Is love just a chemical reaction, or is there more?

You know the feeling. You’re in a bar, café, or on the train, gazing at a stranger from afar instantly believing it is love and that you are going to live happily after. It is a re-enactment of The Notebook; you’re the next Lancelot and Guinevere, the next Romeo and Juliet – hopefully without the tragic ending. Well, sorry to kill your dream, but according to a new paper in Personal Relationships, while believing you’ve fallen instantly in love appears to be genuine, it isn’t about love but about physical attraction and the accompanying raging hormones.

Those who remember falling in love with their partner at first sight are most likely projecting their current feelings onto the past.

The new evidence, collected by Florian Zsok and his colleagues at the University of Groningen, involves 396 participants, 60 per cent of them female, mostly heterosexual, young Dutch and German students. The subjects completed an online survey answering questions about their current romantic relationship and looked at pictures of several potential partners, rating any feelings of intimacy, passion, or commitment. These emotions make up the ‘triangular theory of love’. Most importantly, participants stated whether they experienced ‘love at first sight’.

Another study involved a speed-dating exercise in which potential partners met for between 20 and 90 minutes. Participants were then asked about their feelings of attraction towards their dates and if they had experienced love at first sight, or any other feelings of love.

Results showed that 32 participants (mostly men) described 49 experiences of love at first sight, either towards a picture of a potential partner or someone they met at one of the speed dating sessions. Experiencing love at first sight was rarely accompanied by strong feelings of passion or intimacy, but was strongly associated with finding the other person highly attractive. Perhaps more surprisingly, none of the instances of love at first sight were reciprocal.

There are three stages of love: lust, attraction, and attachment. Researchers have found that the sex hormones, testosterone and estrogen, drive lust in both men and women. Attraction involves the three neurotransmitters adrenaline, dopamine, and serotonin, while attachment requires oxytocin and vasopressin. Oxytocin is involved in the bonding of male and the female prairie voles, which form an intense, long-lasting bond with each other, like humans. Oxytocin increases our ability to trust and recognise emotions in others. This can be perceived as love at first sight, and it is with this concoction of chemicals that we fall in love.

Granted, it is not a particularly romantic study. Rating pictures of potential partners on a computer screen hardly captures that magical moment when time stands still and you realise they are the one. That being said, with dating sites such as Tinder, gazing into the eyes of a potential partner through a glaring computer screen is becoming the terrifying new norm. So, is lust at first sight a more accurate phrase?

This isn’t necessarily a negative thing. Some claim chemistry is a strong predictor of relationship success and can help couples deal with future conflicts. However, others state that chemistry makes people blind to incompatibilities in a relationship.

If love at first sight is just a chemical reaction, could drugs (such as oxytocin) be sold to produce artificial instances of love? Regardless, it will take more than this to stop us from believing in romantic fairy tales.

Image credit: ieshawshank1 via Pixabay

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