Coaching Podcast: The Neurobiology of Love

The Catalyst Life Coaching Podcast, featuring JRNI Coaching founders John Kim and Noelle Cordeaux is a deep dive into the experience and business of being a life coach. This transcript of Episode 13 of the Catalyst Life Coaching Podcast discusses the neurobiology of love.

John: Hey guys, what’s up? I am really excited about this episode because we’re gonna talk about the science behind crazy. And by crazy, I mean romantic relationships.

Noelle: Correct.

John: Yes. And Noelle, take the wheel. So Noelle basically is the science behind everything I say. Without her, I’m basically just a mumbling idiot. So thank you for being here.

Noelle: You’re welcome. And thanks to all of our listeners. This is the Catalyst Life Coaching Podcast — I am Noelle Cordeaux and obviously, John is John Kim [The Angry Therapist]. And today, what we’re gonna get into is the brain chemistry and a lot of the biological drive that are behind feelings of romantic love.

John: Yeah. And I gotta say, this is really interesting. I think this is going to be helpful for so many. Because, you know, when feelings come in — when we get the feels — it’s very easy for others and ourselves to label ourselves as crazy.

Noelle: As crazy? Yes, that, and to assume that like something earth-shattering must be happening in your life — that you feel so completely spun out about this random person that has like, you know.

John: Yeah. So pulling the curtain back and showing what is really going on, I think is going to be so helpful.

Noelle: Absolutely.

John: Here we go. Let’s talk about it.

Noelle: Dive in. So I guess upfront, it’s important to note that a lot of what we’re gonna share with you is based on research and work by an anthropologist named Helen Fisher. She sought to understand these human drives and emotion, and has built a career out of compiling all of this fantastic research. It’s cool stuff. So I guess, really, let’s start with what romantic love is. And let’s break it down. What do you think of romantic love?

John: Oh man, I didn’t want you to point the gun at me first.

Noelle: Yeah.

John: ‘Cause I need to think about that.

Noelle: Alright.

John: So what is Noelle’s definition of romantic love?

Noelle: Well, you know, okay, so you know — like analytical virgo over here, I’ll be very textbook about it. Romantic love is what I would define as new relationship energy. It’s that feeling of when you meet someone new, and you get all f***ed up.

John: Yeah. Okay. Are you finished?

Noelle: No. You now, what’s romantic love to you?

John: I’m definitely gonna go the other way. I don’t have a textbook answer, I never do. So I’m just going to say — oh my gosh — romantic love is desired passion, it’s seeing home in someone’s eyes, it’s the head on your chest. As a man, I don’t know if it matters, but like for me — what is that called, snuggling or spooning and all that stuff — it’s sexual, it’s little notes left around, it’s texting, it’s all of that. It’s colliding with someone and feeling drawn to them. There’s a little bit of an obsession part, where you can’t stop thinking about them too.

Noelle: There is an obsession part. And we’re gonna absolutely get into that. So from a neurobiological perspective, there’s a series of things that human beings experience when they fall in romantic love. Let me run through them and you can tell me if any of this sounds familiar. Focused attention, where you just like can’t be without each other. Magnification, where you like — just this person is like larger than life. Intrusive thinking, where you can’t get somebody out of your head. Emotional exhilaration, which is just like intense energy, it’s hard to sleep — where you feel this like torrent of emotion where you’re shy, you’re trembling, you’re sweating. Mood swings, yearning for union with this person, looking for clues — like replaying songs over and over again looking for lyrics that remind you of your person. Changing your priorities — like keeping your schedule open just in case this person might call. Feeling the feelings of somebody else — you’re happy when they’re happy, you’re sad when they’re sad.

John: Well you know what, as you’re reading this list down, one can argue this is also called codependency.

Noelle: Yeah, right?

John: Enmeshment, right.

Noelle: Yeah, but codependency and enmeshment has its roots in f***ing romantic love. I mean, to a large extent, all of this stuff that we’re talking about today fades over time. This is the early stages. And in a codependent relationship, the chemical dynamics that are produced keep people in this unhealthy pattern. It’s really f***ing hard to get s**t done in life when you’re spun like this.

John: Yeah, absolutely. And it happens to everyone, and we’re kind of wired for this to happen to us.

Noelle: We’re a hundred percent wired for this to happen to us, and we’re wired for it to happen to us so that our specie continues. And to me, it’s one of the most delicious aspects of life, right? You know, it’s like when you get to have these feelings and emotions then it hits you like a ton of bricks at my feet, inconvenient as hell. But like, cool. You get to experience it, you get to experience this torrent of emotion. And you know, we’re all gonna die anyway, so might as well get a taste of this swirl if you can.

