Chemical Realities Behind Dating

Chemical Realities Behind Dating May 1, 2019
Engaged Couple
Cute Dating Couple Soon to Marry

In my previous post, I discussed how and why Christians might date according to Scripture. In this post, I explore the physical aspects of dating according to science. Those seeking lifelong marriage with a Christian spouse should take both Scripture and science seriously.

Lessons from Science

Since lifelong faithfulness is God’s design for marriage, it makes sense that God designed our bodies accordingly. A brief foray into human physiology is therefore relevant to Christian approaches to dating.

Full disclosure: I am not even an amateur in this field of study. So I lean heavily on the expertise of others. In particular, I am indebted to a Rutgers University study and an article by a Harvard grad student.

They argue persuasively that when it comes to mating (and thus dating), the brain is decisive. This may seem odd since genitalia get most of the press. Plus, historically, people have often associated romantic feelings with the heart.

We don’t buy our crushes chocolate cerebrums or cerebellums on Valentine’s Day. We certainly don’t call them brain-throbs or sweet-sculls. Instead, we give candy hearts to our sweethearts because when aroused our hearts often flutter or beat faster (among other bodily responses).

But there is no doubt from a contemporary scientific perspective that the brain is the body’s physical and emotional control center. And different parts of the brain control different bodily activities.

When it comes to mating, three emotional drives animate humans (and other species): sex drive, attraction, and attachment. In many mammals these drives operate seamlessly together. They ensure that each species desires intercourse, unites in reproductively compatible pairs, and stays together long enough to raise offspring.

A brief look at each of these drives reveals quite a bit about how Christians might best approach dating.

Sex Drive

The sex drive, aka lust or libido, is perhaps easiest to grasp and relate to. It craves physical gratification. Specific glands produce hormonal chemicals, like estrogen and androgen, that motivate us to seek sexual satisfaction. But experiments have confirmed that they are not the only factors. Others include sensory stimuli like seasonal light, temperature, smells, and education of various sorts. Nature plays a significant part, and so does nurture.

Attraction

We often associate sex drive with romance. Yet romantic attraction pertains to a distinct emotion generated by different chemicals known as catecholamines. These chemicals motivate mates to focus their drives on reproductively compatible counterparts. So, thankfully, blowfish do not attract porcupines.

Silly illustration, I know, but you get the point. The reality is that feelings of euphoria and exhilaration flow from our brain’s selective perception. They screen candidates for physical symmetry, necessary resources, potential fertility, compatible behaviors, health and energy levels, and more.

With humans, childhood experiences and cultural forces play a significant role. They influence what sorts of mates stimulate our glands to release chemicals of attraction. Our sex drive then cooperates with our attraction drive to sort through available persons. It basically narrows down the pool of dating candidates from which we ultimately make a choice. So it’s not all predetermined by chemicals, but they certainly matter – a lot!

Attachment

Lust and attraction may be enough to underwrite Hollywood’s vision of erotic entanglement. Yet God created humans with another integral emotional component: attachment. Like the word suggests, this involves close social contact that produces calm, comforting, and bonding sensations.

A third set of related chemicals encourages mates to bond to one another in ways that enable them to fulfill long-term parental responsibilities. These include peptides, vasopressin, and oxytocin—not to be confused with Oxycontin! They inspire faithfulness, commitment, and persistence.

Such chemicals are directly connected to intercourse, but not intercourse alone. Female glands also release oxytocin during childbirth and nursing to help bond a mother and child. Thus, chemicals associated with different mating drives both serve different functions and come from different parts of the brain. This is because they are not always supposed to work together.

Though the same chemicals that attach lovers together during intercourse also attach mothers and babies during other activities, the latter are not connected to lust chemicals like the former. This is important! But it doesn’t mean people cannot learn through experience or nurture to attach themselves in unhealthy ways.

The Bible forbids incest precisely because some families attach themselves to one another in both familial and sexual ways. They are attached as family and they are sexually attracted to one another. This happens despite the fact that, when it comes to family, the discrimination filter is supposed to leave disengaged attraction that is connected to lust.

Since Scripture sets forth lifelong marital fidelity as God’s ideal for human thriving, chemicals of attachment deserve our attention. Though chronologically they come last, approaches to dating that begin with the end in view should keep them at the forefront of our minds.

This is sort of ironic since the prefrontal cortex—the seat of rationality, critical thinking, and self-awareness—is somewhat incapacitated while we are experiencing lust and attraction. This outcome should play an important role in Christian attempts at dating.

Bottom Line for Dating

In summary, different parts of the brain control different emotional drives triggered by the release three different chemicals, which are directly or indirectly related to dating. They include those that

  • encourage us to reproduce,
  • enable us to identify viable procreative mates, and
  • foster a form of interdependent union capable of keeping families functioning harmoniously together.

I don’t highlight these things to somehow reduce love, dating, or marriage to chemical reactions. Such medical insights neither tell us how to build healthy relationships nor explain how families should function in society. They certainly don’t dictate how Christians ought to seek first God’s kingdom in a world populated by a wide variety of mating species and dating practices.

Rather, I highlight them because physiological factors are at work, with or without our taking note of them, while we are dating and striving to build whatever sort of family we desire to build. If part one of this blog series is right, then God has given us a model for how to showcase his design for marriage in a fallen world. Yet we always fulfill this mandate in a context that is shaped by both physiological and cultural factors. Awareness of both therefore best equips us to do fulfill it well.

Final Thoughts

As human society has progressed, scientists claim that these distinct emotional systems, which once worked together as one integral system with a common goal, are becoming increasingly independent of one another. This had led humans to pursue an increasingly diverse range of dating and mating practices.

This is possible because personal experience, parenting approaches, and wider cultural influences impact outcomes. So the popularity of internet pornography and romance novels likely triggers and manipulates lust and attraction to an unprecedented extent. This leads glands to prematurely release reproductive chemicals at the prompting of virtual mates.

It is important to acknowledge that we live in a fallen world. Our cultural-sexual ecosystem is way out of whack and our brains and glands haven’t quite adapted to this new ecosystem. Thus we often find ourselves at war with ourselves, which leads to many casualties.

Though this post is based mostly on science, it is still a work in progress. The specialists I have consulted don’t claim to have figured it all out. Further experiments will likely tweak some of their preliminary conclusions. And, of course, results can be interpreted in different ways.

The question remains, How can we resist the broken sexual ecosystems we inhabit in order to better reflect God’s good design for our lives? Our tentative answers should begin with a thoughtful and deliberate approach to dating. I detail such an approach in the third and final blog post in this series.

About John C. Nugent
John C. Nugent is the author of "Endangered Gospel," professor of theology, and co-host of the After Class Podcast. You can read more about the author here.
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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Faith L Sochay

    Super helpful in raising self awareness. Thanks!

  • John Nugent

    Any thoughts on the medicine side of things? Does this check out with what you’ve been taught more recently?

  • Ron Peters

    Really interesting stuff. Thanks for sharing.

  • Faith L Sochay

    This information is the most up to date that I am aware of!

    Another important hormone released in the early stages of relationships is that of dopamine. Dopamine is a “feel good” hormone and addictive. It causes some people to seek certain experiences in an out of balance way. Since new relationships make us “feel good”, depending on a person’s background, how much of the hormone is released for that individual, whether or not they are secreting sufficient dopamine outside of the new relationship experience or getting it from other healthy sources, it can become dangerous in that people can become essentially addicted to a new relationship before they have really tested whether that relationship is a good idea. Just one more neuro factor in the background that people should be aware of when making these decisions.

    This article is a great overview on neuro self awareness. Excellent ressource! Thank you!