Why You Get Butterflies In Your Stomach When Falling In Love
When you're first catching feelings for someone special, there's a good chance you'll also catch some butterflies. Not the legit insects, of course, but the fluttery sensation that crops up in your tummy when you make eye contact with your crush from across the room Bridgerton-style.
And you're not just imagining it: There are a few physiological reasons why you experience fluttering in your stomach when you're around a prospective or brand-new love interest — or even a long-term partner. Here, relationship experts break down the science behind the butterflies in your stomach.
What Triggers Butterflies In Your Stomach?
Both internal and external factors can cause that fluttering feeling, says Alexandra H. Solomon, Ph.D., a licensed clinical psychologist, clinical assistant professor in the department of psychology at Northwestern University, and expert on love and relationships. Thinking about a crush and wondering what your first date will lead to, getting an out-of-the-blue compliment from a new partner, and brushing hands can all bring about that tingling sensation in your gut, she explains. "It kind of creates that rush of anticipation and anxiety," says Solomon. Translation: Butterflies can take flight in your stomach both when you're nervous about what's to come and when you're sexually aroused.
What's more, a moment that once gave you butterflies can have the same effect years down the road. For example, Solomon says she still feels butterflies when she thinks about a rom-com-like moment that took place with her husband nearly 30 years ago. And reminiscing on these types of swoon-worthy scenarios can prove beneficial. "Those early shiny moments become the foundation for a long-term relationship," says Solomon. "They become the positive memories that help you when you're having a difficult or frustrating moment or things are far more ordinary and mundane than perhaps they are in the beginning." (Related: The Natural Stages of a Relationship, According to a Therapist)
The Science Behind Butterflies In Your Stomach
So, what's actually causing that fluttering in your stomach? The sensation may be due to increased levels of the substance norepinephrine throughout your body's central nervous system, says Helen E. Fisher, Ph.D., a biological anthropologist, senior research fellow at The Kinsey Institute, and expert on the science of romantic love. Norepinephrine functions both as a hormone and neurotransmitter (re: a molecule that sends messages between nerve cells), and it's released in response to stress and, potentially, attraction, according to research published in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences. Remember: Your brain struggles to determine the difference between fear and arousal, and research shows norepinephrine, which is primarily linked to danger and fear, may also be associated with romantic attraction.
Whether it's activated when you're anxiously waiting for your date to arrive or when your S.O. strokes your arm, this surge in norepinephrine kickstarts your body's fight-or-flight response. In turn, your heart rate increases, you feel more alert and energetic, and you may even lose your appetite — characteristics that are all commonly associated with romantic love, according to the Philosophical Transactions research. In addition, you may feel those butterflies in your stomach, says Fisher. These physiological changes are supposed to help you survive stressful and life-threatening situations, but when it comes to love, this sudden focus and alertness is believed to help you impress the potential mate you're swooning over, according to information published by Oakland University.
Dopamine — a substance closely related to norepinephrine — may also play a role in launching your butterflies. Known as the "feel-good" hormone, dopamine makes you feel happy and motivated, and it's released when you engage in pleasurable activities, such as sex or spending time with a potential partner, according to the Cleveland Clinic. And both of these chemicals may be linked with feelings of romantic love, which, in general, "produces a lot of physical reactions, among them the butterflies, a dry mouth, weak knees, stammering, and other responses," says Fisher.
These chemicals may also originate in the gut itself, which could create those butterfly feelings, adds Solomon. "There's a profound connection between our brains and our guts," she says. ICYDK, the digestive system has its own nervous system called the enteric nervous system (ENS), and it's been nicknamed the body's "second brain," according to information published by Loyola Medicine. The ENS is connected to your actual brain via nerve pathways and shares the same neurotransmitters (including dopamine) to communicate and, in turn, control digestion. Thanks to this direct line of communication, stress and other emotions can impact the gut, according to Loyola Medicine. "That's why sometimes if you feel nervous, you'll have GI distress or have that 'gut feeling,'" says Solomon. For the same reason, feeling aroused, excited, or anxious about spending time with your potential or new partner could create swoon-like sensations in your stomach.
Are Butterflies In the Stomach a Good Sign?
To some folks, a lack of butterflies could be seen as a red flag that their potential partner isn't a good match or that the spark has left a marriage. Others believe experiencing the fluttering feeling is a warning sign, though it shouldn't be perceived this way, says Solomon. "There's a train of thought from dating coaches who will say that butterflies in your tummy is actually a red flag, meaning that this is somebody who's activating your old traumas and the butterflies in your tummy are actually your woundedness recognizing their woundedness," says Solomon.
On the flip side, not experiencing butterflies shouldn't be perceived as a red flag, either. If you're not noticing any butterflies, you might simply be a person who steps — not falls — into love, she adds. "Perhaps it's just that you are more discerning, a little more restrained, and you don't do a lot of high highs and low lows," she explains. "I think there are individual differences in how we enter intimate relationships that have more to say about who we are as people and less to say about who the other person is and the viability of the relationship."
In the end, a feeling of butterflies in your stomach — or lack thereof — shouldn't determine the fate of your relationship. "I neither want people to think the absence of butterflies is a poor prognostic indicator nor do I want people to think that the presence of butterflies is a poor prognostic indicator," says Solomon. "I think it's one piece of a much larger, more complicated puzzle." (Related: Expert-Backed Tips to Go from a Casual to Committed Relationship — If That's What You Want)
FTR, it's totally normal for those butterflies you experienced when you first started dating to fade as time goes on. Early in relationships, couples often have a lot of spontaneous sexual desire — that feeling of "I want to jump your bones right this second." But as the relationship progresses, that sexual desire generally shifts to become more responsive (think: you're not really in the mood, but it's Saturday night and you normally do the deed then), says Solomon. "That's a shift that's expected, and it would be accompanied by a decrease or disappearance of the butterflies in the tummy feeling," she explains. "It doesn't mean you're broken, your partner's broken, and the relationship is doomed. It just means that you're ushering in a phase where you have to — and you get to — actively work together to cultivate a happy, healthy, erotic environment."
Still, the idea of those swoony sensations fading can be disheartening. That's why Solomon encourages you to instead focus on what you're gaining in the relationship, such as the comfort and safety of having your "person" in your corner. "You may be losing your butterflies, but what you're gaining is a person who is in the front row of your life, a supporter, a cheerleader, a companion, and a lover," she says.