John: Yeah. I think a big part of life is — i mean, if you took romantic love out of your life, what’s left?

Noelle: I know.

John: Besides eating and building your empire — I get also the ability to be creative every day, and all that is good. But if you took romantic love out of the picture, it’s almost like one of the legs of the table. I think that life would be very wobbly.

Noelle: Absolutely. And you really can’t just count the fact that — yeah, we’re humans and we experience this elevated consciousness — but ultimately, we’re animals. And we’re experiencing the brain chemicals necessary for our biological drive to kick in. Like we’re not the only animals that experience this kind of stuff — like monkeys, foxes, penguins.

John: Yup. But do you think — you know, monkeys, foxes, and penguins — they don’t have society and shoulds, and they don’t beat themselves up if a relationship doesn’t go well, they don't have self-betterment books. So I wonder, do you think that — if this how we’re wired, do you think that we’re actually hard on ourselves because of what we think love should look like or what we [incomprehensible] about?

Noelle: I mean, I’m gonna pause it — that we can’t really examine the interior lives of penguins, because we just don’t know. But they’re very cute and they pair bonds for life, and they follow each other f***ing around, you know.

John: Yeah, absolutely.

Noelle: Like my little sister calls her husband her penguin because he follows her around in the apartment, day in and day out. So it’s like, I don’t know what those little guys are feeling.

John: Sure, that’s true.

Noelle: I think that they probably do experience the same biological drive. I think where humans get tripped up is that we don’t come with instruction books. And so all of this stuff that we break down — we talk about the brain chemicals behind our emotions — we’re subject to them. We don’t analyze them and we assign meaning to them based on magic or whatever story we’ve been raised with — about society and love and how we’re supposed to be, and you know, you  fall in love, and there’s the prince and the princess, and there’s this concept of happily ever after —

John: Right.

Noelle: — follows this crazy romantic feeling. Well that’s great, but we’re actually experiencing is like a roll of dopamine, and it’ll probably last for about four years. Good luck everyone. We’ll get into that.

John: Yeah, let’s get into that. Why four years?

Noelle: So across the board, when we’re looking at all different kinds of animals and biological responses and sexual response — everything that happens to us, from a neurobiological perspective, is designed so that whatever animal it is, can produce and raise healthy offspring. Baby elephants and giraffe can get up and walk right away. Humans can’t — it takes about four years for a tiny human to become relatively self-sufficient. And so four years is the traditional state of human pair bonding. That is the most common timeframe that people are married, most divorces occur after four years. Humans are notoriously serially monogamists, and it seems like they go through these four-year relationships and they have another baby or they separate. And I know this is pretty broad, but when you look at the trends worldwide, those are the trends. And you’ll notice that siblings, they’re often four years apart — because you get into a relationship, you have a baby and then you either split up or have another baby.

John: Right. I wonder if this is why many people say three years is this kind of a make or break.

Noelle: It could be. And that stuff has like really grounded roots. We know that there are a lot of different things that contribute to it. So when I was doing the research for this podcast, I was really floored that from an anthropological perspective — the more deeply intense and verbal a relationship is between two people, the more you physically grow and light up the part of your brain that contributes to pair bonding. So if you have a really deep close emotional relationship, you’re more likely to extend your chances of pair bonding beyond four years.

John: And so do you think that bond is just — is it [nature-nurtured?]. Is it something that is — is the connection from just the energy, dynamic, or the chemistry? Or is it something that is built?

Noelle: I think it’s both. I think the chemistry and the inclination has to be there. You know, there are definitely other factors like [incomprehensible] social resources, liking somebody, and the way society is set up, and the way families are set up, and standards of expectations. I hear a lot of people say like, “I’d like to leave my relationship. I’d like to be in a new relationship. I’d like to experience a different human but I’ve made a commitment.” So our social standards often keep us in place.

John: Right. Well, and then also, there is our story. So the other piece of this is — everything that you’ve been through, all the hot stoves that have burned you, the fears that happen. A lot of times, people sabotage. A lot of times, people are afraid. And then there’s also the “I don’t know if I’m good enough or if I deserve this.”

Noelle: Yeah. I mean, that comes into play, like so much. And I think one of the traps that people get into is that they might ignore intuition or ignore biological urges, or take their personal story or their personal narrative and let that that trump their true intuition or true chemical response. Because the way our brains and bodies are designed is to go out there in the world and find people who are good genetic matches for us, on psychosocial and emotional level. And your body doesn’t lie, your intuition doesn’t lie — but your mind does.

John: Yeah.

