What chemical is released when you look at someone you love?

When we feel a deep emotional connection to someone, whether it’s the flush of a new romance or the steady warmth of a long-term relationship, our brains and bodies respond in fascinating ways. One of the most important chemicals involved is dopamine, often called the “feel-good” neurotransmitter. Let’s explore the science behind dopamine’s role in love and attraction.

What is dopamine?

Dopamine is a neurotransmitter and hormone that plays a major role in motivation, pleasure, and regulating the brain’s reward system. It is one of the main chemicals released when we experience joy, pleasure, and satisfaction. Dopamine is produced in several parts of the brain, including the substantia nigra and ventral tegmental area.

Some key facts about dopamine:

  • It is classified as a catecholamine type of neurotransmitter.
  • Dopamine cannot cross the blood-brain barrier, so any dopamine used by the brain must be produced inside the brain.
  • Besides playing a role in feelings of pleasure and motivation, dopamine is also important for motor control, memory, mood, sleep, learning, and more.
  • Many recreational drugs like cocaine and amphetamines affect dopamine levels, which can lead to addiction.
  • Low dopamine levels are associated with neurological conditions like Parkinson’s disease.
  • Our brains release dopamine in response to Rewarding experiences – especially unexpected rewards.

So in summary, dopamine is an incredibly important chemical messenger that allows neurons to communicate and drives our behavior towards rewarding, pleasurable experiences that help us survive and pass on our genes.

Dopamine and love

When it comes to romance and forging emotional connections with a partner, dopamine often plays a starring role. That rush of euphoria and pleasure you experience when you first fall in love? Dopamine is a key player.

Here’s how dopamine is involved in love and attraction:

  • The novelty of a new partner triggers the brain’s reward system, causing dopamine levels to spike. This can create an exhilarating ‘high’ and allows partners to form an emotional bond.
  • Dopamine generates feelings of pleasure, desire, and motivation to be with the new partner.
  • The ups and downs of a new relationship cause dopamine to rise and fall, similar to the highs and lows of addictive drugs.
  • Dopamine reinforces behaviors that bring us closer to the person we are attracted to.
  • Falling in love also activates dopamine pathways involved in focused attention. This tunnel vision towards a new partner can mimic obsessive-compulsive disorder.
  • When separated from a partner, dopamine drops, triggering feelings of anxiety and longing. Reuniting causes dopamine levels to rise again.
  • Dopamine drives us to take risks and make sacrifices to remain close to a romantic partner.

In essence, dopamine makes us feel good when we’re around potential mates, prods us to pursue love interests, and rewards us for spending time with romantic partners. It’s a powerful neurochemical impulse that can feel irresistible.

Other chemicals involved in love

While dopamine plays a central role, other chemicals and hormones also influence our experience of falling in love:

  • Norepinephrine – Sometimes called noradrenaline, this neurotransmitter also surges during attraction and intensifies feelings of euphoria and excitement.
  • Oxytocin – This hormone stimulates feelings of bonding, intimacy, and trust. It spikes during childbirth, sex, breastfeeding, and other intimate moments with a partner.
  • Serotonin – The ‘happy chemical’ is associated with well-being, satisfaction, and emotional stability. It rises when we feel significant attachment to someone.
  • Testosterone – This sex hormone governs libido, aggression, and competitiveness. It rises when we’re attracted to someone new.
  • Estrogen – The primary female sex hormone, estrogen helps regulate the reproductive system. Some research suggests it could play a role in social bonding.
  • Adrenaline – Also called epinephrine, this hormone causes the telltale signs of attraction like sweaty palms, pounding heart, and butterflies in the stomach.

So while dopamine produces feelings of desire, exhilaration, and motivation when we meet someone special, other chemicals moderate our sense of calm, connection, and well-being with longer-term partners. Together, these neurochemicals create a powerful cocktail of human emotions related to mating and romance.

Stages of love and dopamine

Scientists have proposed several models that explore the stages of love and how bonding evolves over time in a relationship. Two of the most well-known are:

  • The triangular theory of love by psychologist Robert Sternberg. This distinguishes between passion, intimacy, and commitment, and classifies different combinations of these components as liking, infatuation, empty love, romantic love, companionate love, fatuous love, and consummate love.
  • The theory of love in stages by psychologist Zick Rubin. This categorizes a relationship’s development through the phases of attraction, attachment, and love.

Dopamine is most active during the passionate, emotionally intense stages at the beginning of a new relationship, when attraction and infatuation are high. As intimacy and commitment grow over months and years, dopamine typically plays less of a starring role even as deeper bonds form.

