Love on the Brain
Updated: Jul 12, 2022
The Kiss by Gustav Klimt, the paradigm of tenderness and passion and one of my favorites.
I think that most romantic relationships begin with a phase of intense, highly pleasurable bonding based on the mutual fantasy that you and the other person are ideally matched and perfectly suited for each other, soul mates.
Intense spells of passion are as effective at blocking pain as cocaine and other illicit drugs. “Love on the brain” is the same feeling.
When you’re in love, you experience a rush of brain chemicals called dopamine and oxytocin, all of which promote feelings of pleasure, attraction, trust, arousal, and obsessive thinking. And there’s more: This combo of chemicals also makes you feel less sadness, anxiety, and fear. Essentially, your brain while in love is creating those rose-colored glasses that you’re seeing your idealized partner with.
A drug is a chemical substance with a defined structure and has a certain therapeutic outcome. Drugs either stimulate, depress, antagonize, or synergize the natural responses of the human body such the release of neurotransmitters, chemical messengers released by neurons.
Love to some extent, has a similar response. Love causes your brain to release these natural chemicals that are responsible for elevating your mood and making you feel happy. When you are madly in love, your brain's hypothalamus releases lots of dopamine and serotonin, making you feel immense pleasure and happiness. Otherwise, these chemicals are released when you are rewarded with something.
In your lover's presence, the levels of these chemicals are exceptionally high. When your partner is away or you have a fight, the dopamine level reduces which makes you sad and possibly depressed.
I think love goes further than science. Let’s look to the beauty captured in art.
The Renaissance was one of the greatest periods of creative and intellectual achievement in world history. It was an extraordinary upsurge of learning and artistic activity that spread throughout Europe in the 15th and 16th centuries. Appreciation of beauty was also a focal point of the new Renaissance.
The early Renaissance was the rebirth of classical values. Beauty in all things was thought to have deep inner virtue and was therefore essential in the path towards God.
Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus is one of the most famous paintings of all time. One that never ceases to capture our imaginations.
The Birth of Venus was painted in 1484. Venus in her shell is the focus of the painting. Her pose is modest as she is aware of her nakedness, while her body is completely idealized. Her face is one of the most beautiful faces in art history and is said to have been modeled from a mistress of the Medici’s, with whom Botticelli was believed to have been in love.
On one of our family trips to Italy, I asked my kids what they were thinking as they were gazing at this masterpiece. My daughter said, “her face is love.” My youngest said he needed gelato to think. So, there you have it. Don’t worry, I didn’t ask them how the painting made them feel, not exactly.
Botticelli's paintings do suggest real magic, they have an occult quality. Love is a drug, and Botticelli painted its effects with rare conviction. Klimt captured the same archetype in The Kiss.
Love can bring you closer to God
If falling in love doesn’t have you planning to move across the country or getting some regrettable tattoos, it could send you to church. Changes in brain chemistry (like the ones induced by doing drugs or falling head over heels in love) often leave people more open to spiritual experiences. You’re more likely to see things that aren’t there and believe things without evidence – in other words, you might have a spiritual awakening.
I imagine that is what Botticelli felt as he painted his masterpiece. Venus idealized as beauty and a spiritual figure.
I am not an art history major, just an arts enthusiast and lover of all beauty. So, let’s talk psych. Imago theory is an important idea you will read about today. The term "Imago" means image, and it means we have a picture somewhere in our unconscious mind of what love is supposed to look like, sound like and feel like - that's what creates the buzz of romantic love. That's why people say things like "I feel like I've known you all my life", or "I feel like I've found my home." This is the intense feeling we referred to above.
However, after a certain point, your partner is going to do something that's reminiscent of your most vulnerable, difficult, or disappointing moments. That's inevitable. Life is about growing and healing, so when someone triggers you, it gives you the opportunity to do just that, grow and heal.
I am trained in Imago Relationship Theory and use some of it and other modalities in treatment.
