I Finally Understand How Neuroscience is Sabotaging My Love Life

Making sense of how my feelings feel and why they exist helps me to strengthen my brain’s arguments to convince my more unwilling organs (i.e. vagina).
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Mari Sasano
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Making sense of how my feelings feel and why they exist helps me to strengthen my brain’s arguments to convince my more unwilling organs (i.e. vagina).

I recently ended a month-long undefined dating thing with someone I really like and connect with. I was starting to develop feelings for him. Oh, I liked him so much! The rapt conversations! Fun! Feelings! Cute surprises! Sexy shenanigans! But he’d always been pretty open about what he was about: that he’s likely to bail at any point, and that he would eventually break my heart. 

Fair warning. So I killed it.

This is a major breakthrough for me. I never would have done anything so sensible in the past. 

I’ve recognized a pattern with myself: I confuse curiosity for romantic interest, ignore red flags, and compromise on deal-breakers, hoping that it will improve over time. Then I get stuck in unhealthy behaviors and interactions, grow resentful, and try various desperate ways to keep it going, becoming more and more batshit as time went by. Eventually, it would hit a wall — hard. I am starting to think that I’m patient with the wrong things.

But the beginning parts of a relationship are so intoxicating. There is nothing like it — it’s thrilling. The excitement of discovering what you can about someone you find attractive, someone who seems to like you, too. If the first conversation went well, I want more, and I want to make it physical and learn about that as well. My heart beats fast and hard. I want everything — NOW. This happens every time, and sometimes with people who are very bad for me. But I want what I want, and I’m terrible at saying no to myself when it feels that good.

Not this time. I have been very mature. Doing the right thing, not the easiest thing. Delaying gratification. These are signs of emotional growth and Being Kind to Myself.

Truthfully, IT FEELS LIKE SHIT.

Emotional maturity sucks.

Emotional maturity sucks.

My brain knows I’m preventing bloodshed. My heart and vagina are harder to convince. It hurts even though I know (but don’t quite believe) that if I’d let it run its course, I’d drive it into the ground and come out of it dazed and incapacitated. Meanwhile, the vagina gets lonely.

This time I know (but don’t quite believe) that this feeling of loss is more existential than actual. I’m not hurting from losing this particular specific person; I’m hurting because I feel rejected and unloved. I shouldn’t feel this way. It’s disproportionate. STOP FEELING BAD, SADCAKES. Can’t I catch a fucking break, ever? I can't believe this is happening again. So I turned to science to explain what was going on with me.

WELL, CHECK THIS OUT.

Dopamine. 

This is the neurotransmitter that is about pleasure and reward-seeking. That first rush of infatuation is caused by a surge of dopamine, and it is literally addictive. We start to seek another hit, i.e. make out with the person who makes us feel this way. But as the brain begins to anticipate satiation, it releases less of it. That’s when a relationship usually enters a cozy bonding stage that is less passionate but more stable.

However, you can sustain a longer period of that initial excitement if you keep your brain busy with uncertainty. If you never know if you’ll be rewarded or punished or ignored, you’ll get hooked on anticipation. You’re gambling: The idea that you might win nothing or everything is more exciting than knowing that you’ll get a predictable reward. 

In dog training, this is a technique called intermittent reward, and it works by keeping your pup on his toes so he’ll pay attention to you just in case the good treats come out this time. (“I want to keep you on your toes” — I’ve heard that one before.)

Add a splash of oxytocin — the neurotransmitter that causes emotional attachment, stimulated by touch and sex (and breastfeeding, helloooooo Oedipus!) — and I’m DOOMED. It’s kind of embarrassing, really.

There’s some comfort knowing that much of it is physical and chemical and not because it’s my only chance at True Love that I’ll miss because I’m too lazy/scared/impatient to nurture it into a beautiful flower. No, it’s because I was high on handsomeness and now I am literally just waiting to work him out of my system. Then we can be friends and it won’t be weird. Although in some ways, I’m dreading the day I am fully over it because once it’s gone, it’s gone. Once it’s gone, it means that it’s really over. AND WHAT AM I SAYING.

Making sense of how my feelings feel and why they exist helps me to strengthen my brain’s arguments to convince my more unwilling organs. I know (but don’t yet believe) that they’ll see reason, given time. In the meantime, the brain is outnumbered and I feel terrible. I’m lying on the floor, moaning quietly, “Whyyyyyyy?” Because, seriously, why? I’m awesome.

But you know what? The reasons don't matter. I know when I’m done with this, it’ll seem a relief that I didn’t just give in.

Except for the one time I texted him when I probably shouldn’t have. (Sorry!)