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The Biochemistry of Love, Orgasms and Partnership

Posted: Sat, May 18, 2013 | By: Sex / Gender

by Dr. Isabella Tausz 

We are at the mercy of our biochemistry, even when it comes to love… The equation goes something like this: Testosterone + Estrogen + Dopamin + Oxytocin + Vasopressin = Love.

Dopamine plays a big role in the excitement of love, and oxytocin is key for the soothing experience of attachment. Sexual orgasm, accomplished within a love relationship, is one of the all-time highs.

this essay was originally posted at Dr. Isabella’s blog, HERE  

Researchers propose that we fall in love in three stages, each involving a different set of our own hormones and neurotransmitters.

Stage 1: Lust

Lust, the craving for sexual gratification, is driven by our sex hormones Estrogen and Testosterone (which by the way also plays a major role in women’s sex drive). These hormones get you out looking for that special person.

Stage 2: Attraction – Romantic Love

Attraction, or romantic love, driven by high Dopamine and Norepinephrine (Noradrenaline), is the love-struck phase when we can hardly think of anything else, our heart races, our skin flushes and our palms get sweaty; we lose our appetite, need less sleep, spend hours daydreaming and experience intense craving for our love partner, along with euphoria when things are going well and terrible lows when they’re not.

Dopamin is our ‘pleasure chemical’, producing a feeling of bliss. Norepinephrine produces the racing heart and excitement.

When we are attracted to somebody, it could be because subconsciously we like his/her genes, as perceived by his/her smell, body language, tone of voice and looks. It is to our advantage to mate with somebody with the best possible genes, ensuring that we have healthy children. When we look at a potential partner, we are assessing whether we would like our children to have their genes.

Appearance is a strong indicator of the quality of a person’s genes. Research suggests that even if only subconsciously, men mostly look for facial symmetry, hour-glass figure (men prefer women with a waist to hip ratio of 0.7), and men and women alike look for ‘looks-like-me’ and ‘looks like my parents’.

Some scientists believe that human pheromones, odourless chemicals and sensual signals detected by an organ in our nose could be the key to choosing a suitable lover. Pheromones are already well understood in other mammals, especially rodents, who when choose a mate, avoid partners with an immune system too similar to their own, so that their babies can fight off a wider range of infections. As in urine, human pheromones are also found in sweat. 

In 1995, Claus Wedekind of the University of Bern in Switzerland, asked a group of women to smell unwashed T-shirts worn by different men and discovered that women consistently preferred the smell of men whose immune systems were different from their own. At the University of Chicago, Dr Martha McClintock has shown in another sweaty T-shirt study that women mostly want a man who smells similar to their father. Scientists suggest that this makes sense, as a man with these genes would be similar enough to provide a tried and tested immune system for her offspring, yet different enough to ensure a wide range of genes for immunity.

Romantic love is not simply an emotion – coming from a Dopamine and Norepinephrine ‘high’ that we experience when we meet a suitable person – it is more a drive, a motivation system, and part of the reward system of the brain. It’s a need that compels us to seek a specific love partner, all the while, our prefrontal cortex is assembling data, putting information into patterns, making strategies and monitoring the progress toward life’s greatest prize – true love.

Romantic love is a stronger craving than sex. People who don’t get sex don’t kill themselves, but it is estimated that 40 percent of people who had been dumped by their partner in the previous weeks experience clinical depression and 12 percent severe depression and 50 to 70 percent of female homicides are committed by rejected lovers. Annually one million women and 400,000 men are stalked. Love can hurt.

Love junkies are addicted to that love ‘high’. They need the amphetamine-like rush of dopamine and norepinephrine. But because the body builds up a tolerance to these chemicals, it begins to take more and more to give them that ‘high’ feeling and they go through relationship after relationship, trying to get their fix.

