Saturday, October 27, 2007

Phenylethylamine, Adrenaline, and Romance

Have you ever felt a rush of excitement when you meet someone attractive? You feel happy and nervous; you find it hard to draw a breath. What's happening? Are you in love?

Let's examine what's really happening behind the scenes. That handsome guy or pretty gal just tripped the phenylethylamine (PEA) switch in your brain. In turn, PEA causes a flood of neurochemicals like adrenaline (epinephrine) and noradrenaline (norepinephrine) to wash into your brain. These make you feel excited, on edge, ready to take in introducing yourself to this new object of your attention and perhaps gathering up the courage to ask for a date.

Truly love is a four-letter word spelled R-I-S-K, so it's a good thing God put this circuitry in us. When you give yourself completely in love, you of course run the risk of being disappointed, perhaps even deeply wounded. If we could not overcome risk aversion, we'd never be able to enjoy love. Now the love that a man and a woman share in the covenant of marriage, and the love that they pass on to the world through their children, are the pinnacle of His awesome creativity. If you don't believe this, check out the scene in the Garden of Eden; after creating everything else, God created a man, Adam. Yet it was not good; Adam needed a love to share, so God created Eve.* Yes, love is wonderful. But it's so risky that we'd never go for it without a boost from PEA and its neurochemical companions. They're good stuff.

Like any good thing in creation, though, we humans are fully capable of handling it badly. Let me illustrate this with an example: suppose that you meet someone who makes your knees weak, but has significant problems that would caution you against a long-term relationship. For example, that Tom Cruise look-alike might not share your faith, leading you to weaken it or even abandon it if you pursue him. That curvaceous knockout might be self-centered and catty, promising you decades of misery if you don't turn away. Yet PEA and its companions are working hard to overcome your better judgment and make you fall head over heels. Too many folks, young and old, just go with the neurochemical flow--and live to regret it.

So how do you deal with this conflict between powerful feelings and good judgment?

1. Remember that this powerful rush of chemicals will soon pass. Scientists tell us that after a few months of dating, the tide of PEA and epinephrine that overwhelmed you when you first started dating will start to ebb. Within a period of 18 months to 4 years, it will have run its course. That seven-year itch you've heard about is really a 2-to-4-year itch, and the divorce statistics bear this out. The husband or wife (or both) will say "I'm not in love any more"--because the adrenaline is gone.

Now before you start questioning God's interest in our joy, let me point out that God has designed us with another powerful neurochemical circuit to help a couple stay together even after the adrenaline passes. Oxytocin is sometimes called the "cuddle chemical," because it is released in your brain when your lover is affectionate with you. In the same way that PEA kicks off a reaction, oxytocin will trigger the release of endorphins that can give you a sense of well-being. So the trick is to cultivate a solid marriage relationship that leads to a mutual and lifelong enjoyment of the oxytocin circuit.**

2. Remember that you should learn how to deal wisely with a PEA rush before you get married. The PEA/adrenaline circuitry doesn't die just because you get married. So it's quite possible that at some point after your PEA circuitry stops working with your spouse, it will suddenly kick in when some other attractive adult acts interested in you. If you have not learned how to cope with this situation wisely, there's a good chance you'll follow your feelings all the way to their end: the destruction of your marriage and of your children's sense of security.

3. Stay away from the person who causes the rush, if he or she does not seem likely to be God's choice to be your spouse. If you're single, and this lovely person who triggers your PEA circuitry is godly and compatible, it could be OK to prayerfully see where things might lead. Indeed, you might be on your way to the greatest blessing this side of heaven. But there are several situations that would call for you to stay at arms length:
  • You're married.
  • You're single, but not ready to seriously consider making a lifelong, covenant commitment.
  • Mr. Wonderful or Ms. Lovely will not be ready to make a covenant commitment in the foreseeable future.
  • Mr. W or Ms. L does not share your faith, which is foundational to the health of your marriage.
  • Mr. W or Ms. L has a character flaw serious enough to require remedy before he or she can forge a successful, happy marriage.
Going nowhere near the temptation is the strategy that kept Joseph from succumbing to the charms of Potiphar's wife, and kept Daniel and his friends from giving up their faith in Babylon. But remaining at arms length is not always easy, of course. It could easily be the subject of another post, perhaps even many books. Here are a few tips:
  • Talk with a friend whose judgment you trust. There is power in numbers.
  • Talk with God in prayer.
  • Bear in mind the inevitable and severe consequences of letting a rush of feelings overcome your good judgment.
I welcome any comments from readers who have been working out how to handle the PEA circuitry, and its accompanying feelings.

* Whereupon the first man uttered the first palindrome ("Madam, I'm Adam").
I hope to elaborate on this in another post soon.

1 comment:

Ray said...

HI Chris,

Good stuff!