Noelle: Your mind sure does, your mind says like “Oh well, I’ve always wanted to be with somebody that’s 5’2”, left-handed, green-eyed engineer — and if that person doesn’t show up in front of you, you might miss it.

John: Yeah, absolutely. I gotta say — me being a therapist and helping others with their relationships and dissecting them and talking about all the things that I talk about, like non-negotiables and stuff — all that stuff has only made me confused, more and more confused when it comes to me and my personal life. Because there’s a piece that is just analyzing and trying to process, trying to figure out how much of it is you and your story, and how much of it is them. And sometimes it’s almost like — I’m so heavy with that these days, I wanna just rip off that suit and I just wanna close my eyes and feel it. And if it’s there, it’s there. If it’s not, it’s not.

Noelle: I mean, that’s honestly like the smartest f***ing thing you can do.

John: Just like an animal, just like what animals do.

Noelle: Yeah. I mean, you have to get into your biological body. And like, alright, let’s talk about sex — sex is so primal and so natural. And if you take away all of this psychodynamics, everyone would be having this best sex of their lives. But they’re not — they’re thinking about their bodies, their thinking about the lighting, their thinking about “what is this person thinking of me”, their experience level, whatever.

John: Yeah, how do I please them.

Noelle: Yeah.

John: Techniques and sizes and shapes, and all that stuff.

Noelle: Yeah. Like it all plays in — our conscious evaluative thinking mind really gets in the way when it comes to this stuff.

John: So I guess the next question is — what do we do? How do we start loving, going on to the journey of romantic love in a more pure honest way? I don’t know what the word would be — something that is less confusing, maybe.

Noelle: Oh, I don’t think we’re gonna get to less confusing anytime soon.

John: Oh, that’s discouraging.

Noelle: I am sorry. You know, I think on one level, it’s important to understand — and this goes for all things, whether we’re talking about love or depression or anxiety — is to understand that feelings aren’t facts. And when you’re experiencing a feeling or an emotion, it is coming oftentimes from some sort of chemical reaction in your brain. So you have to understand the drivers of it. So here’s a great example — with romantic love, the brain chemicals that goes completely bonkers for 12 to 18 months is dopamine.

John: Right.

Noelle: That’s why that first year when you meet someone, or this first month or weeks like insane out of body, out of control is because —

John: I didn’t know it was 12 months. That’s actually a long time, that’s a great shot.

Noelle: Yeah, right? And then you know, you f***ing get pregnant and you raise the kids for a year, and then you’re [incomprehensible] this up. It’s awesome. So your brain front loads dopamine — that’s the same thing that ecstacy does. Like literally, it’s a f***ing addictive drug and your body starts rolling. It’s like you get tingles, you get that — that’s dopamine, that’s what f***ing dopamine feels like. Your serotonin levels go down. Serotonin is your mood regulator, serotonin is your calm functioning you know like “let’s chill this body out”.

John: Your stabilizer.

Noelle: Yeah, exactly. And so your dopamine goes up, your serotonin goes down, your cortisol goes down. And all of a sudden, that means that your exposing yourself to more risk-taking behaviors. So that’s when you have these ideas like “Yeah, sure! I’ll go for a motorcycle ride. I’ll jump off a cliff. I’ll follow you up a cliff, that sounds great!” So you have to be aware that as you’re experiencing these dopamine rolls, it feels great and you might be inclined to say “this is obviously magic”. But —

John: I just wanna say real quick — if you can stand up for penguins, I’m gonna have to stand up for motorcycles.

Noelle: Okay.

John: Motorcycle rides are okay. Sorry but —

Noelle: I love you so much, I’m never getting on your motorcycle, ever.

John: We can’t both be on the motorcycle because if something happens, who’s gonna make SHFT dominate wellness and everything that we all dreamed that we have. One of us has to be alive, at all times. So yeah, that’s the only reason why I don’t want you on my motorcycle — ‘cause we can’t both go down.

Noelle: That’s fine, that’s totally fine.

John: Or I would buy a sidecar and you would be in it with the scarf and the goggles.

Noelle: No, I don’t wanna do that either.

John: So you’ll be in an uber, I’ll be in a motorcycle. Okay, moving on.

Noelle: So, you know, understand your biological urges and like know what they’re about, and try to approach it with some semblance of awareness, I guess, would be my [bet?]. And know yourself, like know your pattern — if you’re a serial monogamist, be aware of that. It’s hardwired in you.

John: Right.

Noelle:  If you are feeling a really strong drive for someone, “Okay, well I’m probably experiencing that s**t because this person might be a good genetic match for me. Am I interested in having kids? Yes or No? Should I be paying attention to this?” So there’s a lot kinda mixed up in it.

