In honor of Valentine's Day, we're spending the week debunking myths and lies about romance. Read the rest of our "Love is a Hoax" coverage here.
It's an urge that at face-value can seem so innocuously amusing for everyone involved: the desire to gush to your friends about your new unofficial boyfriend or Twitter crush or Tinder match. Superlatives and exclamation marks become ubiquitous in text messages; you find your face flushing on a regular basis, and your friends kindly bear witness to it all—until your infatuation stops seeming phasic and starts feeling more permanent. Then, your previously obliging friends stop feigning interest. You may start to feel embarrassed or even guilty, but sometimes, none of that will matter—you just can't shut up about it.
The compulsion to share excitement about romantic prospects is by no means unusual; it's not only common, but also healthy. Among a sample of people of various genders and sexualities I talked to, the reasons they gave for whipping out their phones to text their contacts about a new partner were assorted but related: They sought advice from "someone level-headed" and unattached, often wanting to use that conversation to assess how they really feel.
"You are driven to confirm that your new love interest is as amazing as you think they are, so you try to get people to agree with you about them," said Jillian.* "Talking about your feelings also allows you to re-experience them, so talking to others about your interest in this person...allows you to feel closer to them because you're feeling that attachment every time you talk about them."
To understand this urge at its most innocent, the very simple reasoning that our hedonistic species has the unbridled driving force to do whatever it takes to feel good—and talking about your infatuation should do this—cannot be overlooked. Dr. Helen Fisher, a biological anthropologist and senior research fellow at the Kinsey Institute, has researched the physiology of the brain in love for years; in fact, she was among the first to take MRIs of those very brains.
Fisher says that one of the basic characteristics of falling madly in love is obsessive thinking, or what we call "intrusive thinking." Scientifically, this corresponds to the activated release of pleasure-center hormones and neurotransmitters, which Fisher observed through brain scans. Fisher would present subjects with a photo of their loved one and as well as a photo of someone who makes them feel no emotion, and would ask them preliminary questions like, "how much do you think of your loved one?" all the while monitoring their brain activity.
It's a perfectly wonderful addiction when it's going well, but an addiction nonetheless.
Fisher focuses much of her research on the Ventral Tegmental Area (VTA), which is one of the two major dopaminergic areas at the base of the brain that lies close to the regions that orchestrate thirst and hunger. When you're in love, the VTA sends out dopamine, a natural stimulant that gives you energy and motivation; in this case, you become motivated to win a mating partner, or what Fisher calls "life's greatest prize."
"It's also an addiction," she says, noting that brain regions linked with addiction also show heightened activity when the subject is in love. "It's a perfectly wonderful addiction when it's going well, but an addiction nonetheless."
Read more: Why Men Fall in Love Faster Than Women
However, a few less pleasurable brain regions in patients experiencing new love also show increased activity: notably, the region linked with anxiety. At the same time, regions in the prefrontal cortex associated with decision-making start to shut down when obsessive love becomes too strong.
From an evolutionary standpoint, this response developed to drive us to procreate and raise offspring with partners, Fisher says. But what compels us to shout about new love from the rooftops, a behavior that does little, if anything, to advance the possibility of procreation?
Dr. Chantal Marie Gagnon, a life counselor and licensed psychotherapist, echoes Fisher's parallels of love to a drug. When the object of your desire isn't around, and therefore you lack that dopamine rush in your brain, you might feel like you're in withdrawal. So, you may try to achieve small dopamine rushes from talking about your crush to your friends.
"By talking about it, we re-activate the memory of the person who made us feel that way, and this gives us a new release of those same chemicals," Gagnon says. "So, we can recreate our happy and excited feeling over and over by talking about it over and over."
She also notes that people don't always do this consciously—you don't mean to bore or annoy your friends with talk about how you're so in love. However, according to a sample of people that Broadly interviewed, it wasn't uncommon for people to admit that they were conscious of their compulsion. For a handful, they felt ashamed; for the majority, nothing changed their behavior.
"[When] someone is a little addicted to the 'high' that comes from the release of neurotransmitters when talking about [their partner], [they'll] keep talking about it even if they know better," Gagnon says.
In her research, Gagnon has observed that women are more likely to engage in this behavior than men, who are less likely to express their emotions as openly to close friends. However, just because women may be more likely to indulge in their desire to talk about their new partner for hours, doesn't mean they experience the feelings of love more strongly than men.
According to a study Fisher conducted for Match.com, in which she surveyed 35,000 American men and women about the number of times they had fallen in love, the average for women was 2.3, whereas it was 3.3 for men. Fisher also noted that in the brain MRI, the difference between how men's and women's brains reacted to photos of their loved ones was negligible.
"If anything, men responded even quicker and are maybe even more romantic," she says, joking that despite her citing this frequently, women often believe otherwise. "Just because women are sometimes more expressive socially doesn't mean anything."
Andrew, a 28-year-old heterosexual man who spoke with Broadly, says he's experienced romantic obsession, and has also felt ashamed when overwhelming his friends with talk about partners, but downplaying his emotional investment. Andrew says he's found himself with urges to talk about his new partner that he'd describe as "uncontrollable."
"I think it comes from a desire to be in one of those all consuming 'love of my life' kind of relationships," he says. "I remember reading a letter my grandmother framed that she wrote to my grandfather [that] talked a lot about how my grandmother could hardly get through the day without spending all her time thinking about my grandfather. Maybe I'm projecting, but I would still like to believe that this kind of obsession is at the root of finding something that will last."