How Love Works

by Lee Ann Obringer

Introduction to How Love Works

If you've ever been in love, you've probably at least considered classifying the feeling as an addiction. And guess what: You were right. As it turns out, scientists are discovering that the same chemical process that takes place with addiction takes place when we fall in love.

Love is a chemical state of mind that's part of our genes and influenced by our upbringing. We are wired for romance in part because we are supposed to be loving parents who care diligently for our helpless babies.

In this article, we'll find out what love really is and what happens in our bodies that makes us fall in love -- and ensures we stay there. We'll also look at what attracts us to someone in the first place. Is it their pheromones, or do they just fit the right "love template?"

What is Love?

Romantic love both exhilarates and motivates us. It is also critical to the continuation of our species. Without the attachment of romantic love, we would live in an entirely different society that more closely resembled some (but not all) of those social circles in the animal world. The chemicals that race around in our brain when we're in love serve several purposes, and the primary goal is the continuation of our species. Those chemicals are what make us want to form families and have children. Once we have children, those chemicals change to encourage us to stay together to raise those children. So in a sense, love really is a chemical addiction that occurs to keep us reproducing.

Regardless of the country or culture, romantic love plays an important part. While cultural differences in how that love is displayed vary greatly, the fact that romantic love exists is undisputed.

But let's get down to the nitty gritty. What is it that makes us fall in love with someone in the first place?

What Makes us Fall in Love?

We all have a template for the ideal partner buried somewhere in our subconscious. It is this love map that decides which person in that crowded room catches our eye. But how is this template formed?


Many researchers have speculated that we tend to go for members of the opposite sex who remind us of our parents. Some have even found that we tend to be attracted to those who remind us of ourselves. In fact, cognitive psychologist David Perrett, at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, did an experiment in which he morphed a digitized photo of the subject's own face into a face of the opposite sex. Then, he had the subject select from a series of photos which one he or she found most attractive. According to Dr. Perrett, his subjects always preferred the morphed version of their own face (and they didn't recognize it as their own).


Like appearance, we tend to form preferences for those who remind us of our parents (or others close to us through childhood) because of their personality, sense of humor, likes and dislikes, etc.


The debated topic of human pheromones still carries some weight in the field of love research. The word "pheromone" comes from the Greek words pherein and hormone, meaning "excitement carrier".

In the animal world, pheromones are individual scent "prints" found in urine or sweat that dictate sexual behavior and attract the opposite sex. They help animals identify each other and choose a mate with an immune system different enough from their own to ensure healthy offspring. They have a special organ in their noses called the vomeronasal organ (VNO) that detects this odorless chemical.

The existence of human pheromones was discovered in 1986 by scientists at the Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia and its counterpart in France. They found these chemicals in human sweat. A human VNO has also been found in some, but not all, people. Even if the VNO isn't present in all of us -- and may not be working in those who do have it -- there is still evidence that smell is an important aspect of love (note the booming perfume industry). An experiment was conducted where a group of females smelled the unwashed tee shirts of a group of sweaty males, and each had to select the one to whom she was most "attracted." Just like in the animal world, the majority of the females chose a shirt from the male whose immune system was the most different from their own.


According to the Food and Drug Administration, aphrodisiacs are based in "folklore, not fact." Still, people continue to believe in the love-inducing effects of certain foods, herbs and extracts. There are several common aphrodisiacs that may or may not have actual effects on your love life. Discovery Health listed some of these:

  • Asparagus: The vitamin E in this vegetable is said to stimulate sex hormones.
  • Chili peppers: Some researchers say that eating hot peppers makes us release endorphins, which might lead to "other things."
  • Chocolate: This favorite for Valentine's Day contains phenylethylamine, one of the chemicals your body produces naturally when you're in love (see The Chemistry of Love).
  • Oysters: Oysters contain high levels of zinc, which reportedly increased the production of testosterone. Testosterone increases libido for both sexes.

Others include Ginkgo, Spanish fly (dead beetle parts) and Damiana.

Most of these are supposed to create the desire for sex or improve male sexual ability rather than attract a mate. But, if you're stimulating hormones that make you more interested, then you're more likely to meet someone and fall in love. And, even if they don't actually work, some say that if you think it's going to work, you're halfway there.

