by Patricia Weerakoon
As a sexologist, I research, write, teach and speak about sex. Being a Christian, I believe that living our lives, including our sex lives, according to the word of God is good and healthy for us. And so, I ask myself the question: Is there congruence between scientific sexological research and what the Bible says about love, sex, and intimacy?
Romantic Love in the Bible
In the Bible we see that we are created for a one-man one-woman romantic love relationship. A love that leads to a committed lifelong marriage covenant.
At creation, Adam the first man declared his love with Eve:
The Lord God made a woman from the rib he had taken out of the man, and he brought her to the man. The man said, “This is now bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called ‘woman,’ for she was taken out of man.” (Genesis 2:22-23)
This powerful emotional energy of romantic love is expressed vividly in Song of Songs.
For love is as strong as death, its jealousy unyielding as the grave. It burns like blazing fire like a mighty flame. Many waters cannot quench love; rivers cannot sweep it away. If one were to give all the wealth of one’s house for love, it would be utterly scorned. (Song of Songs 8:6-7)
And when it comes to marriage: The plans for the first marriage of Adam and Eve are clearly laid out in Genesis 2:24–25:
That is why a man leaves his father and mother and is united to his wife, and they become one flesh. Adam and his wife were both naked, and they felt no shame.
This is the gift of sex in the context of a man and woman in a marriage relationship. The book of Proverbs doesn’t just say “avoid adultery”; it encourages us to enjoy our marital partner (Proverbs 5:15-20). The Apostle Paul told the married couples in the Corinthian church not to deprive each other of sex, but to willingly give themselves to each other (1 Corinthians 7:2-5). Writing to the Ephesians (5:25-32) he compares the marriage relationship to the immutable bond between Christ and the Church.
The Brain and Romantic Love
So, is there a physiological mechanism that facilitates this drawing together of a man and woman with the purpose of a lifelong commitment of one-flesh, naked and no shame sex?
In today’s technological era, scientists use brain mapping and functional magnetic resonance imaging to investigate changes in the emotional state of romantic love (also known as limerance) and long term attachment. Current research tells us that:
- We have built into our brain chemistry a mechanism that draws us towards one specific person in exclusion of all others.
- And when this wears out (as it does in 12-18 months) we have another brain system that binds us together for the long term.
Let’s look at these.
The Addiction of Being “In Love”
Remember the passionate attraction to that special person? That in-the-clouds feeling of wanting to see, do things with, make love to—just be with your beloved? That burst of energy when you saw her. That heart-palpitating, pupil-dilating feeling when he walked into the room.
You are fearless; you would do anything, say anything, and fight any battle for your loved one. Your beloved is perfect, faultless, precious—angelic.
These are the feelings of romantic love. And they are the result of changes in your brain that make you focus your energy on one person. Yes, it’s just brain chemistry!
This falling in love phenomenon1 is associated with a spray of the chemical dopamine from areas associated with reward and motivation to the rest of the brain. Other chemical changes include an increase of norepinephrine and a decrease in serotonin.
- Dopamine leads to a lover’s high: focused attention on their loved one, rearrangement of priorities, increased energy, and mood swings.
- The increase in norepinephrine brings on sweating and a pounding heart, emotional dependence, and elevated sexual desire.
- The drop in serotonin causes a mini obsessive-compulsive state with feelings of sexual possessiveness, jealousy, compulsive thinking about him or her, and a craving for emotional union with this one person.
All these reactions push up the level of testosterone in the brain and the desire for sexual intimacy with the loved one.
Other parts of your brain are also affected. The part of the brain that determines feelings of fear is inhibited, as is the part of the cerebral cortex that influences your judgement. Anyone who has been in the throes of romantic love can understand it: love is fearless. And yes, you are blind to all others as you pursue your beloved.
The power of love is why rejection and failure in love can be truly biologically painful. Being “in love” is chemically like an addiction2 or obsession and therefore loss felt at a neurochemical and whole body level. It can induce clinical depression and, in extreme cases, stalking, homicide, and sometimes even suicide.
The emotions expressed by the lovers in the Song of Songs display the power of the exclusive other-oriented attraction of romantic love.
She is intoxicated (1:2) and faint (2:5; 5:8) with love. She believes he is capable of amazing tasks such as leaping across the mountains and bounding over the hills (2:8); is convinced that he is hers and she exclusively his (6:3; 7:10); and would never let him go (3:4). He sees her as the very best among all women (2:2; 2:14); unique (6:9) and altogether flawless (4:7). A woman who has stolen his heart with one glance of her eyes (4:9).
As the lovers in the Song of Songs, we today need to recognise and deal cautiously with the neurochemical cocktail when you “fall” in love. Three times the lovers warn the reader “Do not arouse or awaken love until it so desires” (2:7; 3:5; 8:4).
Fortunately this love-crazed phase lasts only 12–24 months. With all the palpitation and high energy expenditure of romantic love, we wouldn’t survive it for much longer than this!
But, what happens after that?
The Brain Chemistry of Life-Long Monogamy
The truly amazing thing is that as we live and love as a couple, the craziness of limerance evolves into passional love3. Levels of oxytocin and vasopressin (also called cuddle hormones) increase in the brain. These are the chemicals of attachment-bonding. Passionate love occurs in bursts, and every act of sexual intimacy increases these hormones, thereby increasing the attachment between the couple.
Recent research indicates that oxytocin may contribute to romantic bonds in men by enhancing their partner’s attractiveness and reward value compared with other women. This brain chemistry expedites a one-flesh relationship in a monogamous committed relationship.
There it is. The God who knit me together in my mother’s womb (Psalm 139:13), the creator of sex and marriage, also set up a brain chemistry to make following his commands as natural as breathing.
1 Fisher, H, Aron, A & Brown, L (2006) ‘Romantic love: a mammalian brain system for mate choice’, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society Bulletin, 361, pp. 2173–2186.
2 Burkett, JP & Young, LJ (2012) ‘The behavioral, anatomical and pharmacological parallels between social attachment, love and addiction’ Psychopharmacology, 224, pp. 1–26
3 de Boer, A, van Buel, EM, Ter Horst, GJ (2012) ‘Love is more than just a kiss: a neurobiological perspective on love and affection’, Neuroscience, 201, pp. 114–124
4 Scheele D, Wille A et.al. (2013) ‘Oxytocin enhances brain reward system responses in men viewing the face of their female partner’ Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2013 Nov 25. [Epub ahead of print], Keith M. Kendrick, Birgit Stoffel-Wagner, Benjamin Becker, Onur Güntürkün, Wolfgang Maier, and René Hurlemann
Photo credit: instantvantage
Patricia Weerakoon is a medical doctor turned Sexologist and Writer. She is an evangelical Christian. She is married to Vasantha. Her son Kamal is a Presbyterian minister. As a Sexologist she has translated her passion to bring good holistic sexual health to all people into practical sex education, sex research and sex therapy.