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When to drop the L-bomb, according to science

Whether from movies, books, or real-life experience, we’re all familiar with those heady first days of falling in love. When my now-husband and I started dating, we spent most waking hours together and I just wanted to be near him.

I transformed into a love-drunk, giddy woman who could hardly think about anything or anyone else. I was infatuated. While my mom was happy for me, she also told me to take my time and not to rush into anything. I thought she was overreacting, as I dreamed of a future life together with my newfound love interest.

But when you’re in this intoxicated state, can you make sound decisions about your relationship, or is the honeymoon period real?

Your Love-Drunk Brain

When you first meet a potential romantic partner, your brain is doused in neurochemicals that make you feel a little woozy, says Stan Tatkin, Psy.D., couples expert and developer of A Psychobiological Approach to Couple Therapy. There’s noradrenaline (which makes us stay present and focused), dopamine (which is involved in the reward circuit of the brain and makes us feel good), and oxytocin (the so-called “cuddle” or “love” hormone that plays a role in pair bonding). If you can’t stop daydreaming about that certain someone after you part ways, that’s completely normal: your brain wants you to keep thinking about them. “The part of the brain that wonders, ‘Should I call? When will they call?’ [is] given to us by that drop in serotonin,” says Tatkin. “If you didn’t have that drop in serotonin, you might not obsess over the person.”

When you’re infatuated with someone, you want to know every last detail about that person. The excitement of something new—whether it’s new love or a new car—lights up your whole brain, says Tatkin: “You pay a lot of attention and you want to know everything.” In fact, this is all part of nature’s plan. Nature wants you to partner up, and may even cloud your perception to encourage you to do so. Thanks to testosterone, which is released when we’re falling in love, and other elixirs like alcohol, we disregard asymmetries in the face. “Basically, nature affects our judgment and wants us to procreate,” says Tatkin.

Should You Stay or Should You Go?

In the early stages of a love affair, you may not be able to imagine spending your days with anyone else—but nature and biology don’t actually have a plan for long-term relationships. “The general plan that nature has is about four years,” says Tatkin, which is believed to be long enough to have and raise a child before both parties part ways and find another partner. “That’s what nature wants—the constant mixing of genes,” he says. It doesn’t care whether or not you’re a perfect match with your mate for life.

If you want to know whether you and your partner are long-term relationship material, Tatkin advises holding off on making big decisions until the drugs wear off. “It takes about a year to fully know someone,” he says. Plus, eventually infatuation fades and the novelty of new love wears off. “Very soon, people begin to automate each other just like riding a bicycle,” and you stop thinking about them so intensely, says Tatkin. “It’s normal so your brain can free up resources for new novelty.” Trying to determine if it’s really love, or making other big life decisions often requires a level and clear head. While it may be hard to be patient and wait to declare your everlasting love, it may be for the best. Then again, I married the guy—sometimes decision making is all in the gut.

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Nature wants you to partner up, and may even cloud your perception to encourage you to do so.

Christine Yu

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