Types/Stages of Love: Lust and Attraction

There are three distinct types or stages of "love":

  1. Lust, or erotic passion
  2. Attraction, or romantic passion
  3. Attachment, or commitment

When all three of these happen with the same person, you have a very strong bond. Sometimes, however, the one we lust after isn't the one we're actually in love with.


When we're teenagers, just after puberty, estrogen and testosterone become active in our bodies for the first time and create the desire to experience "love." These desires, a.k.a. lust, play a big role both during puberty and throughout our lives. According to an article by Lisa Diamond, entitled "Love and Sexual Desire" (Current Directions in Psychological Science, vol 13 no. 3), lust and romantic love are two different things caused by different underlying substrates. Lust evolved for the purpose of sexual mating, while romantic love evolved because of the need for infant/child bonding. So even though we often experience lust for our romantic partner, sometimes we don't -- and that's okay. Or, maybe we do, but we also lust after someone else. According to Dr. Diamond, that's normal.

Sexologist John Money draws the line between love and lust in this way: "Love exists above the belt, lust below. Love is lyrical. Lust is lewd."

Pheromones, looks and our own learned predispositions for what we look for in a mate play an important role in whom we lust after, as well. Without lust, we might never find that special someone. But, while lust keeps us "looking around," it is our desire for romance that leads us to attraction.


While the initial feelings may (or may not) come from lust, what happens next -- if the relationship is to progress -- is attraction. When attraction, or romantic passion, comes into play, we often lose our ability to think rationally -- at least when it comes to the object of our attraction. The old saying "love is blind" is really accurate in this stage. We are often oblivious to any flaws our partner might have. We idealize them and can't get them off our minds. This overwhelming preoccupation and drive is part of our biology. We'll go deeper into the chemicals involved in attraction in The Chemistry of Love.

In this stage, couples spend many hours getting to know each other. If this attraction remains strong and is felt by both of them, then they usually enter the third stage: attachment.

Types/Stages of Love: Attachment

The attachment, or commitment, stage is love for the duration. You've passed fantasy love and are entering into real love. This stage of love has to be strong enough to withstand many problems and distractions. Studies by University of Minnesota researcher Ellen Berscheid and others have shown that the more we idealize the one we love, the stronger the relationship during the attachment stage.

Psychologists at the University of Texas in Austin have come to the same conclusion. They found that idealization appears to keep people together and keep them happier in marriage. "Usually, this is a matter of one person putting a good spin on the partner, seeing the partner as more responsive than he or she really is," says Ted Huston, the study's lead investigator. "People who do that tend to stay in relationships longer than those who can't or don't."

Playing a key role in this stage are oxytocin, vasopressin and endorphins, which are released when having sex (more on this later).

Let's find out more about the chemistry of love.

The Chemistry of Love

There are a lot of chemicals racing around your brain and body when you're in love. Researchers are gradually learning more and more about the roles they play both when we are falling in love and when we're in long-term relationships. Of course, estrogen and testosterone play a role in the sex drive area (see How Sex Works). Without them, we might never venture into the "real love" arena.

That initial giddiness that comes when we're first falling in love includes a racing heart, flushed skin and sweaty palms. Researchers say this is due to the dopamine, norepinephrine and phenylethylamine we're releasing. Dopamine is thought to be the "pleasure chemical," producing a feeling of bliss. Norepinephrine is similar to adrenaline and produces the racing heart and excitement. According to Helen Fisher, anthropologist and well-known love researcher from Rutgers University, together these two chemicals produce elation, intense energy, sleeplessness, craving, loss of appetite and focused attention. She also says, "The human body releases the cocktail of love rapture only when certain conditions are met and ... men more readily produce it than women, because of their more visual nature."

Researchers are using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to watch people's brains when they look at a photograph of their object of affection. According to Helen Fisher, a well-known love researcher and an anthropologist at Rutgers University, what they see in those scans during that "crazed, can't-think-of-anything-but stage of romance" -- the attraction stage -- is the biological drive to focus on one person. The scans showed increased blood flow in areas of the brain with high concentrations of receptors for dopamine -- associated with states of euphoria, craving and addiction. High levels of dopamine are also associated with norepinephrine, which heightens attention, short-term memory, hyperactivity, sleeplessness and goal-oriented behavior. In other words, couples in this stage of love focus intently on the relationship and often on little else.

