We stay in relationships for all kinds of reasons—personality compatibility, shared interests, a good sense of humor, similar values, money, kids, a feeling of obligation.
But why do we initially fall for the people we fall for? Things get more complicated for couples as time goes on, but the first step to love is as simple as an involuntary spurt of chemicals in your brain.
“It’s no Hallmark card, but we feel attraction or ‘love,’ especially infatuation, toward another when our brains surge with dopamine, serotonin and oxytocin, our feel-good and happiness neurotransmitters,” when we interact with certain people, said Rhode Island-based psychotherapist Jennifer Weaver-Breitenbecher.
These chemicals can be overwhelming, and can cloud your ability to think clearly, said Ohio-based counselor and dating coach David Bennett.
“This ‘in love’ brain state causes your brain’s critical decision-making centers to be negatively impacted, so you may be cognitively unable to see your partner’s faults,” he said.
That’s why, when you feel strongly about someone you just met, it’s hard to know if it’s love, lust or something else. It’s not until this chemical-induced honeymoon phase is over that we really make clear choices about the future of our relationship, Weaver-Breitenbecher said.
“At first meeting, if you like someone, the closeness hormones are released,” said California-based psychotherapist and author Tina Tessina. “Then, the sexual hormones, testosterone and estrogen, kick in, and you’re in lust.
“It takes several months to a year before that intoxicating mix calms down and you know if this can actually become love.”
But who are the people who send us on these year-long oxytocin trips? Why are we attracted to the people we’re attracted to?
“Asking someone why they love who they love is like asking a person why a certain color is their favorite color,” said relationship writer Kevin Darné. “They generally can’t really explain why something resonates with them more than another thing.”
The easy answer is “chemistry.” But, obviously, the reality is much more intricate than that.
“It’s a fascinating mix of scent, hormones, early imprinting, familiarity, media images, sometimes desperation and fantasy,” Tessina said. “Chemistry means a hormonal reaction, hopefully mutual. But, chemistry has no judgement.”
While this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, it could mean you find yourself repeatedly attracted to people who don’t treat you the way you want to be treated, or who have the same unhealthy behaviors, Tessina said. The way life has shaped your brain is partially responsible for who you click with, for better or for worse.
How can you make sure you don’t get swept up into something that’s not good for you?
“If you remember to use your pre-frontal cortex, the thinking part of your brain, to evaluate the person you’re attracted to as to whether they’d actually be a good match and have what it takes—emotional maturity, good character, relationship skills—to create a good relationship with you, you won’t be bamboozled by attraction,” Tessina said.
The recipe for attraction doesn’t stop there.
We’re also typically “attracted to people who are similar to us,” said Lauren Crain of HealthLabs.com. “Though the old adage ‘opposites attract’ is true, to have a real, longstanding relationship, you need to be similar to someone. Opposites may attract, but they definitely don’t stay together.”
On the other hand, we’re often drawn to people who have “something we are missing,” said Oregon-based sex therapist Marisol G. Westberg. “For example, many introverts fall in love with extroverts because they are missing the ability and desire to connect socially with others.”
And, as anyone who developed a crush on their middle school lab partner knows, spending time with someone can lead to attraction, too, sometimes surprisingly.
“When you’re around someone a lot and you spend a lot of time with them, you begin to like them more,” Crain said. “Being physically close to someone can easily lead to falling in love. … Long distance relationships are hard because they’re missing the proximity aspect.”
Katie Moritz is Rewire’s senior editor and a Pisces who enjoys thrift stores, rock concerts and pho. She covered politics for a newspaper in Juneau, Alaska, before driving down to balmy Minnesota to help produce long-standing public affairs show “Almanac” at Twin Cities PBS. Now she works on this here website. Reach her via email at [email protected] Follow her on Twitter @katecmoritz.