John: Yeah. And I think — I have no idea what I would say tomorrow or next week. But right now, this point — if I was just to think about where I’m at in my life and all the experiences I’ve had. I’ve kinda come full circle where it’s like — yes there’s healthy and there’s unhealthy, there’s even love addiction, there’s of course patterns and all that. I think sometimes we have to shake it or just kind of start with a blank canvass. Be a student to love, be very curious. And stop putting so much weight on what you think is healthy and unhealthy — ‘cause if you think that you are loving in a way that is unhealthy, then there’s judgment behind that and then you’re gonna feel like “Uhh, I haven’t grown” or “I’m defective” and all these things. And I just feel like sometimes we should just go with what we feel and explore that. And see how that makes us feel if we like that or not, without judging ourselves.

Noelle: Yeah. I think that’s a really good point. So Julie, one of our team members, sent me an article to pitch for this week. I think it was for some sort of women’s publication. And the topic was — why do women self-sabotage in relationships? And this can go for men too. So why do people self-sabotage in relationships? The premise kind of pissed me off, because I was like — when we’re talking about self-sabotaging in a relationship, we’re making the assumption that whosoever in the position of self-sabotaging has to be performative. That attaining a mate is the end goal and that I have to modify my behavior, myself, my soul in order to get and/or maintain this person. And I think that has ties to everything that we talk about with authenticity. We have put so much emphasis in society, on keeping and maintaining a partner out of status or on paper, that we’ve stopped being ourselves.

John: Yeah.

Noelle: We’ve stopped actually analyzing what the f**k makes a day in and day out good with someone. And is that working for me versus like how do I need to behave in order to look, speak, act, do to keep this other person f***ing happy so I have this box to check off and like.

John: Right. You know, it’s funny ‘cause I got that same thing from Julie too. Except I fell for the trap, and I was like “Oh, I’ll answer this” and I answered it.

Noelle: Oh really? [incomprehensible phrase]

John: I like that you questioned it. I like that you were like, “Hey, you know what, I don’t even like this question.”

Noelle: Yeah.

John: It opens a can of worms and all this. I think the other factor is — your definition or our definition of love changes depending on where we’re at in our lives. So like, in my 30s or early 30s, I was all about the picket fence. I thought love meant the wife, the kids, the matching whatever, BMWs in the driveway. My definition of love today is very different. I’m now a lot more open to just new definitions in what love could look like. And before, my definition was very firm, like the lines were very straight.

Noelle: I know, and how f***ed up is that? Like think about it — so I used to have that same definition of love like “Oh I should grow up, get married in my early 20s, remain married to that one person for the rest of my life, like be a mother.” You’re 44, I’m 37 — I do not think that way anymore.

John: Yeah.

Noelle: There’s a whole big f***ing world out there, and life is pretty huge and delicious. And if I had maintained that, I guess, vision of life that I had in my 20s, my life would have been so small.

John: Yeah. But here’s the thing — if you are in your 20s or 30s and you still have that definition, that’s not wrong. I mean, that’s where your at and that’s what you’re going toward. I think it changes as we change. So whether it’s —

Noelle: Yeah.

John: — age or life turbulence or whatever it is that we go through — I think our definitions of love, they’re always changing.

Noelle: And I think that that’s natural and honest and realistic, except that people aren’t willing to have those honest conversations with their partners as they come up, they feel like they have to continually stuff themselves into boxes. And I think that’s what keeps us in business, as relationship coaches. Right?

John: Well, we will never be out of business as far as this relationship.

Noelle: We will never be out of business. I have a quote for you that I think is really interesting. When you lay out all of the tenets of romantic love as we’ve been talking about with these biological urges and chemicals, it’s not that romantic love is an emotion — because we tend to think of it as an emotion — what it actually is is a hardwired motivation system.

John: That’s not that romantic or sexy, but okay.

Noelle: No. And the whole point of it is to enable a suitor to build and maintain an intimate relationship with a preferred mating partner.

John: Right.

Noelle: So like, I hate to blow up the fairy tale, but when you guys are all out there with these dopamine rolls thinking like, “My world is crashing because I’ve experienced this incredible crushing love.” — is actually an internal motivation system that’s trying to get you to procreate.

John: That’s really interesting.

Noelle: It is.

John: Yeah. So what would you say — let’s give people a theme, let’s give ‘em some direction, let’s give ‘em a rudder, a way to go. What do you think — with love and dating and romantic love — what are like, three or four things that we can pull from this conversation and remind them of.

Noelle: Oh, I don’t f***ing know. Like, I mean, I think that’s it. It’s like I’m like subject to it just as you are.