Another possible explanation for the intense focus and idealizing view that occurs in the attraction stage comes from researchers at University College London. They discovered that people in love have lower levels of serotonin and also that neural circuits associated with the way we assess others are suppressed. These lower serotonin levels are the same as those found in people with obsessive-compulsive disorders, possibly explaining why those in love "obsess" about their partner.

Chemical Bonding

In romantic love, when two people have sex, oxytocin is released, which helps bond the relationship. According to researchers at the University of California, San Francisco, the hormone oxytocin has been shown to be "associated with the ability to maintain healthy interpersonal relationships and healthy psychological boundaries with other people." When it is released during orgasm, it begins creating an emotional bond -- the more sex, the greater the bond. Oxytocin is also associated with mother/infant bonding, uterine contractions during labor in childbirth and the "let down" reflex necessary for breastfeeding.

Vasopressin, an antidiuretic hormone, is another chemical that has been associated with the formation of long-term, monogamous relationships (see "Are We Alone in Love?"). Dr. Fisher believes that oxytocin and vasopressin interfere with the dopamine and norepinephrine pathways, which might explain why passionate love fades as attachment grows.

Endorphins, the body's natural painkillers, also play a key role in long-term relationships. They produce a general sense of well-being, including feeling soothed, peaceful and secure. Like dopamine and norepinephrine, endorphins are released during sex; they are also released during physical contact, exercise and other activities. According to Michel Odent of London's Primal Health Research Center, endorphins induce a "drug-like dependency."

The Long Haul?

What about when that euphoric feeling is gone? According to Ted Huston at the University of Texas, the speed at which courtship progresses often determines the ultimate success of the relationship. What they found was that the longer the courtship, the stronger the long-term relationship.

The feelings of passionate love, however, do lose their strength over time. Studies have shown that passionate love fades quickly and is nearly gone after two or three years. The chemicals responsible for "that lovin' feeling" (adrenaline, dopamine, norepinephrine, phenylethylamine, etc.) dwindle. Suddenly your lover has faults. Why has he or she changed, you may wonder. Actually, your partner probably hasn't changed at all; it's just that you're now able to see him or her rationally, rather than through the blinding hormones of infatuation and passionate love. At this stage, the relationship is either strong enough to endure, or the relationship ends.

If the relationship can advance, then other chemicals kick in. Endorphins, for example, are still providing a sense of well-being and security. Additionally, oxytocin is still released when you're having sex, producing feelings of satisfaction and attachment. Vasopressin also continues to play a role in attachment.

Are We Alone in Love?

Only three percent of mammals (aside from the human species) form "family" relationships like we do. The prairie vole is one such animal. This vole mates for life and prefers spending time with its mate over spending time with any other voles. Voles even go to the extreme of avoiding voles of the opposite sex.

When they have offspring, the couple works together to care for them. They spend hours grooming each other and just hanging out together. Studies have been done to try to determine the chemical makeup that might explain why the prairie vole forms this lifelong, monogamous relationship when its very close relative, the montane vole, does not.

According to studies by Larry Young, a social attachment researcher at Emory University, what happens is that when the prairie vole mates, like humans, the hormones oxytocin and vasopressin are released. Because the prairie vole has the needed receptors in its brain for these hormones in the regions responsible for reward and reinforcement, it forms a bond with its mate. That bond is for that particular vole based on its smell -- sort of like an imprint. As further reinforcement, dopamine is also released in the brain's reward center when they have sex, making the experience enjoyable and ensuring that they want to do it again. And because of the oxytocin and vasopressin, they want to have sex with the same vole.

Because the montane vole does not have receptors for oxytocin or vasopressin in its brain, those chemicals have no effect, and they continue with their one-night stands. Other than those receptors, the two vole species are almost entirely the same in their physical makeup.

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the belly of the beast

I grew-up in a family that made marriage and child-production a major issue and priority once my brother and I reached a certain age.  Dating wasn't about having "fun", but finding a suitable mate for child-raising purposes.