However, dopamine continues to spark feelings of pleasure and satisfaction from physical and emotional intimacy in longer-term relationships. Spending quality time with a partner and engaging in romantic acts can all stimulate dopamine activity.

Signs dopamine is influencing love and attraction

How do you know if dopamine is fueling feelings for a new crush or long-term partner? Some signs the “love chemical” is hard at work include:

  • Powerful feelings of euphoria, excitement, and passion about the person
  • Thinking constantly about them throughout the day
  • A rush of energy and motivation to pursue the relationship
  • Feeling the need to be physically close to them
  • Intense focus and even obsession over details about them
  • Making significant life changes or sacrifices to be with them
  • Mood swings based on interactions with them
  • Difficulty concentrating on anything else
  • Taking risks or acting out of character to deepen the relationship

These effects tend to be most pronounced at the start of a new relationship when dopamine activity surges. But they can arise at any stage if factors like separation from a partner followed by reunion cause dopamine spikes. Sustained, elevated dopamine could also indicate relationship addiction or unhealthy obsession.

Factors that influence dopamine and love

Many variables can shape the role dopamine plays in relationships and how powerfully we experience the effects of this chemical:

  • Personality – Dopamine has a greater influence on people who tend to be passionate, impulsive, and drawn to novelty and risk-taking.
  • Attachment style – People with anxious or avoidant attachment may become infatuated more quickly at the start of new relationships.
  • Circumstances – Unexpected or unlikely partners can heighten dopamine’s effects due to the sense of novelty and excitement.
  • Timing – Dopamine spikes tend to be higher at the beginning stages of love and may influence how quickly infatuation develops.
  • Sex and physical intimacy – Sexual activity elevates dopamine, which is why physical intimacy and orgasm often deepen feelings of attachment.
  • Situations – Extended separation from a partner followed by reunion can trigger especially powerful dopamine surges and intensifies feelings.
  • Insecurity – Relationship anxiety and fear of abandonment can heighten dopamine’s effects and make people more obsessive.

In general, the more novelty, uncertainty, and excitement in a relationship, the greater the likely impact of dopamine. Stable, secure long-term partnerships tend to be less influenced by the ups and downs of dopamine activity.

Potential downsides of dopamine and love

While dopamine produces exhilarating feelings of passion and desire, it can also have some negative impacts on relationships when levels remain too high for too long:

  • It can distort reality and cause idealization or infatuation about a partner who may not be suitable long-term.
  • Relationships may develop too quickly, leading to poor decision-making in the heat of passion.
  • As dopamine drops, conflict and dissatisfaction with a current partner can increase.
  • The constant pursuit of dopamine highs from a partner’s attention can become addictive and result in emotional dependence.
  • With lower dopamine later on, intimacy and vulnerability may feel less natural and require more conscious effort.
  • High baseline dopamine combined with drops during separation can exacerbate feelings of anxiety, jealousy, or rejection.
  • People may go from relationship to relationship seeking dopamine spikes from novelty andearly-stage intensity.

In essence, dopamine’s influence can sometimes be like an emotional rollercoaster ride. Learning to identify and manage its effects on both thoughts and behaviors in a relationship takes insight and mindfulness.

Fostering healthy dopamine and oxytocin levels in relationships

Here are some ways to promote healthy dopamine activity while also stimulating bonding and intimacy-related oxytocin in a relationship:

  • Engage in new, fun, and exciting shared activities together to organically elevate dopamine.
  • Plan regular date nights, vacations, and weekends away to maintain novelty and anticipation.
  • Carve out quality, focused one-on-one time without distractions like phones or TV.
  • Try new things together like hobbies, classes, or adventures to tap into dopamine’s motivational effects.
  • Make physical intimacy and sex a consistent priority through flirting, foreplay, and experimentation.
  • Communicate openly, listen actively, share vulnerabilities, and provide reassurance to foster oxytocin.
  • Cultivate gratitude and appreciation for your partner’s positive qualities.
  • Avoid building up unhealthy relationship anxiety or damaging dynamics like pursuing or withdrawing.

The natural ebb and flow of dopamine is part of bonding with a partner. Being aware of hormones’ effects, both positive and negative, allows you to make the most of your brain chemistry and build a secure, lasting attachment.


Dopamine plays a profound role in producing the pleasurable and motivating feelings associated with falling in love and being in a romantic relationship. Its activity surges during passionate attraction and drops during separation, driving our behavior in predictable ways. Yet dopamine is not the only player – other chemicals like oxytocin, norepinephrine, estrogen, and testosterone influence our social bonds as well. Recognizing dopamine’s potent but sometimes fickle effects allows you to balance passion with sensible relationship decisions as you move through the various stages of loving someone.

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