Updated: Feb 15
Love, one of the most essential yet misunderstood human experiences, is complex, fascinating, and for many, even a mystery.
Do you remember when you fell in love?
Take a moment to reflect and notice how you feel. Go ahead, close your eyes, and go for it.
You might be flooded with a rush of positive emotions right now. Maybe you even have a smile on your face as you read this but continue to drift off thinking about loving memories with him. You might even feel your heart start to beat a little faster in your chest.
Let's face it…love feels good! So naturally, who wouldn't want to keep riding high on those enticing feelings? Oh yes! When you fall in love, you fall fast, and you fall hard.
It turns out that the butterflies in your stomach and the rapid heartbeat result from the oh not-so-romantic chemical processes in your brain and the rest of your body. Let's dig into this process a little deeper.
This is Your Brain on Love
When you experience love, chemical processes are suddenly unleashed in your body, impacting how you feel and behave. Such chemical underpinnings of love fit into three categories involving different hormones operating in your brain: attraction, lust, and attachment.
Remember the first time you experienced a powerful, all-encompassing pull towards your partner? Want to know why you felt euphoric and full of energy as well? The known culprits: two chemical messengers, dopamine and norepinephrine, are released into your body in high amounts. Their presence in your bloodstream can actually lead to insomnia and decreased appetite. So, if you've ever felt so intensely attracted to someone to the point that you couldn't sleep or eat, now you know why!
Engulfed in this delicious ball of fire, lust burns moved by sexual gratification driven by two powerful hormones, testosterone and estrogen. Lust propels you to seek physical, sexual proximity. You are eager to touch and be touched. You want to feel his body close to yours and to get lost in a sea of pleasure, sexual pleasure. But sex, as you may well know, a natural aspect of romantic relationships, is not enough to develop and sustain a deep, long-term relationship. This is where the last element of falling in love comes into play.
As you can see, attraction and lust are the two physically driven components of love. Still, they do not complete the entire story.
There is a critical component to love that takes you from falling in love to growing in love. Think for a minute; what would love be without an emotional connection?
Your mammalian nature imprinted within your DNA signals that you were born to connect in a meaningful way with another human being. When you experience this kind of emotional bonding, oxytocin and vasopressin hormones are released into your body.
Oxytocin, the "cuddle hormone" because of its involvement in behaviors that elicit physical closeness, leaves you feeling warm and cozy. Paired with vasopressin, these two hormones drive you to engage in activities geared to attain a deeper connection with your partner.
It shouldn't come as a surprise to you to see attachment as a critical component of every long-term satisfactory relationship.
When you are in love, you want your partner to know how much you value them. You may not be a sports-oriented person, and you may even find it boring. However, since your partner likes playing various sports, you attend every game. You do it because it matters to him, and you want him to know that it is also important to you if it is important to him.
You experience longing for emotional union, so you look for opportunities to share time, doing activities that will deepen the bond and connection between you two.
Attachment becomes the emotional component of love that takes you from falling in love to growing in love.
Growing in Love
While falling in love is deliciously alluring, growing in love has the power of forming a deeper alliance between the two of you. Emotional Intimacy becomes the foundation for building a long-term relationship supported by emotional safety.
The dynamics within your relationship may have their ups and downs. Still, a strong emotional connection between the two of you will allow you to navigate uncertain waters and move forward together.
How do you know you're growing in love?
Unlike when you are falling in love, there is a constancy and dependability to growing in love. You have a feeling that you are truly engaged, even when you are apart.
Do you remember when you wanted to do just about everything together at the beginning of your relationship when you just fell in love? You attended activities and were at events you did not quite enjoy, but it was okay because you loved them.
When you move past the falling in love phase, it does not mean that the spark once felt in the early stages of romance is gone. Of course, you will still find yourself going to events you would not choose for yourself, and you still like to stick together. But you will also want to do things that honor yourselves as individuals.
There is no fear of saying yes to your dream job, and you enjoy freedom because, at the end of the day, you have shown each other that you are a priority. Such is the reassurance that results from the relationship's bonding, engagement, and commitment.
Establishing a deeper connection
So how do you generate, support, and maintain an emotional connection in your relationship? How can you get to that stage where you can experience a sense of stability and safety in your relationship?
