Dear Mike 2.0,
“Don’t ask me how it happened, but I got stuck with three romantic partners at the same time. I feel strongly for each of them, but in very different ways! I would like to know if there’s something that could tell me if I’m truly in love with one of them. Do you have any tricks?”
– A confused lover
Dear confused lover,
I believe that many of us would like to get a definitive answer to that question. A test that would undeniably tell you if you’re attraction to your partner is love, or just a passing romance. At first glance, it seems like it would make things a lot easier. But if it is so hard to differentiate love from sexual attraction, a crush or even a friendship, it might be because they’re not so far away from each other. In fact, you might actually be in love with all of your partners differently. To try and untangle that, let’s take a closer look at the most concrete part of love: chemistry.
Scientifically, love can be described as a set of reactions that create feelings of attachment to a person and make you feel good in their presence. When in love you release dopamine, the same hormone released when one is on drugs, and oxytocin, the attachment hormone that is also released during pregnancy and after giving birth. These hormones cause physical reactions, such as an accelerated pulse, sweaty hands and blushing cheeks. It’s usually when feeling these that one might confidently say that they are in love. Unfortunately however, most of the time these “symptoms” also happen during purely sexual relationships. Dopamine, the pleasure hormone, is released during and after sex, and oxytocin is discharged after an orgasm, particularly in a woman’s brain whether you are in love or not. However, the difference is when you are in love your body secretes these hormones at times other than when you’re just having sex. It can even happen when you are simply in their presence. The bad news is that even if your relationship is purely platonic and sexual, oxytocin is released each time you have sex causing increased attachment. This means that even if you’re that one man/woman that keeps saying “I don’t get attached” it is scientifically proven that you will, as the more you have sex the more oxytocin you release and the more attached you get. So, chemically speaking, there is no or very little difference between being in love with someone and having sex for an extended period of time.
Technically, this means that the chemical love reaction could be “activated” just by sleeping with someone. However, is the chemical part of love the ultimate way to determine your feelings? I don’t believe so.
The first problem I have with “chemical love” is it’s inevitable expiry date. After giving birth, humans are only programed to stay together for 36 months before moving on to their next partner. If you’ve ever heard someone say monogamy is unnatural, chemically speaking, they would be right. Therefore, theoretically love’s symptoms can only exist for a finite period of time before they are gone. I might be biased by romanticism, but I find that idea pretty saddening.
Another problem with chemical love is that it can occur without anything “triggering it”. This is what us hopless romantics call “love at first sight”. In that case, one could fall in love with someone with a completely opposite personality, someone with whom they would never have gotten along with, if it wasn’t for how they met. Is this undeniable chemical attraction love? I would say no, but it seems to be what every little girls reads about in their fairytale books, so it must be somehting that we should envy… right?
And what about the opposite situation, where two friends would feel so strongly for each other that they’d call it love, even though they might not be sexually attracted to each other or secrete the love hormones when they’re together. That’s still love, but a different kind.
Ultimately, I will argue that we cannot rely upon a purely scientific approach to determine if we are in love or not. Only a right mixture of chemistry, reason and intuition can truly tell us, and even there, we might change our minds when looking back at it later. One thing is for certain, there is only one person that can determine if you are in love, and that is sadly not the columnist for First Person Magazine. If I could give you one piece of advice, it would be to embrace whatever you’re feeling with your partners, and to not give into the status quo that describes love as this thing that happens between two people only and is undeniable when you feel it. One of the things that actually makes it so mystical is that it is indeed so hard to capture, and that’s also what makes it so beautiful.