How much do you think about the future? How much do you care about the future? Understanding a bit about how dopamine, one of the neurotransmitters in our brain, influences our behavior can help us understand our changing experience in a romantic relationship. In the book, The Molecule of More, authors Daniel Lieberman, M.D. and Michael Long explain how dopamine is the neurotransmitter in our brain firing the circuits that make us care about the future and how this changes in a romantic relationship.
How We Experience Pleasure
What is in our immediate grasp is our present; anything beyond that is in our future. Our peripersonal space contains what is in our grasp. Anything beyond that is in our extrapersonal space. The brain evolved two different circuits and neurotransmitters for these two separate parts of our experience.
Serotonin, oxytocin, endorphins, and endocannabinoids mediate our pleasure in the present. They are involved in our feeling good when we reach a goal and sit back to enjoy the fruits or of labor. In the 1950s scientists mistakenly thought that it is dopamine that helps us experience pleasure. Many people still think of dopamine that way.
However, now we know that dopamine cells fire when we react to the unexpected, to possibilities that the future might hold for us. It’s not about pleasure, it’s about anticipation. we’re not focused on what we have now and can enjoy. We’refocused on what we want to have in the future. We are wired to crave the unexpected. We are constantly making predictions about what the future holds for us. When it is better than what we expected, our dopamine cells fire, urging us to pursue that future. Dopamine drives the circuits in our brain that lead us to try to control the world so as to maximize our obtaining the resources we need from it in the future.
When someone meets another and is attracted to them, the other person often seems like the perfect person to them. The person imagines all kinds of wonderful experiences that they hope will happen with this new person. It’s all so new and exciting. Guess which neurotransmitter is producing that exciting anticipation. Right, it’s dopamine. That head-in-the-clouds feeling, that passionate love, lasts from twelve to eighteen months, according to Rutgers anthropologist Helen Fisher.
After that period of time, the novelty of the relationship fades. The dopamine cells aren’t firing anymore. Some people interpret this as falling out of love and think that it means that they have to move on. It doesn’t mean that love is over, only that the love they experience has changed to what is called companionate love. It’s not about what future fantasies will be realized with the one they love; it’s about loving that person in the here and now, mediated by those neurotransmitters and hormones mentioned above. The person is now satisfied with their present reality in an enduring manner. When a person is driven by dopamine, they aren’t satisfied for long. But someone who has made the transition to companionate love is on the road to long-lasting happiness.
Understanding how the neurotransmitters in our brains influence our behavior certainly helps us make sense of our experiences. Sometimes just understanding is not enough, though. Sometimes it’s helpful to talk to someone who knows about neurotransmitters but also knows a lot about helping someone navigate their way through the transitions that develop as the relationship progresses. If you’re experiencing the painful feelings that also can be a part of a relationship, then you might want to consider speaking to one of the knowledgeable and caring therapists at STA . If so, give a call to 201-488-6678.