What a feeling! But can that first flash-dancing, knee-buckling sensation of falling in love endure? Valerie Frankel investigates the science of walking on air.
Turns out, I am mentally ill. Aspects of my current brain chemistry resemble that of a person with obsessive-compulsive disorder. I haven't started turning the light switches on and off or urgently avoiding sidewalk cracks. But I have been shopping for beauty products and underwear in a fever. I read cookbooks now. I spend an embarrassing amount of time looking at myself naked. My classic symptoms—involuntary preoccupation, mood swings, emotional sensitivity, enhanced sensual awareness—are what tip the diagnosis. I am limerent. In the throes of limerence. It is both a psychological and physiological state. It is also the state I wish to call home.
Lay terms for limerence: romantic love, crazy love, lovesick, mad love, amour fort. You see a theme in the words crazy, sick, and mad. In this condition, one's body drugs itself mightily with hormones that create a feeling of joy. The rapture is balanced with the panic and dread that it could end. And it will. Limerence has a shelf life. By some estimates, you're lucky to get 18 months. I've had it for a year. When I think of becoming nonlimerent in six months, I suffer stomach pains, headaches, and jitters. Like a junkie.
"You won't have withdrawal symptoms," says Dorothy Tennov, PhD, author of the groundbreaking 1979 book Love and Limerence and the woman who originated the term. "And 18 months sounds short to me. If the limerence is requited, it can last up to three years. But you won't wake up nonlimerent on your anniversary. It's a gradual decline."
Helen Fisher, PhD, the author of Anatomy of Love, gives it two years. "Two, maybe three. During this stage, what I call infatuation, you experience increases of norepinephrine and dopamine levels in the brain and of testosterone, too, since lust is involved," she says. "When you move into the attachment stage, where you see an increase of vasopressin and oxytocin, the other hormones return to normal. Most couples in attached relationships have less sex than those in the infatuation stage." The phrase addicted to love applies to women and men who crave the excitement (and sex) of infatuation, floating from one intense affair to the next, leaving a pile of heartbroken, attachment-seeking partners in their wake.
Once you've transitioned out of infatuation, hormone levels dropping, you either attach or you do the opposite. "I don't use the word detach in my research," Fisher says, "but that's what happens. When you're heartbroken, hormones change again. You get another dopamine boost. That makes you have no interest in food at the beginning and end of a passionate relationship." Fisher is wary of presenting a relationship time line by stages. "You can flow from infatuation to attachment and back again," she says. "Some relationships start with attachment—a loving friendship—and then shift to infatuation and lust."
Next: The secret to staying madly in love...
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