Here’s why the honeymoon phase is so intoxicating.

honeymoon phase
Illustrator: Jennifer van de Sandt

Chances are you know the feeling: you catch a glimpse of your lover’s smile from across the crowded party. Butterflies. Your heart speeds up, and you feel a flush spring into your cheeks. New romance sparkles like champagne—and is every bit as intoxicating. 

There’s a good reason that the first chapter of a relationship is so delicious. When you first fall in love, your brain and body are flooded with chemical changes that keep your attention focused on your new partner and make you feel wonderful when you’re together. If you’re in this phase of a relationship (or hoping to be there soon), you might be wondering, “How long does the honeymoon phase last?” and dreading the time when those feelings fade.

There’s no need to fear the end of the honeymoon phase, though. The biochemical effects of new love are stressful, and for most people, it’s healthy to eventually move into a new, calmer phase of love. And in any case, there’s good reason to think that you can bring some of that initial “honeymoon” sparkle back into your relationship whenever you want—tapping into the best of both worlds! 

New love can be a potent brew.

In the first stages of passionate love, brain and body chemistry change in significant ways, scientifically known as “limerence.” Limerence creates a “high” similar to drug use. The brain’s pituitary gland releases neurochemicals that increase feelings of sexual attraction, euphoria, excitement, and fixation on the person to whom you’re attracted. Cortisol and testosterone levels change, and phenylethylamine (PEA) and dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA) increase.

According to Loyola University neuroscience professor Pat Mumby, levels of dopamine, adrenaline, and norepinephrine increase at the beginning of a romantic relationship. Adrenaline and norepinephrine are responsible for some of the physical effects people experience—like a racing heart, flushed cheeks, and sweaty palms. They increase energy and can make it harder to eat and sleep.

These chemicals, along with a lowered level of serotonin, contribute to the obsessed feeling that new romance brings. And it’s dopamine that creates the euphoria people feel when they think about or spend time with their new love.

When you fall in love, areas of the brain called the caudate nucleus and the ventral tegmental area are more active. The ventral tegmental area makes dopamine, or “the brain chemical that gives you the energy, focus, ecstasy, and the drive to seek, find, and keep a sweetheart,” according to researchers Lucy L. Brown and Helen Fisher. The caudate nucleus “integrates your ‘rush’ of romantic passion with your complex emotions and thoughts about your beloved.”

Researchers have discovered that limerence is also associated with increased nerve growth factor (NGF). Not only are NGF levels higher in people in new relationships, but the researchers found that the more deeply in love subjects reported being, the higher their NGF levels were. Since NGF helps neurons develop and function, this likely contributes to the feelings of connection and the high so many people feel when they first fall in love. 

Most honeymoon phases do come to an end.

Scientists divide romantic relationships into three aspects: lust, attraction, and attachment. Some relationships include all three aspects, while others include just one or two. The “honeymoon phase” describes relationships heavily focused on attraction

Because the chemical changes in the body and brain during the honeymoon phase can be exhausting and distracting, most romantic relationships become centered on attachment instead of attraction within about two years. Attachment, promoted by the neurochemicals oxytocin and vasopressin, is a calmer kind of love—a feeling of being good friends, companions who have chosen one another for the long haul.

Leaving the honeymoon phase behind can be a good thing. It allows people to focus on career goals, maintain their wider social support networks, and attend to other important aspects of their lives. It also allows couples to see one another more clearly. As Margaret Mason, LCSW, points out, “When we’re attracted to someone, our brains—eager to connect and procreate—skip over the parts that might not be a match. Excited and terrified, we fill the gaps with anything we want.” Couples who rush to make a relationship permanent before they can see one another clearly risk ending up in heartbreaking mismatches.

By being open to what the next phase may bring, Mason says you can be more discerning about whether to go the distance with your partner. “If you make it through [the honeymoon phase], your chemicals calm down.  You can actually see someone for who they are,” says Mason. “You are safe now and this is your companion. Do you want them to be? Is this person kind? Do they want what you want? Do they make you feel cherished? Do you want to spend 10 hours in a car with them in 95-degree heat with a broken air conditioner? Both yes and no are brave answers.”

Not everyone leaves the honeymoon period behind, though. Researchers have found that, in certain cases, the honeymoon phase can last for decades. A 2012 study showed that some couples not only report still being intensely in love after two decades of marriage, but imaging shows that their brain chemistry mimics that of people who have recently fallen in love.

To some extent, this effect may be created by genetics. A 2020 study by some of the same researchers discovered genes “associated with oxytocin, vasopressin, and dopamine function that affect the propensity to sustain romantic love.” People whose brains naturally make more of the chemicals that create that “honeymoon” feeling tend to experience the feeling more strongly and for a longer period of time. 

Keeping the spark ignited after the honeymoon phase

If you feel a little sad at the notion that, for most people, the “honeymoon doesn’t last forever,” it helps to remember that the honeymoon phase is really about the balance of lust, attraction, and attachment in a relationship. In the honeymoon phase, attraction takes center stage. But a relationship centered on attachment—as longer-term relationships tend to be—can still include lust and attraction. And there are science-backed strategies you can use to shift the balance in your relationship and bring back some of that “honeymoon” feeling, no matter how long you’ve been together.

Woo each other: Little notes, thoughtful gestures, taking the time to understand and speak one another’s love languages–couples who make the effort to continually show their love also increase intimacy, and intimacy leads to oxytocin production.

Stay curious: Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that you know everything about your partner. You don’t, no matter how long you’ve been together—and thinking that you do can lead to boredom. Make time for your independent interests as well, because this will keep you interesting to your partner. A little mystery stimulates the brain to produce dopamine.

Touch each other: Positive physical touch releases oxytocin, the neurochemical that promotes feelings of security and connectedness. And sex, of course, releases a lot of oxytocin, as well as dopamine.

Try new things together: Novel experiences stimulate the brain to produce dopamine and can also produce adrenaline. By engaging in new hobbies and activities together, you can bring back some of that honeymoon glow.

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