What’s the Deal with Dopamine? Part 2: Relationships

By Jimmy Warden

*This is part two of a three part series about the neurotransmitter, dopamine. Today will discuss the affect that dopamine can have on our relationships. Those that are romantic, friendly, or work related.*

Have you ever wondered why your relationship went from having a burning, passionate desire between you and your partner to all of a sudden having that desire extinguished over a relatively short period of time? Have you ever wondered why some people have a tendency to have a lot of sexual partners? How about that friend that always needs to be right? Or perhaps you have a boss that seems to be a micromanager? Or maybe even a boss that is the opposite and lets all of the employees solve the problems that the organization is facing? Whatever the situation may be, there is a factor that is involved in a lot of these scenarios, and that factor is dopamine.

As stated in the previous post, dopamine is a neurotransmitter in the brain that is responsible for our feelings of want and desire. When we desire more food, or desire a new car, or perhaps a new life altogether, dopamine is the catalyst for us wanting these things. It is often referred to as the “molecule of more” because of how heavily involved it is in making us want more of something. Not only does dopamine play a heavy role in making us want more, but it also plays a heavy role in how some of our relationships play out in the world. This goes for romantic relationships, friendships, and work relationships.

Dopamine and Romantic Relationships

There is a phrase out there, and some people claim to have lived it out that states, “do you believe in love at first sight?”. Now, there could be some truth to this concept where someone sees a person whom they are attracted to and they imagine what the wedding bells chiming and seeing the family that they create, but this isn’t always the reality of these first encounters. In most situations, the first reason why people are attracted to someone is because of the innate, primitive desire to procreate. This is dopamine firing through our system. When we are sexually attracted to someone, dopamine plays a big role in this attraction because it is our midbrain that is signaling to us there is someone in front of us that we should reproduce with to keep the species going. I know it might seem weird to think this, but keep in mind that our midbrain is not responsible for rationality, is it responsible for survival.

With that being said, upon this initial attraction, we often try to devise some type of plan to “break the ice”, and begin to devise a plan to do so. This is desire dopamine in action. There is a short-term goal that wants to be reached (talking to the attractive person) and it is the desire that is fueling it. Not only that, but there is also a newness to meeting this new person, to which we want to pursue. Dopamine influences us to seek out new experiences, especially if it is a possible new romantic partner. We get enthralled at the sight of someone new because of the potential what could be. It is the desire to purse that gives us the motivation to talk to that person. When we do, and the interaction goes well, then we start to think about “what’s next”, which tends to be some type of sexual interaction. It is the idea of “what’s next” that keeps us driving forward and behaving in a manner to make those things happen. It is often not the sexual encounters that are driving us, but rather the potential of what will happen next that keeps us going.

This is what some experts might refer to as passionate love. Passionate love is the type of love that keeps you up until three in the morning talking or texting on the phone, going to new places with your new partner, and wanting to spend every waking minute of every waking hour with them. This passion is driven by the newness and novelty of the relationship, which is a signal that desire dopamine is in the driver’s seat of your brain. You’re looking for the next “new thing” to do with this new, amazing partner. This can also be thought of as the “honeymoon phase” of a relationship where infatuation takes over the rational mind. This is a big reason why relationships generally only last eighteen months or less. This is considered the passionate love stage. This is also a big reason why some people are promiscuous, even despite being in what people would say is a committed relationship.

Unfortunately, in a previous relationship, I fell victim to the spell of passionate love and desire dopamine. I was dating a girl while I was in college and I was head over heels infatuated with her. People had definitely given me some forewarnings about spending time with this girl because she had a reputation for being promiscuous, but I waved off and ignored those red flags because of my desire to be with her. Low and behold, I eventually found out that she indeed took part in the behaviors that people had given me warnings about. I was dumbfounded. Heartbroken. Shocked. All because I was blinded by desire dopamine and passionate love.

This is also why Mick Jagger could never get any satsification. His infamous song was inspired by his own promiscuity and his consistent pursuit for the next sexual partner. He could never get too close to anyone that he was romantic with because he was so heavily influenced by dopamine and the feeling that he would get from pursuing a new partner. The experiences themselves were probably not even that great in comparison to the actual pursuit. He was always looking for what was next once one experience ended. This is a big reason why it is hard for people to actually sustain a committed relationship and it is also a big reason for sex addiction. The sex in and of itself isn’t even that satifsying for these folks considering they are always looking for that next partner.

