Revealing Dopamine’s Role in Romantic Relationships

A new study sheds light on why spending time with romantic partners makes you feel good.


Love, Wellness
Being with your partner makes you feel happier.

(fizkes /

When The Beatles authored the iconic song, “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” they were apparently, unknowingly describing the euphoric emotional surge of the hormone dopamine that floods the nucleus accumbens region of the brain when one holds the hand of their lover. 

Dopamine is the hormone associated with pleasure seeking and motivation and a new study by the University of Colorado Boulder, that was published in Current Biology, sheds light on its role in social and romantic relationships.

What is dopamine?
Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that can make a person feel really good, but also get someone into a lot of trouble. According to the Australian government's healthdirect website, it’s this hormone that provides the feeling of pleasure and satisfaction after accomplishing a difficult task, enjoying a delicious meal, or winning a game. In other words, dopamine is like the little chemical reward that a person’s brain gives itself after doing certain behaviors.

Dopamine helps with forming memories and regulating mood. Even though dopamine dysregulation can lead to mental health issues like depression, overall this hormone helps people stay motivated and take care of their physical health, and is an important factor in falling in love and staying in love.

Dopamine in relationships
The extent of dopamine’s role in romantic relationships was revealed in the study that.

looked at the chemical brain signatures of prairie voles, a monogamous species of mammal, according to SciTechDaily. The voles were fitted with fiber-optic sensors tracking the activity in their nucleus accumbens (the region of the brain that deals with reward seeking in both humans and voles). Then, they were given tasks, like opening doors or climbing fences, in order to reach their monogamous partners. 

Graduate student Anne Pierce told SciTechDaily, that,when the voles carried out tasks to reach their vole mates, their sensors “lit up like a rave.” And, the sensors continued to stay lit once they reached their partner and snuggled and sniffed them.

As a control, the study followed the brain activity of voles climbing or opening doors to reach a non-partnered vole, and found there was little to no dopamine surge. “This suggests,” Pierce explained, “That not only is dopamine really important for motivating us to seek out our partner, but there’s actually more dopamine coursing through our reward center when we are with our partner than when we are with a stranger.”

Zoe Donaldson, a senior author on the study, and the associate professor of behavioral neuroscience at the University of Colorado, Boulder, elaborated: “What we have found, essentially, is a biological signature of desire that helps us explain why we want to be with some people more than other people. 

“As humans, our entire social world is basically defined by different degrees of selective desire to interact with different people, whether it’s your romantic partner or your close friends. This research suggests that certain people leave a unique chemical imprint on our brain that drives us to maintain these bonds over time,” Donaldson said.

Bonds over time
The study also shed light on how well these bonds were maintained after a period of long separation. The researchers kept voles from their partners for a month, a significant length of time for a vole, and enough time that in the wild, they would have found a new partner.

Then, the researchers had the voles accomplish tasks to reach their former partners. They found that the nucleus accumbens activity was minimal. 

“We think of this as sort of a reset within the brain that allows the animal to now go on and potentially form a new bond,” Donaldson said, explaining that the brain seems hard-wired to help people move on after losing or separating from a partner.

“The hope is that by understanding what healthy bonds look like within the brain, we can begin to identify new therapies to help the many people with mental illnesses that affect their social world,” said Donaldson.

More research is needed to see how vole brain patterns carry over to human brain patterns. But, for now, it seems like the act of getting dressed and ready for date night with a spouse can be just as pleasurable as winning the lottery. 

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