Romantic love is our strongest drive. However, we couldn’t possibly stay in this stage forever, otherwise we would never get any work done and we would all die of sexual exhaustion… so the feelings of passionate love naturally lose their strength over time. The chemicals responsible for that loving feeling (adrenaline, dopamine, norepinephrine, phenylethylamine, etc.) dwindle. Suddenly our lover has faults. Why has he or she changed, we may wonder. Actually, our partner probably hasn’t changed at all, it’s just that we are now able to see him or her rationally, rather than through the blinding hormones of infatuation and passionate love. At this stage, the relationship is either strong enough to endure, or the relationship ends.

If the relationship can advance, then other chemicals kick in and the relationship goes over into stage 3 – passionate love fades and attachment grows.


Stage 3: Attachment

Driven by Oxytocin and Vasopressin, attachment is a bond that keeps couples together, giving them the desire to stay faithful and protect each other.

Endorphins, the body’s natural painkillers, also play a key role in long-term relationships. Released during sex, physical contact and exercise, they produce a general sense of wellbeing, including feeling soothed, peaceful and secure, and induce a drug-like dependency.

In romantic love, when two people have sex, Oxytocin is released, which begins creating an emotional bond – the more sex, the greater the bond. Oxytocin evokes feelings of contentment, reductions in anxiety and feelings of calmness and security around our partner.

Oxytocin, ‘the cuddle-hormone‘, is also released during hugging and touching in both sexes and is involved in social recognition, the formation of trust between people, generosity and the ability to maintain healthy interpersonal relationships and healthy psychological boundaries with other people. Oxytocin is also associated with mother/infant bonding, uterine contractions during labor in childbirth and the ‘let down’ reflex necessary for breastfeeding. Because a response is enhanced by estrogen, women tend to have stronger reactions to oxytocin.

Emotional pain causes our bodies to produce an elevated level of endorphins which in turn lowers the level of oxytocin. Therefore, relationship failure leads to pain, which leads to elevated endorphins, which leads to lower oxytocin, the result of which is a lower ability to bond. Many in this increased state of emotional pain and lower oxytocin seek sex as a substitute for love which inevitably leads to another failed relationship, and so, the cycle continues.

The excitement of sex is partly credited to endorphins exciting opiate receptors. As a human relationship matures, fewer endorphins are released, but if the sexual relationship is well bonded, the oxytocin response maintains the excitement despite how few endorphins are released. This keeps excitement present between oxytocin-bonded couples.

Some don’t have the ability to stay bonded, even in seemingly good relationships. People who have misused sex to become bonded with multiple persons will diminish their oxytocin bonding within their current relationship. In the absence of oxytocin, the person will find less or no excitement and will then feel the need to move on to something that looks more exciting.

Oxytocin causes a woman to be forgetful, decreases her ability to think rationally and causes an incredibly strong emotional attachment to form with the man she is with. Men also produce some oxytocin during sexual intercourse. But their bodies also produce a hormone called Vasopressin. Vasopressin, ‘the monogamy molecule‘ kicks in after sexual activity, and its impact is to heighten a man’s sense of responsibility. It encourages that part of him which says, “My gosh, she may be carrying my child! I’d better get serious about life! I’ve got to get to work, to provide for this family!”

When a man’s Vasopressin level is sufficient, it creates a desire in him to stay with his woman, inspires a protective sense and drives him to protect his territory and his offspring. The value of such tendencies toward the maintenance of marriage and family can easily be anticipated.

Although men may have a desire to have sex with multiple women, Vasopressin helps them to counteract this tendency. It causes men to be jealous toward a woman with whom he has been sexually active. It also causes him to be loyal.

The speed at which courtship progresses often determines the ultimate success of a relationship. The longer the courtship, the stronger the long-term relationship.

Scientist became aware of the Vasopressin’s role in long-term relationships while studying prairie voles and mountain voles. Only three percent of mammals form ‘family’ relationships like we do. The prairie vole is one such animal, he mates for life and prefers spending time with its mate over spending time with any other voles, even avoiding other voles of the opposite sex.They spend hours grooming each other and when they have offspring, the couple works together to care for them.