It starts with vulnerability and empathy. It's only through allowing yourself to be vulnerable that you can show your partner what truly is in your heart. When your vulnerability is met with his empathy, the closest of connections emerges. Think of it as the glue that fosters deep emotional intimacy.
The Critical Role of Vulnerability and Empathy
When you think of being vulnerable, it might feel uncomfortable or even scary. It makes sense. If you are like most of us, you want to experience acceptance. The thought of being criticized or rejected may result in your building an invisible wall to protect yourself. You may be cautious and wary of sharing your personal thoughts and feelings. If this resonates with you, in your attempt at protecting yourself from being hurt, you are also shielding yourself from experiencing true connection and intimacy. Relationships will not thrive without it.
What does it mean to be emotionally vulnerable?
Vulnerability involves the willingness to expose your inner self. It means sharing the depths of your heart and feelings with another person. It also means embracing a particular degree of uncertainty. It involves the risk of your loved one, in this case, reacting in a way you had not hoped for.
For these reasons, emotional vulnerability is often associated with anxiety of being shamed, judged, or rejected if the person you love doesn't love you back. It also comes with the fear of being hurt.
But revealing your real self does not always push people away, as many of us fear. In fact, it tends to lean toward the opposite effect. As you let your guard down and share your inner self, not just your good points and strengths, but also your fears, struggles, and personal challenges, others around you will incline and feel the courage to do the same.
The Importance of emotional vulnerability
Indeed, being emotionally exposed may not sound very appealing to you, considering the risk involved. But connecting in a meaningful way with your partner requires taking a chance to open your heart and reveal what is inside. As you can see, to fully express your needs to the one you love requires courage – the courage to become emotionally vulnerable.
Imagine saying, "I miss you at dinner" instead of "Why are you so late. I had to eat by myself?" or "I love to watch TV with you by my side" instead of "Will you stop texting? You are always on the phone!"
This kind of openness does not take place in a vacuum. You two will need to create a safe space where no one is judged, where both of you are able and willing to see the world from the other's perspective. This safe space has a foundation that is called empathy.
When you meet vulnerability with empathy, it lifts the weight of uncertainty, fear, and anxiety. It opens the opportunity to create intimate moments of emotional connection needed to strengthen your relationship.
The Role of Empathy
Empathy involves stepping into others' shoes and looking at the world from their perspective. It is also about experiencing their feelings and point of view rather than just your own, and the ability to acknowledge, understand and share the feelings and thoughts of the other person.
Developing empathy is critical for behaving compassionately, building lasting relationships, and establishing rapport with others, making them feel that they're being heard, understood, accepted.
Empathy and Vulnerability: The Secret Sauce
Ultimately, by the same token, responding with empathy to your partner requires some level of vulnerability. You will be asked to connect with unpleasant or uncomfortable emotions within yourself to understand them in others.
And don't think for a minute that you two have to have endured the same kind of experiences to feel and express empathy to one another. Once you open yourselves to sharing emotions, fear, sadness, hurt, or anger, you can always look at how each of you has experienced those same emotions to get a picture of what the other may be going through. This will allow you to respond appropriately and take necessary actions in the different scenarios you may encounter.
To recognize and understand others' emotions, you need to identify and acknowledge those same emotions within yourself. If you've never allowed yourself to experience pain, loss, or grief, it would not be easy to identify such feelings within your partner. It is, thus, safe to say that vulnerability is essential to elicit empathy.
As you reflect on the love you have in your current relationship, consider not only the physical drives that brought you together but also the deeper connection that keeps you together. This is how you grow in love after you have already fallen in love.
Dr. Liliana Wolf, psychotherapist, former professor of psychology and international relationship expert, has been preparing couples for marriage at her Coral Gables office for over 20 years. She is an approved and certified provider of online premarital courses in all states extending incentives. Favored by couples about to be married, her courses have achieved a consistent 5-star rating, positioning her in the top 1% in sales of online courses by the Teachable platform worldwide. Ranked at the top 1% in the specialty of marriage and family nationwide by HealthGrades, Dr. Wolf is at the top of her game both as a clinician and professor.