8 Ways The Male Brain Can Change In A Relationship Vs. Being Single, According To Research
Researchers have been studying the act of falling in love, ways the brain might change in a relationship, and how it all might impact men and women differently. But love and relationships are so personal and subjective, it can make these feelings very difficult to quantify.
We can talk about emotions, what love feels like, and how it might change the brain's chemistry. And we can put lovers into MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) machines to see what their brains look like. Yet, it's still tough to say anything definitive about love. For many people, love is love, and it'll feel the same across gender lines. There can, however, be certain prescribed societal norms that can impact our habits, how we perceive love, and what we think it should look like. And those are important factors to keep in mind when thinking about how love impacts the brain.
Speaking of brains in general, we do know that the act of falling in love releases certain chemicals, such as the "feel good" hormone dopamine. And we all know that love and relationships have the potential to lead to conflicting emotions, such as stress and contentment.
But nothing is true for everyone or every gender. "The good news [...] is we are much more than our brains," Cyndi Darnell, a sex and relationship therapist, tells Bustle. "Brains are not fixed in ways we once thought they were." And what society expects of us, and how we are supposed to act in relationships, can certainly have an impact on this whole love thing. So, with that in mind, here are a few ways the brain might change, or at least how someone might feel differently, when men are falling in love.
1. Men Can Experience A Drop In Libido
Some studies have shown that men in long-term relationships might experience a drop in libido over time. But it may not be due to the relationship itself, so it's important not to jump to conclusions or assume this will happen to everyone.
"The reasons are wide and varied including thoughts, feelings and experiences of themselves as men, what turns them on, and their knowledge of sex and adequate sex education," Darnell says. "These things are likely to affect brain chemistry, but no more then anything else we do."
For men experiencing a drop in libido, they can speak with their partner or even a therapist to try and get to the bottom of the issue. They can also see a doctor to make sure it's not caused by a medical issue, such as a hormonal imbalance or depression.
A study out of The University of Kentucky also found that "men often lose interest when they feel insecure, when they worry they are losing autonomy in a relationship, or when physical changes cause embarrassment," Elizabeth Bernstein noted in The Wall Street Journal. "Pressure to be the initiator compounds the stress." This is, again, all thanks to gender norms, where men are stereotypically expected to pursue their sexual desires and initiate sex. So these are important factors to consider, too.
2. Love Can Be Addicting
When someone's falling in love with their partner, they can literally become addicted to the feeling. Research says this is true for both men and women, during the experience of love, and seems to explain those "love sick" feelings.
"Thinking about one’s beloved — particularly in new relationships — triggers activity in the ventral tegmental area (VTA) of the brain, which releases a flood of the neurotransmitter dopamine (the so-called 'pleasure chemical') into the brain’s reward (or pleasure) centers — the caudate nucleus and nucleus accumbens," David DiSalvo wrote in Psychology Today. "This gives the lover a high not unlike the effect of narcotics, and it’s mighty addictive."
3. Men Are More Likely To Fall In Love First
There's a common stereotype that heterosexual women are the ones who fall in love with their male partners first. But studies are showing that may not be the case. According to Broadly, "studies show heterosexual men tend to fall in love, or believe they have fallen in love, much faster than their female partners."
This flies in the face longstanding stereotype that women are hooked on love, while men are the avoidant ones. In reality, "meaningful relating is as important to men as it is to women," London-based psychologist Neil Lamont told Broadly. "And while societal and cultural norms may have dictated that men should be strong and resilient, the reality is [that] a well-lived life for men will typically involve deep and meaningful, loving relationships."
4. Love Can Literally Stress People Out
According to some studies, love can turn you into a sweaty, stressed out mess, regardless of your gender. "When we are falling in love, chemicals associated with the reward circuit flood our brain, producing a variety of physical and emotional responses — racing hearts, sweaty palms, flushed cheeks, feelings of passion and anxiety," Scott Edwards says in an issue of On the Brain, a Harvard Mahoney Neuroscience Institute letter. "Levels of the stress hormone cortisol increase during the initial phase of romantic love, marshaling our bodies to cope with the 'crisis' at hand. As cortisol levels rise, levels of the neurotransmitter serotonin become depleted." And that can lead to "the obsessive-compulsive behaviors associated with infatuation," in anyone.
5. Relationships Flood People With Contentment
While you might feel stressed while falling in love, the security and comfort of being with a partner is real for any person. "Other chemicals at work during romantic love are oxytocin and vasopressin, hormones that have roles in pregnancy, nursing, and mother-infant attachment," Edwards says. "Released during sex and heightened by skin-to-skin contact, oxytocin deepens feelings of attachment and makes couples feel closer to one another after having sex. Oxytocin, known also as the love hormone, provokes feelings of contentment, calmness, and security, which are often associated with mate bonding."
6. Relationships Can Lessen Fear
For folks in relationships — both men and women alike — being in a relationship, "deactivates the neural pathway responsible for negative emotions, such as fear and social judgment," Edwards says. "These positive and negative feelings involve two neurological pathways. The one linked with positive emotions connects the prefrontal cortex to the nucleus accumbens, while the other, which is linked with negative emotions, connects the nucleus accumbens to the amygdala. When we are engaged in romantic love, the neural machinery responsible for making critical assessments of other people, including assessments of those with whom we are romantically involved, shuts down."
After about one or two years, this tends to kick in. "Love, which began as a stressor (to our brains and bodies, at least), becomes a buffer against stress," he said. Intersting, right?
7. Being In Love Can Make People Reckless
If someone is going to go to great lengths in order to win over their beloved's affections, it may be due to brain changes that literally make them feel more reckless — or even "obsessive," as mentioned above. And research says this is true for both men and women.
"The prefrontal cortex — our brain’s reasoning, command, and control center — drops into low gear when we’re in love," DiSalvo said. "At the same time, the amygdala, a key component of the brain’s threat-response system, also revs down. The combination of these effects is a willingness to take more risks, even ones that would normally seem reckless to us while in another state of mind."
8. When Dating, Men Might Focus On Visual Cues
While this certainly isn't true for everyone, studies have shown that in some cases, men are more likely to focus on what their partner looks like, and fall in love "visually."
Some studies have revealed that the male brain shows greater activity in the visual cortex than those of women in love, according to DiSalvo says.
The whole world of dating, love, and relationships can be a confusing one, both for men and women. Science is trying to explain it all, but it may very well be too complex an issue to ever pin down, exactly. Gender norms can play a big role, here, and make it even more difficult to figure out how each individual may feel during the experience of love.