Your Health

The new science of romantic love


Romantic love: It’s a mystery. It’s ecstatic. It’s painful. It’s confusing. It’s unreliable. But what exactly is it?

Humans generally crave love, yet we don’t understand it. Perhaps the misunderstanding begins with an inability to understand ourselves.

How then to fathom a romantic partner and the dynamics of a loving relationship? That’s the key. We have to start with knowing what it means to be human and how our basic biology translates to needs, desires and behavior. As unique as we all are, we are fundamentally the same overall. We share the same ancestry, the same brain structure and the same ingrained, instinctual behavior.

Love at first sight?

Much has been written about falling in love in a heartbeat, and we’ve all wondered if it is possible. Enter science. Over the past 25 years, the scientific method has been applied to understanding our emotions and behaviors with ever-increasing sophistication. We are learning more about brain biochemistry and the role various neurotransmitters play, such as oxytocin (the “cuddle” hormone) and dopamine (released when we experience pleasure).

Increasingly, there have been other types of electronic measurements, including functional magnetic resonance imaging, for which the brain is imaged in real time in a noninvasive manner under various stimuli and environments.

But what does this have to do with romantic love?

Research reveals that the human brain is wired to form a close connection with another human, a process called attachment. This inborn need for love begins at birth with the complete dependence on our primary caregiver.

It turns out that love is actually an ancient survival mechanism. As a young adult, our wired-in need for connection and safety transforms into a desire for a romantic partner, the attachment to a special “caregiver.”

Care and love

Science says our first relationship provides the template for future attachment bonds. This results in three styles: secure, anxious or avoidant. The style of bond depends on the availability and emotional responsiveness of our primary caregiver. Individuals with these different attachment styles have remarkably predictable behaviors and brain patterns based on their unique experiences. The lessons learned about ourselves and others through our earliest experiences play out in who we fall for and our expectations of how love works.

We can’t change the past, but the good news is that for adults, even older adults, the brain can change. This fundamental fact allows for successful adaptation as an adult – but only if we deeply understand our needs and how we try to get them met in a committed relationship.

We need to understand ourselves first, and then what that means in terms of how we behave with our significant other. Working through this together, as a couple, is critical to identifying and changing destructive patterns – and leads to a healthier, more secure bond, which ultimately makes us more resilient and enables us to give and receive love more easily and even to live longer. Scientific research proves these outcomes.

Want to learn more about the science of love? Take a look at books such as “Love Sense” (Little, Brown & Co., 2013) and “Hold Me Tight” (Little, Brown & Co., 2008) by Sue Johnson and “Come as You Are” by Emily Nagoski (Simon & Schuster, 2015). Some couples may want more than a do-it-yourselves approach. Professionals who understand the science of attachment can help unravel the desires and needs that keep love such a mystery. Science has cracked the code on love and, as a result, tells us how to create, maintain and strengthen our loving, passionate bonds.

Nancy Andersen is a marriage and family therapist who provides Emotionally Focused Therapy for couples in her Loyola Corners office in Los Altos. For more information, call 833-9574 or visit

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