According to studies by Larry Young, a social attachment researcher at Emory University, when prairie voles mate, like humans, they release the hormones oxytocin and vasopressin, have the needed receptors in their brain for these hormones in the regions responsible for reward and reinforcement, and they form a bond with their mate. That bond is for that particular vole based on its smell – sort of like an imprint. As further reinforcement, dopamine is also released in their brain’s reward center when they have sex, making the experience enjoyable and ensuring that they want to do it again. And because of the Oxytocin and Vasopressin, they want to have sex with the same vole, again and again.

The mountain voles however, who are almost entirely the same as the prairie voles, except the fact that they do not have receptors for Oxytocin or Vasopressin in their brain, continue with their one-night stands, as these bonding chemicals have no effect.

So, the scientists decided to give extra vasopressin (a hormone found in the prairie vole) receptors to the mountain voles, which have fewer vasopressin receptors. “The results were remarkable. After the ‘V1a receptor gene’ was introduced, the former playboys reformed their ways. Suddenly, they fixated on one female, choosing to mate with only her, even when other females tried to tempt them.”

In another experiment, male prairie voles were given a drug that suppresses the effect of vasopressin. The bond with their partner deteriorated immediately as they lost their devotion and failed to protect their partner from new suitors.

Lack of oxytocin can cause serious emotional barriers and attachment problems. Research shows that women who were seriously abused as children have low oxytocin levels as adults and the stress of being isolated also causes drops in oxytocin levels.

Antidepressants may jeopardize romantic love as well as sexual function. They blunt emotions, including the elation of romance, and suppress obsessive thinking, comparable to OCD, a critical component of romance. Antidepressants also inhibit orgasm, clitoral stimulation, penile erection, and deposit of seminal fluid. A woman who can’t get an orgasm may fail to distinguish Mr. Right from Mr. Wrong. And a man, without an orgasm, will not have the dopamine and norepinephrine, oxytocin and vasopressin, testosterone and estrogen, FSH and LH contained in his seminal fluid and lose the ability to send courtship signals and will eventually stop dating.

Events occurring in the brain when we are in love can have similarities with mental illness and whether attraction turns into lasting love, is mostly determined by our biochemistry.

The 3 stages of love and their hormonal systems are connected… Testosterone can kickstart the two love neurotransmitters while an orgasm can elevate the attachment hormones, so don’t sleep with someone you don’t want to fall in love with, because indeed you may do just that.

Missing oxytocin or vasopressin receptors in the brain could be responsible for the worldwide rise of singles. The inability to secrete oxytocin and feel empathy is linked to sociopathy, psychopathy, narcissism and general manipulativeness.

As scientists understand the chemistry of love more and more, drugs to manipulate the process may not be far away. In fact, studies support the idea that oxytocin may help human couples get along better. Swiss researchers gave 47 couples a nasal spray containing either oxytocin or a placebo. The couples then participated in a videotaped ‘conflict’ discussion. Those that got oxytocin exhibited more positive and less negative behavior than those given the placebo. Oxytocin was also linked to lower secretion of cortisol, our stress hormone.

Oxytocin nasal spray is the closest thing to a love drug. It help couples enjoy a closer, bonding, loving relationship and helps to have more intense orgasms, particularly in women. Further, it also helps in cases of depression, drug addiction, autism, anxiety, schizophrenia, pain (particularly fibromyalgia) and even as an aid to weight loss (through appetite reduction). The typical oxytocin doses for pleasure and sociability are 10 IUs (International Units) in the morning and repeated again in the evening; or 10 to 20 IUs 2-hours before sex.

Whether this will really help our love life is still an open question. But remember those prairie voles – they get what can be considered as ‘life’s greatest prize – an enduring mate and partner’.

If you’re still looking for that special person… here a simple guide on how to fall in love:

Find a complete stranger.

Reveal to each other intimate details about your lives for half an hour.

Then, stare deeply into each other’s eyes without talking for four minutes. Good luck! 

this essay was originally posted at Dr. Isabella’s blog, HERE  

Here’s another great article for YOU: “I Heart My Vagina - Vaginoplasty and the Spiritual CIrcumcision of Women”


This is an excellent piece of work which has now made many things clear in my mind. But somehow I am not convinced with the chronology of the stages of love and romance.

By Elvis Martis on Jul 13, 2013 at 11:57pm

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