The idea behind Imago, created by Harville Hendrix, Getting the Love You Want is that you are attracted to people who remind you on a very deep level of your parents or primary caretakers, both their positive and negative traits.
At first, during the intense honeymoon stage, we only see the positive, the high of the love drug. “He takes care of me like dad did.” Then, as the relationship progresses, when conflicts arise, we begin to see our caretaker’s less-than-ideal traits (the crash of the love drug) “She smothers me like my mom does.” Then we spend our time trying to mold our partner into the type of person we had wished that our parent was. You can imagine how this ends.
Eventually, through Imago Theory, which is a combination of self-awareness of our unmet needs in our family of origin, learning to accept our partner, learning to communicate our needs, partners can heal and come together in a more genuine and intimate way.
So, for example, let’s say your husband forgets to take out the garbage for the 10th time in a row. Before you practice Imago theory, you think, “Do I have to do everything around here, you have 1 job and you can’t even do that. I feel so unappreciated with all the thousand things I do around here.” and on and on and on. You call him up and say, “Hey, I guess what I did this morning on top of everything else?”
Using Imago theory, you think, why am I so triggered by him forgetting to take out the garbage? Maybe I had a caregiver who, despite the best of intentions, forgot things frequently, particularly things that were important to me. Maybe I am interpreting my husband as being this same way, and I am disappointed that I am again caught in the same cycle of feeling dismissed or forgotten. I would then call my husband and say, “I know it was hectic this morning. But I think it is so hard for me when you forget it because it reminds me of when my dad used to forget stuff.” Then, since I am not attacking him, my husband is likelier to say something like, “Hey, I’m really sorry. I’ll remember it next time. Thanks so much for taking it out, anyway.”
So, both husband and wife are thinking that this is not what they signed up for when they walk into my office. “She was so easy going and cool about everything, I fell hard for her.” “He was exactly what I needed and made me feel so seen and desired.” What happened?!!
Well, I’ll tell you what happened. “When the moon hits your eye like a big pizza pie, that's amore. When the world seems to shine like you've had too much wine, that's amore.” But the moonlight faded, the buzz is gone, and those rose-colored glasses are now readers. We need to create a connection that lasts a lifetime.
Over time, both partners start to feel misunderstood by each other. They become polarized, where the wife acts increasingly “needy” in her attempts to get some sort of a “human” reaction out of her husband, and the husband acts increasingly distant, never sharing any weakness or vulnerability of his own, even more so as a defense because he is confused by how irrational his wife seems.
If this relationship dynamic resonates with you, take the first step toward a closer connection, and look for a couple’s counselor.
You do not need to stay locked in a toxic pattern, and you owe it to your marriage to seek change for the better. The first step toward a healthier relationship is for you to admit some fears and vulnerabilities, ranging from earlier in childhood to now as an adult. The wife will often be astonished to hear her seemingly cold husband soften emotionally. He may be able to see her behavior was really a bid for emotional connection. And she can try and explore why she is so triggered by a perceived lack of connection with her partner. There is so much growth in becoming self-aware and a spiritual awakening is around the corner when you lean into healthy love.
If you don’t transform it, you will transmit it.
Silvia Farag, MSW, LSW, PsyD Candidate runs the Christian Center for Counseling and works with adolescent and adult clients in individual, couples & family therapy. Her personal philosophy is that through human connection, we can foster the encouragement needed to take courageous steps toward creating positive change. She uses evidenced based and strengths-based approaches & believes in the inherent ability of everyone to overcome when they are willing to step into their potential. Therapy illuminates the path so the client can make conscious steps towards emotional health. Her attitude is one of respect and acceptance of each client’s individuality, allowing for the creation of a safe, therapeutic space. Silvia serves with Coptic Women Fellowship, an archdiocese ministry focused on enriching, supporting, and strengthening the lives of women, along with the clergy and several accomplished women of the Coptic Orthodox Archdiocese of North America.