Dopamine and Friendships

Not only does this brain molecule have an influence on our romantic relationships, but it also has an influence on our friendships, too. Specifically, in the form of manipulation. Now, this might seem a bit extreme because we think that we try not to manipulate the people with whom we believe to be close with and love, but we do try to manipulate our friends into doing things that we want them to do. This is peer pressure at its core. We have a goal in mind of having our friend partake in whatever we are pressuring them to do, and that goal oriented thinking is driven by dopamine. These are referred to as agentic elements of a relationship. Agentic, meaning that the relationship (or parts of the relationship) is fueled by the desire to accomplish a goal.

Great relationships, however, have more than agentic elements, they also have affiliative elements. An affiliative relationship is what we think of as the typical friendship, meaning it was formed because we genuinely enjoy that person’s company. Relationships are complex, however, and they have a tendency to include both affiliative and agentic elements. For example, if a friendship is damaged because one friend acted in the wrong, that friend who acted in the wrong might try to apologize or convince the other friend that they didn’t have any malintention. This is an agentic element of the relationship being played out in order to repair the affiliative elements. One party is trying to manipulate the other (in a way) to convince them that the friendship should still continue, despite the wrongdoing. We could even think of another perspective of complimenting someone in order to start building a friendship. By complimenting someone, you are trying to manipulate the way they think about you, and understand who you are. This is an example of an agentic element being used to try to create an affiliative relationship.

On the flip side, those that have built long-term friendships and enjoy spending time with each other are more likely to try to plan for more future get togethers. Perhaps, they want to plan a special event or a special trip for a later point in time. This is affiliative elements and agentic elements working in harmony. People that enjoy each other’s company in the present moments (affiliative) are then planning future gatherings to accomplish the goal of having that future gathering (agentic). A personal example of this that I had in my life was planning a trip to Nashville with two good friends of mine that I’ve been friends with now for about a decade. We planned the trip about two to three weeks in advance of when it actually happened. Keep in mind, if we didn’t genuinely enjoy each other’s company, there was no way that we would have decided to plan a future trip together or execute that plan to accomplish our goal of visiting Nashville.

Dopamine and Work Relationships

I think it’s safe to say that a lot of us don’t always go out with our colleagues or spend a consistent amount of time with them outside of work, unless we do develop an affiliative relationship with them. Therefore, most work relationships are agentic in their nature. With that said, there are some ways that people try to use agentic strategies in order to accomplish work-related tasks or goals.

One example that pops up into mind is the boss that allows their employees to work through any issues that their organization is having. Due to the nature of wanting the employees to do more of the problem solving, this boss is engaging in an agentic, manipulative strategy by letting the people who are doing a lot of the organization’s work solve the problems at hand. This submissive tactic allows for the employees to take on the responsibilities of solving the organization’s big problems, which could potentially lead to higher rates of work satisfaction. It could also potentially lead to more affiliative feelings for one’s work, as the employees would be happier with their job, knowing that they have meaningful responsibilities within their organization.

The contrast of this is the boss who is manipulative by being a micromanager. Constantly barking out orders, telling people what they should and shouldn’t do, and berating those who don’t fulfill their duties exactly as the boss stated. This tactic is a very agentic strategy because this type of boss has one goal and one goal only. That is to try to control everything that their employees do and have a pulse on every miutiae of the organization. This tends to lead to less affiliative aspects of relationships as the employees will likely become disgruntled at the fact they do not have the trust from their boss that they need in order to do their job well. This creates an unheatlhy and potentially toxic work environment because instead of having collective goals, the only goals that matter are those of the one(s) in charge.

In Summary

Dopamine has a lot to do with the way relationships are created and how we pursue relationships. Desire dopamine is what we feel when we are immediately attracted to someone sexually and it is the reason that we try to pursue intimacy with them. However, this passionate love tends to fade over time, usually within eighteen months, and if there hasn’t been any companionship developed, the relationship will extinguish. Desire dopamine is also a huge reason why people are promiscuous and want to pursue more than one partner. Dopamine also has an influence on our friendships because those people that we are compatible with and want to have affiliations with are often the people that we try to schedule into our lives at a future point in time. Lastly, dopamine can also have an affect on work relationships because of the goal-oriented nature that is brought about in the work place. So next time you find yourself scratching your head at a decision that you made in regards to a relationship in your life, dopamine just might be that reason you made that decision.

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