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Intimacy educator Shan Boodram unpacks the science of love, desire, and everything in between.
NOT SO LONG ago, I became deeply infatuated with someone. I subsisted on very little sleep, yet ran on endless energy. My productivity went haywire. I lost my appetite and with it a substantial amount of weight. I floated through the world, high on lovesickness, feeling somewhere between immortal and on the brink of death. And just as quickly as these feelings arrived, they faded. An endlessly familiar tale, no?
Ever since, I’ve been fascinated by the power of obsession, desire, and infatuation — by the science of love and its complex psychology. And curious to understand why, why, those feelings never seem to last. I recently connected with intimacy educator Shan Boodram, whose work focuses on the intersection of psychology and sexology. In a candid conversation, she touched on the layered mechanics behind love and passion, their cultural conceptions, and how to practice both. Here’s what she had to say.
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What is actually happening to our brains and bodies when we fall for someone?
It’s important for people to understand that love is not a feeling. Feelings ebb and flow based on circumstances. So I could be talking to you right now and feeling good. If the connection went out, I would feel irritated. Love actually is more like a neurological condition that’s present all the time, regardless of how conditions change or don’t. Once your brain has decided that it loves somebody, it keeps an extremely strong hold on you. Once your brain makes that pair bond, it’s very difficult to break it.
Similar to how people had to adjust their mindset around food from "Well, if I’m hungry or I desire food, it must be good for me" to acknowledge that that was based on thousands and thousands of years ago, when we were in a much different circumstance. I think the same thing with love, that there was a function before that made sense, that just kept you illogically linked to people (a commitment device to keep people together, bonded long enough to survive, to thrive, and to procreate). But now, as times have changed and we’re no longer in fight or flight constantly, we can choose to be more discerning in love. But I think it starts with acknowledging that, at the base of it all, love is not as much of a choice as it’s positioned in society.
What’s the relationship between love and desire?
Desire inherently implies choice. And oftentimes, when we’re in love with people, we don’t necessarily choose all that much. So I don’t feel uncomfortable using love and addiction interchangeably. As much as I love my husband, I am also addicted to my husband. I feel withdrawal if I’m not around him. If I don’t see him for a certain amount of time, I feel uneasy. If things aren’t good between us, I feel uncomfortable. That isn’t just desire, I don’t just desire to have a great relationship with him. There are other biological factors at play that make it so that this becomes an obsession of mine; it becomes a preoccupation of mine.
So I think that it’s somewhere in between obsession, similar to addiction. I’m addicted to air. I know that’s not a good psychological use of the term because we want to reserve that obviously for cases that need medical intervention. But there’s a lot of things that we require; not all of those dependencies are negative. So am I addicted and obsessed with my husband? Sure. Do I view that as unhealthy? No, because of our dynamic and our interaction. But it can definitely skew that way, even if you don’t desire it to.
Dr. Esther Perel has a really beautiful explanation for the kind of conundrum that happens between love and desire, in that love wants to be close and desire needs space. It’s a fire, it needs air to breathe, it needs air to grow. And so our desire to be as close as possible to our partner, in a loving way, conflicts with our need to have a sense of separation — where lust and desire can come from.
Why do these intense feelings never seem to last?
Dr. Helen Fisher talks about the seven-year itch and the biological basis for why that exists, why the chemical cocktails that happen to keep and draw people together to form passionate love wane when it goes to companionate love. She gave a really beautiful explanation: If we continued to feel that rush of emotion and that obsession, that desire, that lust, that draw, that we did in the beginning, it would effectively shorten our lifespan. Because, each time, you’re getting a rush of adrenaline, your stress hormone is going up. This damages tissue over time. So imagine if you’re living in constant anxiety, the butterflies-in-your-stomach feeling.
So it’s actually not sustainable to exist in the passionate love sector. There’s a function for it. I don’t want to speak across the board, because obviously there’s no universal experience. I’m sure there are some couples who, 30 years later, still get butterflies each time they walk by each other. That’s not my experience at all. We went from a very passionate experience to now a very companionate love. And we had to acknowledge that there was going to be a difference in our responses to each other, and, as a result, a difference in how we had to act.
What does it mean to go from passionate to companionate love?
When you first get into a relationship, you’re on a roller coaster and all you have to do is throw your hands up. And then, after a certain period of time, when love turns companionate, you’re now in a go-kart. And someone’s got to push and someone’s got to be behind the wheel. And you have to be really intentional about where you’re going and how you’re going to get there.
A lot of people, in not understanding that this is probably naturally going to happen in your body, just by the way that we’re set up, get disappointed. And they feel like, well, I’m not on the roller coaster anymore. That must mean love is over. The ride is over. The thrill is over. We can’t get it back. When in truth, you can; you just have to be a lot more intentional. And maybe the thrill doesn’t feel quite the same, but it’s beautiful in a very different way.
