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Exploring the love drug, joy and sex

By Valerie Frankel, Oprah.com
Romantic love fades, but feelings of attachment can keep a couple together.
Romantic love fades, but feelings of attachment can keep a couple together.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • When madly in love, one's body drugs itself with hormones that create feelings of joy
  • Limerence has a shelf life. By some estimates, you're lucky to get 18 months
  • Once you've transitioned out of infatuation, you either attach or you do the opposite
  • As you learn about your love, the insights propel you to the next stage
RELATED TOPICS
  • Sexuality
  • Romance
  • Relationships
  • Oprah.com

(OPRAH.com) -- 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, Ph.D., 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."

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Helen Fisher, Ph.D., 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."

The classic scenario, the only one I've known, is to fall madly in love at the start and eventually settle into a pleasant commitment or suffer a devastating breakup.

A comfortable marriage -- been there -- is swell. Attachment is a relief, a safe haven. For most people, the ultimate reward. But I'd rather not contemplate attachment or detachment when the stage I'm in is, as Tennov puts it, "the greatest joy, the height of euphoria, walking on air."

In my twenties I was always looking ahead, insisting that relationships move forward to be satisfying. My goal then was to progress to marriage. Now, in my late thirties, I try to live in the present.

My current goal: Milk the glorious status quo. Six to 12 months of it left. Is there no way to stretch this out? Get more than the allotted couple of years?

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"You know, limerence can be unending," Tennov says. "I've interviewed subjects who've nursed a fixation on their limerence objects -- LOs -- for decades."

What's the trick? "Their feelings were unrequited," she reports. "Their LOs gave them mixed signals, like ignoring them for months and then calling. Hope, confusion, and uncertainty kept it going. The phenomenon is defined, in part, by feeling a loss of control. The limerent person can't stop thinking about the LO: What did he mean by that? How can I interpret his tone of voice? How is he responding to me? A prolonged fixation on someone who doesn't love you back is considered, by some psychologists, a pathology called erotomania."

But that's not me.

"If the LO is responsive," Tennov says, "like your boyfriend, he doesn't send mixed signals, you don't experience uncertainty, the love is mutual, and limerence declines. Unless you want to start pretending you don't have feelings for him, or playing hard to get, the end will come." Discouraging news.

And then some hope: "Barriers and hurdles in the relationship lengthen infatuation," Fisher says. "For example, suppose one of you is married. Or one lives in a different city. The struggle is romantic. You say your boyfriend travels a lot for work? That's good. The pain of his leaving and the happiness of his return can prolong the stage."

That could buy me another six months.

I explored other adversity options. I've always been skilled at picking fights.

"A fight can intensify the feeling, making you work harder to put things right," Fisher says. But beware: Part of infatuation is the joy of discovery.

As you learn about the object of your affection, the insights propel you to the next stage. If you love her more for who she really is, enter attachment. Conversely, if she turns out to be a raving, provoking lunatic, detachment would be the wise choice.

Effect: Subtract six months of infatuation either way. All pain, no gain.

Other factors that subtract from bliss time: chronic irritation, dissimilar interests and goals, sexual dysfunction, antipathy for each other's friends and family, fear of loss of personal freedom and identity, surfacing of past relationship disappointments, inability to argue productively. That's the shortlist (and no wonder the prospect of moving beyond rapture is daunting -- there are so many bubble-puncturing issues).

The factor at the top of this list, Fisher says, is "boredom, lack of novelty. You have to continually have adventures, do new things together. They don't have to be grand or expensive. If you can keep introducing fresh experiences into the relationship, you can lengthen the duration of romantic love or, even better, have a burst of that old feeling within the attachment stage."

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My boyfriend and I have loads of good, solid ideas for new things to do together. For instance, he wants to teach me about opera and classical music. Every time we set out to listen, we wind up ignoring the plans and doing the same things we usually do, in the same place, every single night.

"Okay, let's talk about sex," Fisher says. "I want to distinguish lust from infatuation. Having lust doesn't mean you're in love. Many couples start out with lust and then move into infatuation. You can certainly fall in love without sex. But falling in love triggers your sex drive. Suddenly, everything your boyfriend does is sexually attractive.

"You have high levels of dopamine in your brain, and you want it constantly. That may be what you're most afraid of losing, why you want to arrest the infatuation stage." I admit to nothing. "You don't have to lose the desire. There are an enormous number of ways you can experiment sexually, and we live in a world where there is a wealth of easily accessible information on how to do that."

So Internet porn might net me another few months of testosterone infusion? Naturally, I'm willing to try anything.

Fisher also advocates prolonging infatuation by making improvements in your physical appearance. Perhaps losing ten pounds and washing out my gray hairs will win me another year. Combine that with my boyfriend's frequent flying and our future novel adventures, and I'm ratcheting up my limerence potential to a grand total of five years.

The doctors didn't respond favorably to my math.

"You know, some people are never limerent," Tennov says. "We don't know why, but they can't or won't experience the feeling of being madly in love.

"And for the majority of limerent subjects, the feeling is unrequited. They have a horrible time."

"Leaving one stage is not an end," Fisher says. It's a new beginning?

"My point is that relationships can be fluid. You can flow from one stage to another if you're able to put energy and attention into the relationship," she says.

Of course, you can't flow from detachment back to anything. I suppose you could break up and get back together, but then the love wouldn't have the same blissful optimism. And, Fisher warns, putting too much effort into maintaining the status quo could cause problems (and not the good "romantic struggle" kind).

Fisher says that I should let the infatuation run its course and enjoy the hell out of it. Who knows? Maybe when it ends, I'll have had enough of it.

I'll report back, four years from now.

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