John: Well then maybe it’s okay to not know. Because a lot of people — if they feel like they don't know, they feel that they’re defective or they’re unlovable or they don’t know how to love or all those things.

Noelle: I think you’re right. I mean, I think that’s the [overarching method?]. I think is that this stuff is really complex and confusing, and it’s something that we’re all out there striving for and looking for and hoping for. And going back to “feelings aren’t facts” — if you’re.. So here’s a really cool fun fact — like the expression “broken-hearted”, that’s a legit chemical state. Just as when you fall in love with someone, your dopamine goes to the roof. When a relationship ends or you experience unrequited love, it actually induces a mild clinical depression. So like those feelings are f***ing real, and it’s not like something that’s wrong with you. You’re experiencing your given biological urges in a very specifical way, and it’s part of your humanity, and there’s something really cool and primal and natural about that being connected to the earth than all others, I guess.

John: Do you believe that a heart being broken, or the stretching of a heart, or the pain and hurt you get from romantic love, and the love that not working out — you think that only makes us have the ability to grow, to love harder, or love more? Or not?

Noelle: Well —

John: Is it a muscle?

Noelle: No. I’ll give you this straight up clinical answer — it lasts from 24 months to four years depending on the verbal intensity of the relationship. So the more verbally intense your relationship was, the longer your heartbreak will last. And if it was more of a surface thing, you might get over it pretty quickly but it can extend — you know, 12 to 24 months is like standard. And that’s a long time. People are back out there, they’re dating — but they’re kinda like rolling with a little bit of a handicap. The good news is that — bodies and brains do naturally heal, and your chemicals will restabilize. So just like, you know, I tell all my [incomprehensible phrase] — give yourself two to four years. It’s okay if you meet somebody in the meantime and you really like them and you experience all sorts of awesome cool things — but no, that our brains take that much time.

John: Yeah. After my divorce, I didn’t date anyone for years — a long time.

Noelle: That was probably really smart.

John: Yeah. Sometimes it has to be a choice because when you’re out of a relationship, especially if that’s what you’re used to, the first thing you’re gonna want to do is get into another one very fast.

Noelle: Oh dude, I totally dated like it was a combat sport and I was a f***ing psychopath.

John: Right. Exactly. And of course, I don’t wanna judge that — but there are consequences to that.

Noelle: Yeah, there are. Everything in my life was pretty nervous about what I was up to for a while.

John: So but here’s the thing — you guys know yourselves. Hopefully you’ve looked back in your life and your relationships and the way you love. And you gotta define what worked for you, you gotta define what is healthy for you. And I think you should always be open. You know, this is a choice — I still believe in magic — I mean, I know we’re talking about the science behind romantic love, but I still believe in magic. I still believe in the unexplainable.

Noelle: Yeah, I do too. It’s just helpful to break it down from a chemical perspective ‘cause that’s how I ground myself in reality. And it’s always interesting to understand how our brains and bodies work even if we don’t know what’s driving us.

John: Yeah. So here is the end message guys, and I love this message ‘cause I think that it’s something we haven’t heard in a long time and we need to hear — it’s okay to not know about love, it’s okay to not have answers, it’s okay if it’s not a progression but it’s different.

Noelle: Yes, I agree.

John: All of it.

Noelle: All of it. There are no rules.

John: There are no rules. And it’s so complicated and everyone has their own story — and if we tie in all that and then your fears and your insecurities and all that, it’s just a big yarn that is too hard to untangle.

Noelle: Yeah. And I guess too, is like why do you even have to untangle it? Just cut, cut, cut, cut the piece of yarn and move on. Just like, cut the tangles.

John: Yeah. Sure. Absolutely. Toss the ball of yarn.

Noelle: Get rid of it.

John: Right. Well guys, thanks for joining us. And if you enjoy this dialogue, Noelle and I create it almost every week and we talk about not only love, but we talk about everything under the umbrella of life coaching for life coaches — but also, you don’t have to be a life coach to get something out of our podcast.

Noelle: Absolutely. And if you really like what we have to talk about, you might like to become one of our coaches. John and I train coaches to work on our platform for our awesome company. And you know where to find us, so — questions, comments.

John: What if they don’t know where to find us? Where do they go?

Noelle: Oh, well you should go to — it’s the website. All calls and emails go directly to me, so I’m always happy to hop on the phone with somebody. And I do meet people from the podcast who recognize my voice or who love positive psychology — give me a call and just wanna shoot the s**t and [incomprehensible]. So please don’t hesitate.

John: Yes, thank you. And I’m not gonna say love hard today guys, I’m gonna say love open.

Noelle: Yeah, love open.

John: Okay, be well.

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