It’s not dissimilar from what you probably do in your existing life. When you go to the gym, you might have your go-to workouts, but you change it up slightly to shock the body to get a different response. You might have your favorite meal, but sometimes you make it spicy, sometimes you add different noodles. You make small variations. If you just never make any adjustments, you’re going to get bored of something. It’s the same thing with relationships; you have to look for high novelty-seeking experiences together. Doing new things, trying new stuff, putting yourselves in new environments, taking yourself outside of what’s familiar.
What are some ways to recreate the novelty of passionate love?
When you’re in that companionate phase or you’re out of that passionate love phase, you have to manufacture the risk and reward elements in your brain. You have to create novel experiences. You can’t expect the first time that you ate your favorite meal to be as amazing as the 400th time that you eat it. But maybe there’s a new pairing of wine that you add. That’s the benefit of the human brain too — you don’t have to go to extremes.
Similar to sex, it’s not always as drastic as like, “We have to open the marriage up.” Sometimes it can be as simple as, “We're having sex on the left side of the bed this time” or “We’re doing it in the kitchen” or “We’re buying a red light bulb and screwing that in” or “We’re going to buy a projector and play porn on the wall while we have sex together.” Doesn’t matter what it is — those small adjustments can do wonders in terms of reigniting that risk and reward center in the brain and giving you that dopamine rush to give you that sense of newness, that sense of lust and desire again.
When you’re in that companionate phase or you’re out of that passionate love phase, you have to manufacture the risk and reward elements in your brain. You have to create novel experiences.
One of my favorite notes on how to freshen things up as a couple — because a lot of people think it’s like, just go on a date night together, go to the movies once a week — studies actually show that it’s more impactful to go on a double date than a single date. That’s because you’re putting your partner in an environment to behave differently. Because even if you change the environment, the dynamic is still consistent between the two of you. So you’re not always likely to see them in a different light just because you’re sitting at a different dinner table. But if you add in new characters, new factors, that gives you an opportunity to see a new side of them, that’s where you get the benefits.
What’s your advice for how to engage in a conversation around needs?
First and foremost, it’s acknowledging: Where are you right now? How comfortable are you really? And have you made assumptions based on structures that are not about the people involved in the relationship, but assumptions that people have made about love previously? So that’s a good checkpoint, to be like, “Hey, have I actually ever asked my partner how they felt? And did I ask in a way that was genuinely led by curiosity? Or was it clear that I had an idea of what I wanted them to say?”
So it’s being open for all of it to happen, and doing your very best to genuinely remain curious about this other person, who, as much as you might think you know, you can never fully know — because they’re always changing their mind, their values, their beliefs, and their goals. So if you keep that at top of mind, and you lead with curiosity, try to be less goal-oriented in conversations ... that will help tremendously in allowing a space where uncomfortable things can be said.
Partner aside, how can individuals feel more tapped into their own desirability?
I think where we can get more proactive about desire is acknowledging that the same factors influencing other people’s desires, like, oh, I like this body type and this look and these clothes, in terms of trendiness and exposure, are impacting us as well. I love the TikTok trend of main-character energy. If you’re a person of color, you don’t naturally exist in a world that’s giving you main-character energy. You’re sidekick, you’re best friend, you’re store clerk number 68. So you’ve got to be more purposeful in turning away from these programs and engaging in content that centers yourself and allows you to see yourself as a main character.
If I go through my own Instagram feed of people I follow aspirationally, because I like how they look or dress, we have a lot more in common than dissimilar. If I lived in a world where I’m the odd person out, then it’d be difficult for me to desire myself because I don’t see that desire reflected anywhere else. Once you create that space where you naturally are the star of your life, and you see other examples where people look like you, are similar to you, are positioned in a similar star position, that can really help with self-desire.
I’m following a ton of pregnant people right now because I’m currently pregnant. So I want to see those people in bikinis. I want to see those people living their best life. I don’t necessarily need to see an 18-year-old, because I’m not going to be that person. I want to continue to center myself and look at myself as worthy and desirable. And then it extends out to having your partner affirm that too. It might also be asking and looking at their stimulus, to say, “Hey, are you also affirming, in your own world, that people who look like me or who have my archetype or who have things in common with me, you’re also desiring?”
I exist in a topic area that traditionally people don’t care about. Which is bizarre to say, because everybody has experiences that are intimate. In my generation, if you sought out sex advice or relationship advice, it was because there was a problem. If you went to therapy, it’s because there was a problem. It’s not how it is today, where these are part of strategies for a healthy life, for better living. These are the new conversations that are being had — where everybody’s invited to the table.
Check out Shan Boodram’s podcast, “Lovers & Friends.” In her words: “It’s the kinds of conversations around sex, love, relationships, and attachments that I have been dying to have, in the exact way that I want to. Each episode is always multiperspective, really examining one singular topic at a time.”
Sophie Mancini is a New York based writer. Under the New York Times’ creative agency, she helped lead the relaunch of Departures Magazine, where she then went on to become the food editor. Her background spans editorial, brand, and books.
Bethany Mollenkof is a commercial director and editorial photographer based in Los Angeles. She specializes in portraiture and intimate, visual glimpses of the world around us.
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