New relationships energy, also talked about as NRE, is the emotional experience at the beginning of a sexual and/or romantic relationship. While the term is most popular in poly communities, it is also a feature of the start of most monogamous relationships. It includes heightened emotional and sexual excitement, and sometimes obsessive thoughts and urges to be intensely connected with the other person. So, what is really going on? That depends on what is important to you. Some people get really focused on the hormones and chemicals floating around our bodies. It is true that there is some great data about the effects of falling in lust and love on our hormones. Others are more focused on emotions and behaviours, and there is a lot to see there too. People starting a new relationship often start to behave in different ways, changing their sleep, hobbies, habits and lives.
Chemicals? What chemicals?
Some authors have likened falling in love with taking cocaine because the hormones that our bodies produce are similar. There is no question that many people experience euphoria when falling in love — oft coupled with the anxiety that the object of our affection may not feel the same way. Lust has been known to activate the sex hormones of testosterone and estrogen, often increasing sexual desire. Meanwhile, attraction increases dopamine production, part of the body’s reward system. This means that when you see or think of the object of your affection your brain gets a dose of dopamine, which creates a positive feedback loop effectively rewarding you for seeking contact, thinking about the person and being in their presence. These hormones can affect sleep, eating, and focus. Unsurprisingly, they make being around or otherwise connected to the person feel amazing. Interestingly, serotonin levels can drop in this period, which makes doing things unrelated to the object of your affection *less* rewarding than normal. If you were thinking about this in visual terms, the days where you saw your new sweetie would be in full intense colour, while the days that you didn’t see them all the colour would be washed out.
Alongside the dopamine-induced high of NRE, oxytocin and vasopressin start to kick in when you begin to get attached to your new sweetie. Those chemicals are all about bonding. They are the same ones that are released during sex, childbirth, and breastfeeding. They create the desire to create less sexual and more enduring forms of connection and closeness.
What about emotion?
Whatever the cause, being in new relationship energy can make someone almost obsessively focused on the object of their desire. The new and exploratory phase of the relationship is when you are each learning about the other. Many people love the rush of being seen as new and novel by this fascinating new person. There is something profound about being seen in a whole new light, and finding out who we are in relation to this person. Many people in NRE are consumed by the desire to share all the intimate details of themselves and to learn all the intimate details of the other person. You can see this phase as the ‘information dump’, since it is often focused around exchanges of personal histories and sharing the meaning of important stories. The rapid sharing of deeply personal and intimate information, especially as facilitated by access to instant communication by email, chat, text and phone, can feed NRE and intensify already powerful desires for connection and closeness.
There is also an erotic charge created by the unknownness of the other person. Esther Perel talks about this in Mating in Captivity when she contrasts the easy eroticism with a new partner with the difficulty of feeling enough space from an established partner to have erotic feelings. It is the fact that this new relationship is not yet settled and stable that reinforces the erotic charge. It literally creates erotic risk, and peak sexual and emotional experiences occur when balancing the right combination of erotic risk and safety. If you want to read more about these ideas you can find them in Ecstasy is Necessary by Barbara Carelis.
As you can imagine, all these emotions and chemicals can make it difficult to make balanced decisions about life and relationships. Consequently, next post will be about the potential pitfalls of NRE.