“Practically all the relationships I know are based on a foundation of lies and mutually accepted delusion.” Samantha in Sex in The City
“It’s a very fickle situation, love,” Dr Helen Fisher, research professor and expert on romantic love
Did you feel disappointed with Charles dissed Diana for Camilla? Are you still dreaming Brad and Jen will get back together? And what was it with Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson that was worth giving up a throne for?
Whether these famous lovers were in love, in lust, affectionate attachment or a mix and match of all three, it seems it’s true as Shakespeare and Gene Pitney agree; “true love never runs smooth.”
The Three Faces of Love
That’s because – according to brain imaging research over the last decade – Mother Nature has set up three distinct but complementary emotion-motivation systems in the brain for mating, reproduction and parenting, each one driven by different brain chemicals and hormones.
Dr Helen Fisher, an expert on the chemistry of love, says if you’re in a relationship it’s likely you’ll be in one of three stages of love, reflecting the dominant neurochemical at work. You can be in lust, ‘in love’ or in romantic attachment – or a mix of all three mating states – either with the same person or several people at the same time.
If you’re in lust your sex drive or libido is in top gear, driven by estrogens and androgens. Nature’s purpose? To motivate you to locate any appropriate mating partner.
Accelerate to the starry-eyed stage of romantic attraction – also called or infatuation, or limerance – fuelled by increased levels of dopamine and norepinephrine – and you’re fixating on a specific partner. Your chemistry is telling you he or she is “the one”, conserving mating time and energy, and forming bonds which will last long enough (hopefully) to carry you into shared parenthood.
Fast forward about 18 months (on average) and you’re either going cold on the whole thing or moving into attachment – also called companionate love. Your body has exhausted the dopamine, and the mad buzz of first love has slowed a little.
Warmed by the “cuddle hormone” oxytocin, you’ll be engaged nesting, mutual territory defence, feeding and grooming, sharing feelings of calm, security, social comfort and emotional union. Nature’s focus, says Dr Fisher, is to “enable you to tolerate this person, at least long enough to raise a child as a team.” (See also The Science of Love)
Charles and Diana, Brad and Jen
So could Charles and Brad feel companionate love for Diana and Jen while lusting after Camilla and Angelina? Can Diana love Charles at the same time as she is conducting an affair with James Gilbey? In theory, absolutely, says Dr Fisher. The science of intimacy can be a very complicated thing – or to put it in another way – the neurochemical pathways of our driven nature often overlap.
“I think that these brain systems are big mix-and-match systems,” says the Rutgers University prof, who is scientific adviser on matchmaking site Chemistry.com
That’s how it’s possible to “swing easily from one to the other, even lie in bed and feel deep attachment to one person and feel madly in love with someone else. It’s a very fickle situation, love.”