Cupid - the icon of desire and attraction - will undoubtedly fire his arrows through the hearts of many this Valentine season. Countless lovers will swap confectionery and flowers, and according to the Greeting Card Association over 140 million greeting cards will be exchanged on the day that commemorates romantic love.
But when Cupid draws back his bow, what happens next is largely dictated by biology - not love.
Scientists have identified a molecule within human DNA called Major Histocompatibility Complex (MHC). Studies show that most people are sexually and romantically drawn to those with MHC profiles divergent from their own.
When Cupid's arrow strikes a new sweetheart, it unleashes a complex and powerful chemical reaction within the limbic system. The brain becomes flooded with a concoction of phenylethylamine and other euphoria-inducing neurotransmitters like dopamine and norepinephrine. This high-octane adrenaline rush triggers delightful symptoms; which may include exhilaration, super-human energy, increased optimism and concentration, and a decreased need for food and sleep.
We are quite literally in a drug-induced state of altered consciousness. That's why we feel "high" in the presence of the other during the limerence stage. Too much separation creates withdrawal-like symptoms of anxiety, so we make up reasons to be together again because our brain needs a "fix." Infatuation is nature's way of getting us acquainted - but please beware.
The danger is that we can make choices we will later regret because the brain is engaged in sophisticated mental gymnastics in order to minimize or rationalize any negative qualities of the new partner. In this stage we emphasize sameness, we are minimally aware of even extreme differences, and we tend to fall in "love" with the idealized partner fashioned in our head rather than the actual person lying in our bed.
In other words, your new honey could work 16 hours a day, drink a bottle of wine every night, and smoke 4 packs of cigarettes before lunch. You should recognize him as an addict hooked on work, alcohol, and nicotine. Instead, you brag to your friends that he is "an intense and fun-loving free spirit who is dedicated to his career yet also knows how to have a good time."
The point is that the object of your affection might turn out to be the person of your dreams, or just a bad nightmare. There is really no sure way to tell when the hormones are surging through your body and the mind is suffering from a temporary suspension of rationality. To avoid falling in love with a jerk, try to practice the following during the honeymoon stage of dating:
- Slow down, enjoy the dating experience for what it is, and avoid making decisions about your future during the honeymoon stage.
- Be determined not to lose touch with your self-care routines. If you walked two miles every morning before you met, keep walking two miles afterwards.
- Develop what psychotherapists sometimes refer to as an "observing ego" - a conscious awareness and an intentional assessment of the self during communications with your new heartthrob.
- Work on your own emotional issues from the past so that you can choose to be in a relationship if it is healthy, rather than need to be in one even if it is not. Love at any cost is not really love at all.
- Learn to ask revealing questions about your date's family, friends, and past relationships. Listen closely to their answers and analyze their conflict management skills and interpersonal boundaries. Some people have a way of inviting loads of drama into their life rather than calmness and serenity. That probably won't change just because they are now dating you.
- Pay attention to the way your new love interest treats you, and others - especially over the little things. If he screams at the waiter when his soup is cold there is little reason to believe he won't scream at you later when your human imperfections are revealed.
- Establish and maintain your own emotional boundaries rather than constantly getting pulled into your date's feelings. Practice healthy differentiation by creating your own life goals, developing separate friendships, and learning to be comfortable with separate activities, hobbies, and interests.
- Develop a strong sense of self and personal values. Know your spiritual, financial, emotional, and intellectual needs and be honest with yourself about whether or not you need a partner that shares those values.
- It might sound conceited, but quietly ask yourself if this new person is good enough for you, rather than spending huge amounts of energy trying to be good enough for them.
- Write a paragraph that briefly describes your individual hopes and dreams for the future. As the infatuation of the honeymoon stage begins to fade (3-6 months for most couples) ask yourself if the person you have been dating seems likely to support you in reaching those dreams. Research shows this is a crucial predictor of long-term and happy couples.
Webster's Dictionary defines infatuation as "lacking sound judgment, foolish, completely carried away by foolish or shallow love or affection, and extrapolating from insufficient information." Real love is not just a set of pleasant emotions; it is a continuing choice to behave in ways that nurture and grow mature connection.
This Valentine's Day, make a commitment to treat your new sweetie with loving kindness - and pay close attention to whether or not they behave the same toward you.