“Every time I go for the mailbox, gotta hold myself down, ‘cause I just can’t wait till you write me you’re coming around” – Katrina and the Waves
I love dopamine. For those who aren’t the research nerd that I am, dopamine is a neurotransmitter that plays a role in how we feel pleasure. It rewards us for pursuing things we don’t have yet, and responds to things that are new or possible. It helps us think, plan, and focus. It affects learning, motivation, sleep, mood, attention, and even pain. It fuels the parts of us that want to explore, discover, chase, find, have and try. And once we have done those things it stops, leaving us looking for the next new thing, our next big ‘hit’.
I’m not rich enough to be a shopaholic, I don’t do drugs, and I’m not jumping out of planes, but over the years I have stumbled onto another way to get that dopamine high – new relationships. The polyamory community refers to it as new relationship energy, but it is more commonly known as the honeymoon period. It’s that time at the start of any relationship where everything is new; new feelings, new stories, new experiences, new people, and in the case of romantic relationships, new sex. There is a seemingly endless supply of new things to learn, explore, and discover about your new friend, partner, or potential partner, and that intoxicating feeling of connecting with someone new mixed with that rush of new hormones is hard to beat.
So what happens when that high wears off?
Some people never stop chasing the high. We all know them. It’s that person in your life who makes a new friend or finds a new partner and suddenly their lives become entirely focused around that person. They will cancel existing plans to spend time with them, can’t make new plans without checking first to make sure that person isn’t available, and can’t seem to talk about anything but their new person when you finally do spend time together. Everything in their life becomes about this person. And then the dopamine wears off, the new person becomes less interesting, and they are back to being the friend you used to have. Until the next new person comes along.
These relationships aren’t only hard on the chaser’s friends, they are also incredibly hard on the chaser’s subject, the focus of their excitement. For a brief period they get to feel like the most interesting person in the world. Like they have found someone who really sees them, likes them, and can’t get enough of them. Until suddenly they are gone. And the subject is left feeling rejected, alone, and in many cases confused about what they did that resulted in this change. And when both partners are caught up in the rush, and are both caught up in that excitement to the exclusion of everything else, it becomes even more complicated, because no one can really explain why things ended.
I have been in all of these positions. I have been the chaser, I have been the subject, and I have been the friend watching this happen over and over and over again. I have hurt people, I have been hurt by people, and I have watched people I love hurt others and get hurt by others. And it sucks. No matter what position I am in, it sucks. Every time I would think “this one is different, this one will work out, this time the connection will last”. And it wouldn’t. Because even if the potential for real connection was there at the beginning it had been washed away by the flood of dopamine telling me to do everything and have everything and be everything right now.
One of the most important things I have learned from my wasted years of immersing myself in that rush is to slow down. A lot. Not because I’m trying to ignore the dopamine, but because I’m trying to draw it out, make space around it, and allow actual feelings and connections to grow in that space. To enjoy the rush a little longer, but also to give my new relationships a chance to find a connection within that time that will carry on past the end of the rush. So that other different highs can follow it. Because as great as that dopamine rush is, it absolutely pales in comparison to finding people you really connect with, who actually get you, and who like you for who you are, not just for how you made them feel at the start. And as good as “new” is, attachment, companionship, and if you are lucky enough to find it, love, are so much better. Because once you find those connections you can find new ways to experience that dopamine, together.