For a long time, I had a type: tall, charming, and just a bit detached. It was the kind of man who would love you on a Friday and put his guard up on Saturday. The kind of man for whom I like you was something said instead of something shown. They don’t want you, but they don’t want to let you go. The type of relationship that makes you sugarcoat, rationalize and, yes, sometimes fictionalize to believe that enough time invested will shift the pendulum and result in happily-ever-after. Ring a bell?
The ups and downs of an unpredictable relationship — and, more so, an unpredictable partner — can be infuriating, irritating, and it plagues levelheaded males and females of all races and economic backgrounds. We like to think that we’re fairly rational and sensible when choosing a partner; that consistency, companionship, and commitment are leading our decision-making. But during the dance of dating and attraction, our brain doesn’t always follow suit, and smart neurons don’t always make smart choices.
The discrepancy between what we say we want and what we actually do is a mystery not just to us but to psychologists and researchers alike. Ask a psychoanalyst why you keep falling for the “wrong” one, and he will draw it back to an unconscious desire for suffering — something that stems from childhood and harboring painful experiences. But ask a neuroscientist, and he will offer considerable evidence that nature is the dubious culprit; that the constant attraction to inconstant love is rooted deep in the brain — more specifically, the reward circuitry of the brain.
But for a situation that can be so maddening and seemingly crippling at times, the question begs: How could chasing after the unpredictable be the least bit rewarding for the brain? Why do we continue to fall for the ones that, ultimately, aren’t going to fall for us? Science is beginning to parse the neural systems, chemical messengers, and inner workings of the brain in different romantic states to tackle these questions and discover what stems behind the scenes from such patterns.
To start, let’s talk about love. Anyone who has ever fallen in love knows the feeling — sleeplessness, loss of appetite, euphoria, and the willingness to take risks that you wouldn’t normally consider. It’s an experienced high not unlike the effect of narcotics, and it’s mighty addictive. Coincidently, people in the early throes of love have brain activity that matches the brain activity of a drug addict in need of a fix. It’s involuntary. The brain’s fear-alert system — the amygdala — and our judgment and reasoning system—the anterior cingulate cortex and prefrontal cortex — are nearly muted while the neurotransmitter dopamine floods the brain’s pleasure and reward centers. What’s more, brain circuits associated with states of obsession, mania, and recklessness are also activated. Likewise, amphetamines, cocaine, and opiates such as heroin, morphine, and OxyContin trigger these same circuits. Is love synonymous with addiction?
But here’s something else: Falling in love isn’t an emotion, as we would assume. Instead, it intensifies or decreases our emotions. It functions as a motivational system that is turned on and off by neurotransmitters released in the brain such as dopamine, oxytocin, and norepinephrine — a combination that results in pleasurable feelings. When we’re overwhelmed with pleasure, a rush of dopamine is flooding our receptors, which plays a key role in how we experience rewards. The bottom line: We’re experiencing a high.
When that rush of dopamine is released and the reward circuit of the brain is triggered, the brain fires a message to the conscious mind, saying, “Pay attention to what’s happening and start craving this experience, because it’s important.” And therein lies the reason we keep returning to an unpredictable lover and relationship. Think about it: You’re being strung along, but then there’s a kiss, a moment of cuddling, sex, or even just a mere touch that’s momentarily satisfying. Your brain recognizes it as a reward and dopamine is replenished — the high is back. Likewise, hope and trust are re-established; anxiety, skepticism, and better judgment are suppressed. To add another element, researchers suggest that we don’t fully realize what our brains are doing to us, because the brain will make decisions about what we prefer before we’re consciously aware of what’s going on.
The chase of unpredictable love and longing for the unattainable function in the same way that gambling does. In fact, it is gambling. When you are unsure whether you will be rewarded in a situation, you keep playing until you win. It’s the unexpected win that keeps hope in overdrive. To understand the particular conditions that cause dopamine release, assistant psychology professor David Zald and his colleagues at Vanderbilt University used a combination of techniques in different scenarios to measure the release of dopamine with unpredictable and predictable rewards.
Zald and his team used positron emission tomography (PET) to scan brain activity in volunteers under three different scenarios. In the first, the subjects selected one of four cards and knew a monetary reward of $1 was possible, but they were unaware of when it would occur. During the second scenario, subjects knew they would receive a reward with every fourth card they selected. Under the third, subjects chose cards but did not receive or expect any rewards.
The findings of the study, published in the Journal of Neuroscience, established unpredictability as a potent force. During the first scenario, when the outcome was unpredictable, the subjects had an increase in dopamine in one part of the brain while showing a decrease in neighboring regions. In contrast, a reward received under the predictable second scenario didn’t result in either significant increases or decreases in dopamine.
“It’s probably not just the receipt of money,” Zald explains, “but the conditions under which it occurs which make a difference.” When we receive a reward and it’s unexpected, the dopamine release is greater, resulting in a more pleasurable experience than if we were to receive a reward that was anticipated. This helps explain the paradox of being unhappy with a partner because they’re unreliable but continuing to go back to them time and time again.
In behavioral terms, it’s explained as partial reinforcement. When you’re rewarded sometimes, but not all the time, you learn to see that reward as valuable. Once you know that you’ll be rewarded consistently, you learn a behavior quickly, but you become lazy to act. Lab rats that are rewarded every time they push a lever eventually slow their behavior because they learn that the next time they want a reward, it will be waiting for them. However, if they don’t know when to expect the next reward, they’ll keep pushing that lever endlessly, in hopes that their next press will strike the jackpot.
And so it comes to pass, if you are playing the cat-and-mouse game with someone who is unpredictable, you are the lab rat with the lever. You might not like your partner’s capricious behavior, but your brain’s reward circuitry is recognizing the hit-and-miss moments of pleasure and feeding you information that can conflict with your better judgment. It’s not a weakness; it’s just your brain addicted to the hidden pleasure of the unpredictable.
At the end of the day, it’s good to have somebody, but finding that somebody is another story. When what you want is a long-lasting relationship, the constant unpredictability of a flighty partner may keep you wanting more with its addictive highs, but it isn’t going to lead to more. Ultimately, it’s what prevents true intimacy from developing. Healthy relationships shouldn’t be constantly unpredictable, but they should be complemented by unpredictable moments of thoughtfulness. It’s letting the highs of a relationship come from the occasional dinner surprise and acts of chivalry, not the occasional phone call that leaves you rationalizing. It’s not whether someone loves you; it’s how he treats you that counts. So let’s stop prettifying the ugly.
We enter relationships knowing roughly as much about our mate as we do about mind-reading. Our reward circuitry may try to lead the way and lead us astray, but that’s not synonymous with brainwashing. What we do have is the ability to recognize what’s good for us, to control our own behavior, and to shy away from unhealthy impulses. After all, it’s something we do every day. Think of the times you ordered the salad instead of the fries. What’s more, as we age and collect experiences of happiness and trust, rejection and disappointment, the more we allow our frontal brain region, with its logic and reason, to lead the way. The reward becomes less about what’s unpredictable, and more about the lasting bond.
The point is this: The drive to fall in love will always be hovering in the background. Being in love, however, is an incredibly elusive thing that requires more than the sporadic, euphoric rush. As a relationship progresses and the process unfolds, the brain needs less of the pleasure chemicals to spark the reward circuitry. It evolves into a constant emotional bond that’s immeasurable to inconstant love. We may not strike gold on the first, second, or even the seventeenth attempt — and that’s okay, because somewhere between time and experience, devastation, and despair, we figure things out. After all, even smart kids stick their fingers in electrical sockets.