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What’s Love Got to Do With It? Relationship attachment is a matter of brain chemistry

Photo by Marcus Byrne on Unsplash

“You always hurt the one you love, the one you shouldn’t hurt at all,” the old song flows. In it may be more truth than we’d like to believe.

Do we hurt the ones we love, and, if we do, why might that be? Are we selfish, thin-skinned, or blind to our lack of give-and-take in relationships? It could be a bit of all of it, and science has been looking at relationships and what the brain reveals about them.

The brain knows all

Can we know if someone is genuinely in love with another and experiencing that sense of deep attachment that secures relationships? Yes, we can. Brain researchers knew to look for neural reactions in the brain in response to our thoughts and actions toward our beloved. The flare-ups in sections of the brain were dramatic and telling.

Love and, in particular, romantic love, is deemed a motivational state by scientists who have studied close relationships in terms of how the brain functions. Rather than a Valentine’s Day card, should we be exchanging MRI scans?

Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) studies have found activation increases in brain regions involved in the processing of reward, motivation, and emotion regulation when romantic lovers view photographs of their partners. However, not much is known about whether romantic love affects the brain’s functioning architecture during rest.”

Romantic love has other properties, too. “It can alter cognition and behavior, such as promoting intensely focused attention on the preferred individual, accompanied by euphoria, craving, obsession, compulsion, distortion of reality, emotional dependence, personality changes, and risk-taking.”

Photo by Cathal Mac an Bheatha on Unsplash

Amazingly, different patterns of activation and functional connectivity between brain regions have been found when comparing people in and out of love, and those who have never been in love.

“Even when the brain is ‘at rest’ or ‘in neutral’ — that is, not engaged in a particular task (such as staring at a photo of a lover) — there are differences in the brains of people who are in or out of love.” The brain reveals all, it seems, and if you have a multi-million-dollar MRI machine around the house, you can tell all, too.

Love as addiction

But not all “loves” are of the fluttering heart, “wish you were here” type, and these present factors of interest to researchers. “…Suggests that some forms of love are actually forms of addiction and that these may be potentially more destructive and prevalent than widely recognized opiates. The psychological nature of addiction is outlined (here), emphasizing how a seemingly idyllic love affair can actually mask a retreat from the world.”

One suggestion regarding this addictive romantic love indicates it “draws upon biochemical research that suggests that the giddiness, euphoria, optimism and energy lovers experience in early stages of infatuation is caused by increased levels of an amphetamine-related compound that produces mood-lifting and energizing effects.”

The visceral/biochemical effect involved in love and romantic relationships are found in poetry.Passion … is a neurochemically distinct phenomenon, different not only in intensity but also in kind from the bond of attachment associated with ‘the settled couple. And yet since the mid-nineteenth century, there has been an increasing tendency, at least in the West, to write about this bond of attachment, resulting in what …has (been) termed the ‘poetry of relationships’.”

Where did it all start?

How do we form relationships that are meaningful, satisfying, and altruistic, or ones that will not last after the initial surge of passion has subsided? Do we give our relationship partner the 30-item Passionate Love Scale test to peer into their deepest feelings for us? If we attempted this less-than-subtle move, how would that be perceived? It might be “get out of Dodge time” for the relationship.

But relationships are critical to all of us. For some, the loss of attachment, such as the death of a spouse, will result in their death within a year or less. Attachment is, if you will, our life’s blood.

Psychologists have been researching attachment and relationships for decades.

One of the most prominent theorists is John Bowlby, who looked at maternal attachment and personality traits. As one of my psychology professors once said regarding research, “All research is Me-Search.” As we know from his personal history, it was Bowlby’s early childhood that formed his interest in attachment theory.

Bowlby had a father who was absent most of the time and a mother who only saw him for one hour a day. The main attachment figure in his life was a beloved nanny.

The simplest explanation for attachment theory is that it kept all of us alive through our helpless infancy and into adulthood. It’s as important as the infant’s reflex to seek out the breast for nutrition or to balance itself.

Without the initial emotional caregiver bond and attachment, we would not have survived. Attachment is primitive, and those parts of the brain involved in it are still striving to keep us alive and attached.

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Relationships and security

Relationships depend on not only caring and attachment but a secure personal sense of self-esteem. As described by Dr. Ben Hunter: “If two people in a securely attached relationship are using text messages to interact throughout a day, and one person goes four to six hours without being able to respond, the securely attached person comes up with very rational and valid reasons why the other person hasn’t responded in the five- to 10-minute window that people expect these days. They’re not assuming that the other person doesn’t care about them or isn’t thinking about them, or worse. Those thoughts just don’t come to mind, or if they do, they’re easily pushed away. And that’s a hallmark of secure attachment in this age of social media.”

Social media facilitates our keeping in touch, but at a distance and, as stated by Dr. Hunter, it can be a benefit and a problem — depending on those involved. Too much screen time may be an indication of possessiveness, which translates into an unhealthy relationship.

Adult attachment styles

Work on attachment and relationships had concentrated on children, but we now believe there are four types of attachment styles in adults:

1. secure — demonstrated by those possessing a positive view of self and a positive view of others 2. anxious-preoccupied — maintaining a negative view of self and a positive view of other

3. dismissive-avoidant — possessing a positive view of self and a negative view of others

4. fearful-avoidant — having an unstable fluctuating/confused view of self and others

Must we fit into one style, or might there be a mixture for us or a complete change? Nothing related to we humans appears to be immutable so the answer could be “no,” we may exhibit a mix of the four. The circumstances, the environmental demand, as well as changes in our interpersonal relationships (plus psychotherapy, if needed), may change our style.

What to do? Be honest with yourself and observant of how others treat you and those in their lives, however transient those people may be in their lives. For example, how do they treat persons providing services to them? Do they act in ways that demonstrate caring for others who can provide no return benefit for them?

You know what to look for in a person and how to evaluate their character. Allow yourself the opportunity to use those skills wisely, and the relationship you pick may be one that will last a lifetime.

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