In all honesty, I don't know if I ever experienced true love or lust, simply because I always felt pressured to feel something that just wasn't there.  Maybe I have always been in needy-adoptee mode... afraid to be left alone, unloved and unwanted.  Maybe I'm a creature fed by obligation and duty...  In any case, the stress of not feeling heart-felt passionate feelings towards someone has always been felt as burning stress in my stomach.

"Love exists above the belt, lust below. Love is lyrical. Lust is lewd."

How true that reads to me now, knowing how much has been taken and ruined in my relationships simply because there was too much focused on the belly and the groin, and not enough on the heart and mind.

Built-in reward system?

Is it possible that some people are born without this built-in reward system that takes place between parent-child?  I mean, what if you never really bonded with your parents (that relationship was faked) does that mean all future relationships will be stunted or superficial?

That's really disturbing.

feeding the hole

I don't think anyone is born without that built-in reward system, but it can certainly get fucked up. You only have to look at the number of addicts around. I call this the feeding of the hole. You can put anything into it, in the long run it's not going to give anything back. Quick fixes give short flashes of pleasure, but in the end the emptiness remains. For myself I try not to feed the hole, though I am not always aware of it.

When it comes to bonding, I am less sure. I never really bonded with my adoptive parents and much of that relationship was unreal and faked, yet at times it wasn't. There were genuine moments, there were moments I felt at ease. I don't know if I am lucky in that sense, having at least had such moments, maybe if it is different when there has not been a single moment in someones childhood that felt good. Knowing what feels good though gives me at least the recognition when I am in a relationship that is good.

Compulsive feeding

I relate to much of what you mention here... which explains why I don't always trust my own ability to make healthy choices for myself.  [See poll question at]

When I first started the nursing profession, I loved how I could help people feel better.... I felt a tremendous amount of power being wanted and needed in a way I never was before.  The problem was how limited the feedback was for me.  I needed more in return -- the work itself wasn't enough, and my role was too limited.  I became frustrated having too many boundaries restricting my interests and abilities.  When I became pregnant for the first time, I realized my role as a nurturer had a place, and that place was home with my baby.

I never knew there could be a thing called chemical-attraction to another person until I had my own babies.  I loved the smell of their skin, and would find myself sniffing them all the time, just to fall into that lost zone of maternal intoxication.  The weird thing is knowing they each came from inside my body, so that left an "ewe-factor" in my mind each time I smelled their heads.

I know as my kids get older, their smell has changed and I find myself more & more "uncomfortable" snuggling with the older two.  There are certain boundaries a parent needs to keep, and quite frankly my kids don't smell as cute as they once did!

It's very interesting to me how much adult hormones/ sense of smell affects behaviors, especially if you do (or don't) like that particular scent.  Is it enough for someone visually "not my type" to be right for me, simply because of hormonal smell?


I don't believe the right smell alone will make everything right, but I do believe the wrong smell can make wrong. I only have to think back how my adoptive mother didn't smell right, to bring back a feeling of unsafety, ruining everything. To make everything good, I believe requires more than the right smell, but it is a good starting point.

I thought I was the only one

I thought I was the only one who thought my adoptive mother smelled strange.  It's not that she smelled bad, she just had a smell that didn't feel soft and homey to me.  There was something unsafe about her smell, but I could never put my finger on it until now!  Even her choice in perfume bothered me.  It was very strong and acid-smelling, not at all feminine.  I remember once watching her put it on, and she sprayed this brown bottle between her legs, and that totally grossed me out.

I hated knowing how her inner thighs smelled, because it was really coarse and uncomfortable for me. I didn't like it one bit, but I was always forced to kiss her and tell her how much I loved her.

I think I need a decontamination shower now. 


sights, scents and sense

I'm fascinated by this adult v. child perspective of sight and smell.  It seems to prove how misleading it is when an adult says "I bonded the moment I saw his/her face".  Wishful thinking and wanting to love won't make it true.  In fact, I think about my time spent in Obstetrics, and I remember being taught it's very rare for a first-time mother to immediately bond with her newborn -- between the stress of labor and delivery, the hormone shifts and the look of a newborn, it's no wonder or surprise it takes time for a new-mom to adjust to her new living love. 

Physical attraction and positive feedback certainly has a lot to do with wanting to smell a person in the first place... so what determines "ugly",  "undesireable", and "untouchable"?

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