Your lips are locked with someone you’ve been wanting to kiss for a while now. You’re overwhelmed with sensation: their smell, their taste, the warmth of their body pressed against yours. Later on, after you say your goodbyes and start heading home, your heart may still be racing and your hands may still be shaky, but you feel as if you could fly. When you get home and get into bed, it’s hours before you can fall asleep. You feel too awake and energized. Over the next days and weeks, it’s extremely difficult to keep yourself from texting your new crush every ten minutes even though it feels excruciating waiting for them to text you back. When you see their name pop up in your phone notifications, you feel a flutter in your chest.
Welcome to the chemical rollercoaster that is new relationship energy (NRE)!
It’s well-known that attraction and falling in love or lust with someone new is a biochemical process. This chemical pathway doesn’t play out exactly the same for everyone, since every brain, body, and relationship is different, but there are some recognizable similarities that many people can relate to. For allosexual people, attraction may begin with a surge of testosterone and estrogen, producing a sexual longing for the other person. Around the same time, the brain goes into overdrive producing dopamine and norepinephrine, the “reward” chemicals that get released whenever we do things that feel good, such as eating a delicious meal or having an orgasm. These two hormones energize you, reducing your need for sleep, and even decreasing your appetite.
With all those feel-good chemicals roiling around inside, you’d think that falling in love would feel great 100% of the time. As anyone who has fallen in love can attest, that is hardly the case. Bouts of warm fuzzies can alternate with obsessive thoughts about your new lover, feeling terrified despair that they might not feel the same way about you, and surprising flare-ups of jealousy or panic. The culprit? Serotonin. More accurately, a lack of serotonin, since attraction and falling in love is usually marked by your brain reducing its serotonin uptake.
Serotonin is responsible for many body functions, including making you feel “full” or “satisfied” after eating and having sex. Low serotonin can be linked to many unpleasant phenomena, including addiction and depression. This is why falling in love can feel like you are “addicted” to the other person — you get the dopamine high when you’re around them, but without the dose of serotonin to make you feel satisfied. You quite literally cannot get enough of your new lover.
The Good News, The Bad News
Okay, so I just took your better-than-the-movies budding romance and turned it into a clinical description of neurotransmitter functions. Talk about a buzzkill. If you’re wrapped up in your lover’s arms and you sigh, “I’m just…so full of NRE hormones right now,” it’s unlikely you’ll get the warm response you might be hoping for.
The good news is that it doesn’t have to be that way! Seeing NRE clearly for what it is does not have to suck the magic and romance out of your new relationship. It actually offers up many more things to appreciate: the fact that you’ve crossed paths with someone that makes your body and brain light up in this way, the wonder of your individual chemicals colliding and interacting and setting both of you on a pathway to a great connection, even just the simple bonus of getting a natural mood boost — no caffeine, alcohol, or other drugs required.
The bad news is that it can be very easy** to lose sight of just how consuming NRE can be. On top of not sleeping or eating enough, it can become all too easy to neglect other responsibilities, including work, school, friendships, and other romantic relationships. Your ability to evaluate your new partner’s shortcomings, questionable behavior, or glaring red flags is severely gutted, muffled under the weight of just how dang cute/hot/sexy/handsome/charming/gorgeous they are.
In short, NRE is a double-edged sword: it can brighten your days, pump you up, and bring you closer to a new partner, but leave you with a dangerous lack of judgment or clear-headedness.
Head in the Clouds, Feet on the Ground
So how to avoid letting NRE run the show, while still enjoying the precious first stages of a new relationship? When I’m experiencing intense NRE, I like to think of striking a balance — letting myself enjoy having my head in the clouds, but making sure that my feet are still on the ground. While just being aware of the phenomenon of NRE in the first place is a great first step, here are a few more tactics to help you with striking that balance.
The effects of NRE last approximately 6 months to 1 year, and, emergency situations aside, it’s a good rule of thumb to avoid making life-changing decisions or long-term legal commitments regarding your new partner during this time. Don’t sign a rental agreement. Don’t sign a marriage certificate. Don’t even sign a shared cell phone contract. When you are in the throes of ecstatic hormones, you may think that moving in together, getting married, or other binding commitments are a great idea. However, it’s unlikely that you’ll have the mental clarity to truly evaluate how it will feel to handle the dissolution of said agreements if the relationship goes south. If you think that there’s no way the relationship can fail, then you are in the thick of NRE. If you are in the thick of NRE, don’t sign anything.
- Have regular check-ins with friends and date nights with romantic partners.
We all have that one friend who goes AWOL every time they get into a new relationship. Don’t be that friend. Set up regular times to maintain your connection to your closest friends, whether that’s catching up over beers or texting regularly. Write in in your calendar if you have to.
Bear in mind that your existing partners need time, energy, and attention to. If you haven’t already, establish weekly or monthly check-in conversations with each partner where you can talk out feelings, expectations, future plans, and what each of you are doing to continue to invest in the relationship. When you’re planning the next hot date you’ll go on with your new partner, take the time to plan a hot date with your existing partners as well. (Sitting in front of Netflix in your PJs is great, but does not count as a planned hot date.)
- Let it spill into your other relationships.
Normally it’s ill-advised to let stress, problems, or dynamics happening in one relationship have an effect on your other relationships. However, if you’re riding high on NRE, I’d encourage letting your relationship dynamics overlap! You’ve been granted a natural boost of energy and positivity. Instead of keeping it all to your new relationship, see if there are ways you can carry that light and joy into your existing relationships. You may be surprised how easy it will be to recall memories of when you and your existing partner were feeling intense NRE for each other, even if it was years ago. Spend time reminiscing with your existing partners about the beginning of your relationship, or just use that energy to give extra affection, compliments, care, and other expressions of love to your partners.
- Remember that it’s impermanent.
Over the course of anywhere from 6 months to 2 years into the new relationship, your brain chemicals start to taper off and return back to equilibrium. There’s an increase in the production of oxytocin and vasopressin, which are the hormones that lead to long-term bonding. In time, NRE will give way to what I like to call ERE (existing relationship energy). When your partner enters the room, your heart may no longer flutter, and your palms may no longer sweat. Instead, you may find more feelings of comfort and safety in their embrace. This does not mean that you are no longer in love with your new partner, just that the jittery-exciting-fluttery hormones have ebbed. If you know this, you can remember to enjoy NRE for as long as it lasts, and you can look forward to entering a different, but no less important, phase in this new relationship.
Sources and More Information
What to learn more? Read Professor Sex Presents: But What About Jealousy, Though?
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