in a potential partner willing to ride the risky wave of elation that the associated chemical reactions bring with it.

"The third stage, attachment, is the phase of love after the initial, infatuation, and intense levels of attraction slowly stabilise. At this time, endorphins become more prominent. These are produced from the mere presence of a partner, physical contact, and activities such as exercise – people may be familiar with endorphins for creating the so-called 'runner's high'. They are also known as natural painkillers.

"According to the literature, endorphins are responsible for closer relationships where stability, warmth, calmness, intimacy and sharing predominate – 'true love'. As such, it
is not quite the addictive high experienced in the initial phases, but there are enough chemicals to sustain the level of attraction between the two individuals, and for couples to raise a family," points out Dr Fisher.

Two hormones that are commonly associated with this stage are oxytocin and vasopressin. Dr Schlatter points out that oxytocin has been colloquially named the 'cuddle chemical' due
to its ability to produce feelings of satisfaction and attachment from a look, scent or physical contact.

It also promotes the need for physical contact, and can make both males and females more caring towards each other. In experiments conducted by Dr Diane Witt, the associate professor of psychology from Binghamton University, New York, she was able to successfully demonstrate that if the release of oxytocin is blocked in rats and sheep, they reject their own offspring.

Vasopressin also plays an important role in the attachment bond, including linking feelings to memories; and much research has been conducted on monogamy in prairie voles (a type of rodent), because there are similarities to humans in their genes, brains and nests!

"Incidentally, oxytocin, endorphins and adrenaline are all involved in reproduction and they play important roles in labour and birth."

Falling in and out of love
But what happens to those people who frequently fall in and out of love? Can we blame flippancy on chemical imbalance?
According to Coleman people who get addicted to a PEA high are constantly in need of a PEA fix. "Someone who moves from one relationship to the next is often doing so because they have a pattern of relationships based solely on physical attraction, which cannot be sustained at the same level over time. As each relationship matures and moves towards the next stage of emotional and intellectual intimacy, the PEA lessens – and the person seeks that high with someone new.

They are driven by a need for PEA. People who have this kind of relationship history are often labelled as commitment-phobic and/or incapable of monogamy.
Then at the other end of the spectrum are men and women who go a little overboard, in the sense that one minute they are head over heels in love and the next minute, fighting bitterly with the same partner. Coleman thinks this kind of pattern can be due to lack of maturity, which leads them to idealise another person, and then do a complete turnaround when they find an imperfection.

Often, they are in love with the idea of love and having a relationship, but completely unprepared for the realities that come with sustaining healthy intimacy. Someone with this pattern needs to do some work on assessing their relationship readiness – part of which is to identify their own dysfunctional behaviours and blocks to a healthy relationship and begin the work there.

Coleman counsels that people who have a history of short-lived and intense physical relationships should take an assessment test on their relationship wants and goals. "I would also encourage them to take a closer look at how their past relationships have worked or not worked for them and why. If they stated a desire for a long-term and truly intimate relationship,
I would recommend they work on their intimacy issues through exploring family of origin issues, past relationship problems and fears of intimacy".

However, people who believe in long-term commitments and find their love for their spouse acquiring a more intense hue with the passing of each day, do so because
of the interplay of other neuro-chemicals.

"PEA is a chemical that lessens with time and greater emotional and intellectual contact. It cannot be sustained. However, those initial PEA highs are replaced by endorphins, which are a natural morphine like substance that helps lower anxiety and brings about a sense of calm, which contributes to a feeling of attachment and comfort with the other person, explains Coleman.

Dr Schlatter believes that we cannot always blame the lack of feeling or the presence of it only on the chemicals in our body. "Love is not entirely a science experiment; after all, chemicals cannot make choices for us!"

If thou giveth, thou shalt receive
A lot of choices we make in our lives about our spouses and the people we want to be surrounded with, depend a lot on the kind of person we are. A happy and generous nature that is at the core of our character will usually attract a stable and committed relationship.

"When someone comes from a family that is characterised by healthy and mutually satisfying relationships, they have a much higher probability of having a healthy and satisfying friend, work and love relationships throughout their life. The families we come from are our role models for what relationships should be like. They also shape our self-esteem and self-awareness and teach us how to interact in productive and sustaining ways with others.

Therefore, when someone comes from a close-knit and loving background, they are much better prepared to make healthy relationship choices and to enter relationships that will be right for them. There is also a "genetic component" theory regarding families that holds that those families who have a history of mental illness, substance abuse and/or neglect/abuse are more likely to exhibit dysfunctional patterns and behaviours in succeeding generations.

Therefore, it is widely believed that our family background plays a large role in our future relationships, and that the people who come from healthy families have a genetic make-up that gives them an advantage. However, the value of learning new relationship skills, improving one's self-esteem and learning to make healthier relationship decisions should not be underestimated, says Coleman.

Legend and tradition prompt that love is eternal and partners who are in a relationship opt for a 'Till death us do part' stance. That is the societal expectation. So what happens when the chemical flow abates? Schlatter says there are different kinds of hormones that take over to give the relationship a lasting comfort. Given that the chemicals responsible for the feelings associated with love generally decrease over a two-three year period, it is no wonder that people think their partner may not be the same person anymore.

In reality it is simply that thinking has become more rational and idealised notions have dissipated; and at which point a relationship is able to survive or it may come to an end depending on the new, reality-based, perceptions. Previously for example, you may have viewed your partner's little quirks or imperfections as endearing, but now you may find them irritating enough to end the relationship.
The research of Professor Ted Huston at the University of Texas showed that the longer the courting (pre-engagement/marital) period, the stronger the long-term relationship was. If the relationship continues, this is where the endorphins will gradually take over.

In the initial stages of a relationship, people characteristically prioritise their partner and everything that goes with that association. Over time, life takes hold again, people become complacent, and other unrelated issues take precedence. Therefore, it is very important to keep focusing on the aspects of the relationship that can ignite passion for both partners, so that desire does not disappear.

Dr Margaret Paul, co creator of Inner Bonding, a transformational six-step spiritual healing process states: "Love flows between two people whose hearts are open to learning and to sharing love. The hard part is keeping the heart open."

– Suchitra Bajpai Chaudhary is Senior Feature Writer, Friday