In 2006, I was visiting my parents and happened to pick up the most recent National Geographic that was on the coffee table. It caught my eye not only because the cover was a couple embracing (just in time for Valentine’s Day), but because of the words across it: “Love, The Chemical Reaction.”
Having gone through a breakup less than a year before and still dwelling on it, as one does, I picked it up and began to read it. This was my first introduction to anthropologist, Dr. Helen Fisher.
Dr. Fisher has dedicated her life to studying love and the chemical underlying that’s necessary in causing it.
In her work, she’s discovered that love isn’t about matters of the heart, but actually about brain chemistry — a chemistry that’s so intense, so strong, so focused on bringing people together for the sake of prolonging the species, that it’s actually a madness to be in love.
Love is, for the sake of argument, a form of mental illness and probably the only one that society accepts without a stigma attached to it.
You’re judged for being mad, as in the insane form of madness, but you’re not judged for being “madly” in love.
According to Fisher, evidence of romantic love has been found in 170 societies. Each love, and how these societies express it are different in their own way, but it’s still a love of a romantic nature, and one that starts with infatuation and ends with attachment.
Throughout the entire process there are neurological chemicals hard at work. In the beginning, the serotonin levels act in such a way that resembles OCD, and when it comes to the actual “falling in love” stage of a relationship, it’s similar to being high on cocaine.
Brain scans of people in love have found that it’s the dopamine branching out from the center of the brain, creating feelings of euphoria, walking on air, floating on cloud nine, and all the rest of it.
It’s also not really a choice; we’re at the mercy of the chemicals in our brain.
You can fight it, of course, as one might with any mental illness, but unlike things like depression or anxiety, you can’t take a pill to “cure” it, or even make it an easier situation in which to be.
After a breakup in 2011 that literally tore me apart in ways I never thought possible, I destroyed my apartment. I broke dishes, threw wine glasses against walls, smashed his guitar to bits, dramatically lit photos on fire, and made idle threats in the form of texts and emails.
Was it sane? No. Was it even remotely rational? Not even close.
But because it was at the hand of love — or rather, heartbreak — my response was not seen as entirely uncalled for; I was a victim of love, like millions of people before me and the millions of people to come. I wasn’t unique for having fallen in love or having suffered the heartbreak that followed.
When I met my husband, I was a different person than the one I’d been before the love I lost a couple years before. I was cold and closed off; I had, in many ways, given up on love.
I decided I’d never let my life be so submerged in the life of someone else at the hand of a chemical reaction in my brain, a reaction that’s only purpose was to make sure I’d procreate as part of the evolutionary experience.
It’s guilt-inducing to know you’re not loving at 100 percent because you’ve decided to fight against the chemistry in your brain. But I promised myself, socially acceptable or not, that I wouldn’t go down that road again.
Love wouldn’t be a mental illness with which I’d tangle a second time.
But, as I sit here, with my marriage on the verge of becoming a divorce statistic, I’m forced to realize that maybe I should’ve gone for it; maybe I should’ve signed up for the insanity of it all.
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At least it would’ve been an accepted one ― far more than my major depressive order that I take medication for every morning.
But if it is, indeed, all about chemicals, wasn’t it sane of me to know that and resist?
I don’t know the answer now; all I do know is that the heavy pain in my heart isn’t my heart breaking at all — it’s just my brain trying to convince me it is — and I’m not falling for its tricks anymore.
Amanda Chatel is a writer who divides her time between NYC and Paris. She’s a regular contributor to Bustle and Glamour, with bylines at Harper’s Bazaar, The Atlantic, Forbes, Livingly, Mic, The Bolde, Huffington Post and others. Follow her on Twitter or Facebook for more.