People...if you ever want to know what it’s like to be mentally ill, try falling in love. If you suffer from depression you often find yourself struggling to determine what’s real and what’s not; because your brain is receiving chemicals telling it that you’re terrified, or heartbroken, or completely devoid of feeling and so you feel like there is a good reason to be feeling those things. Even though you can look at your life and see that nothing is actually wrong, you can’t stop feeling the feelings.
Falling in love is pretty much exactly the same thing, but with far more addictive chemicals.
There’s a new drug on the market called NRE. People who are addicted have been known to spend hours at a time watching their phone, waiting to hear from their dealer. Their work productivity will drop right off as they spend their hours thinking about when they can get their next fix. They’ll talk about how when they’re on this drug the blood in their veins has been replaced with electricity and their stomach feels like that moment on a rollercoaster just before the big drop. The half life is incredibly short though, so when they’re not on the drug they’re filled with an ache and a need that causes them to seek it out constantly. Their social life will all but disappear as they sink further into the drug’s grasp, spending hours and then days and weeks high on it. They’ll get high in public, at social events and wherever they can. And they’ll never want to come down.
In the poly community there’s a term called New Relationship Energy or NRE. You might have also heard it referred to as the “honeymoon phase” or “puppy love”. It’s the period where you start falling in love with a new person and become infatuated. For people in monogamous relationships it’s usually the period where you withdraw completely and your friends don’t see you for six months until you emerge from your sex cocoon. For people in poly relationships though it can have more damaging consequences as you try and balance existing partners and relationships while you’re as high as a kite on one person in particular. If you’ve ever felt it, Disney movies will make a lot more sense. No sane person would sign a contract with a dubious sea witch to physically transform their body into another species for a person they’ve met once. A person on NRE would. NRE, not even once.
New Relationship Energy can actually be a sort of short hand for the three stages of love identified by Dr Helen Fisher. So let’s break it down and look at what’s actually happening to your brain during this time:
You know when you go on a date with someone and you might have planned on just giving them a kiss goodnight but by the end of the date you’re ready to rip their clothes off and just fuck them on the restaurant table? That’s lust. Lust is driven by hormones and pheromones, and can pretty much be attributed to our lizard brain’s desire to just fuck a new human into existence before moving on. Men will experience a measurable decrease in testosterone, while women’s testosterone levels will increase.
The Attraction phase is where the hormones drop off and the chemicals kick in.
Your brain has a g-spot called the “nucleus accumbens” and during the attraction phase it will be flooded with dopamine making you feel absurdly euphoric. Incidentally this response is directly tied to how addiction works, which is why some people are serial monogamists, constantly chasing that hit.
The increase in heart rate and the butterflies in your stomach feeling are thanks to rushes of adrenaline and norepinephrine, which are also the reason you won’t be able to concentrate on much of anything except how fucking excited you are to see your new person again.
Your serotonin levels will drop off, just like people with OCD, which is why you’ll start obsessing over your new person constantly.
You’ll also notice that your cortisol levels are significantly increased, which is usually linked with a loss of emotional control and cognitive impairment. Because if you’ve ever had NRE then you’ll know it probably wasn’t your intellectual high point.
People in the attraction phase have also been noted to experience higher levels of NGF or nerve growth factor, a protein responsible for the development and functionality of neurons. This is known to increase your sense of connection and also create a feeling of euphoria.
The rush chemicals are fading at this point, but they’ll be replaced by new ones that help to establish a more long term relationship.
One in particular that’s a real doozy is vasopressin. It’s pretty much the chemical that’s responsible for monogamy. Studies have been done on monogamous animals where they suppress the vasopressin and just watch as the animal stops giving fucks about their partner sleeping around. On top of this there’s also oxytocin, which is like the connection drug. We release it during orgasm, breast feeding and child birth, and it’s been linked to behaviours like jealousy, neediness and clingyness. The combination of these two is designed to make you feel safe and secure and make you want to start nesting.
All of this is what helps to make NRE one of the most addictive drugs on the market, and why it’s been compared quite literally to being on crack cocaine. Like anything that can get you high, it can also be pretty fucking dangerous. Much like mental illness, when you’re experiencing it, you’re not really aware that it’s all the result of a chemical cocktail. Everything you’re feeling will feel ‘real’ in the sense that it will feel like this is the new reality. It can be easy to fall into the trap of making decisions based around these feelings, expecting them to last forever. And, like any drug you can experience withdrawals that will set your teeth on edge. Time spent away from your new person might leave you feeling impatient, irritable or just plain depressed. You might start flaking on friends and family to spend time with the person who gives you your hit.
Once your brain chemicals have plateaued, you'll either find yourself in a stable and comfortable relationship from which you can make healthy, well informed decisions, or you'll realise you're not quite right for each other and you'll be relieved you didn't make any life changing decisions. Which is why it’s important to be aware of what’s actually going on in your brain, so that you don’t get left with a whole heap of cleaning up to do once the honeymoon phase is over.
Regardless of whether you’re in a new relationship or not, it’s really important to have things in your life that you enjoy. It might be something as simple as video games, or as involved as running a volunteer program. But if you don’t have something to ground you, you’ll find that when you meet your new person, every moment that you’re not with them will potentially drive you crazy. If you have long, unfilled hours, you’ll start to fill them by pining for your new person. This isn’t just unhealthy, it can also be incredibly painful, like a dull ache in your heart. Avoid this by making an effort to still see friends and family, and by maintaining your regular life commitments.
If you’re experiencing NRE it can be easy to fall into the trap of promising your new person everything under the sun in an attempt to make them happy and to keep them for longer. This can be anything from moving in together, lending money, getting married, or getting pregnant. Making decisions that can impact you for the long term, when you’ve only been with someone for the short term, is a pretty surefire way to have regrets.
To avoid having the NRE hangover, where you wake up one day and realise that you’re married, monogamous and living in Arkansas, it’s important to know what your personal goals are. This might mean knowing you’re committed to being polyamorous and that monogamy doesn’t work for you. Maybe it’s about wanting to travel the world instead of saving up for a house, or vice-versa. You might know that you never want kids, or that you definitely don’t want them until you’re a certain age. All of these things help to ground you in reality and remind you of what’s important to you. Because you’ll still be around when the NRE wears off, but the new person might not be.
Making promises to yourself, and keeping them, is the most important thing you can bring to your NRE experience. It doesn’t just stop you from having regrets about the decisions you’ve made, but it also helps to set a benchmark for the relationship if it does become long term. You’ve established what you want from life, and it’s up to your new person to return the favour so you can both see if you’re heading in the same direction.
So if you’re in the throes of a passionate new romance right now, be sure to enjoy it. Enjoy the greatest natural high we’re capable of. Throw yourself headfirst into it and relish every hungry kiss, every desperate embrace, and all the wild, uninhibited sex. But when it comes to making decisions that will impact your life for more than three months, better to put a pin in it and reassess when you’re a sane and rational person once again.
That is all.
You may go now.