Stephanie Cacioppo: ‘We knew it was love… we had the science to prove it’

She was an expert on love; he was an authority on loneliness. And when brain specialists Stephanie Ortigue and John Cacioppo met, the chemistry was instant. But, as Stephanie tells Anna Moore, their blissful romance was to be all too brief.

Stephanie Ortigue was jet-lagged and recovering from flu when she arrived in Shanghai from Geneva to present a paper at a neuroscience conference in 2011. Stephanie was almost 37 and a respected research professor of psychology, whose specialist subject was love.

She had spent years exploring what love does to the brain, identifying a ‘love network’ of 12 separate regions, which triggers not just euphoria but a cascade of other positive results – pain suppression, more compassion, enhanced language and memory, greater creativity. Her work showed that romantic love was a superpower which made the brain thrive, yet Stephanie had lived all her adult life without it. Stubbornly single, she’d never had a serious boyfriend and wasn’t interested in looking.

In the conference that day, she found herself seated beside a man whose work she knew well. John Cacioppo, a distinguished professor from the University of Chicago, was an academic celebrity, well known for his work on loneliness – it was he who had found it to be as deadly as smoking a packet of cigarettes a day. Like Stephanie, though, John didn’t practise what he preached. Twice married, twice divorced, he had decided he couldn’t give a partner the time and attention they needed and deserved. He was married to his work. For 20 minutes, Dr Loneliness and Dr Love sat in silence, then he turned to her and said, ‘If I start snoring, punch me!’ They began to talk… and didn’t stop. ‘I was mesmerised by his smiling eyes,’ says Stephanie. ‘I could dive into his eyes and stay there for hours.’

Stephanie Ortigue and John Cacioppo wedding
Lunch break at an academic conference in Paris in 2011 turned into an impromptu wedding for John and Stephanie

In her fascinating and heartbreaking new book Wired For Love, Stephanie has set out what it’s like to spend years studying love from the outside then eventually get caught in its force field – only to tragically lose that love within a few years.

When we speak, she is no longer based in Geneva, but living alone in Oregon in the US, in a house surrounded by woodland. This is where she spent lockdown and where she wrote the book, which wasn’t easy – many of its details would be news to her closest friends.

‘I wrote it as a tribute to John, to keep his spirit alive, and I hope that shines through,’ she says in her quiet French accent. ‘I don’t see it as my story. Love and heartbreak are universal, it happens to so many others. If I can help even one person survive the ordeal of losing the love of their life, it’s worth it.’

Stephanie was working with brain-injured patients in Geneva when she was struck by the way in which love could provide them with the strength and drive to recover. She began to focus her research on how love impacts the brain.

A naturally solitary child, Stephanie says she had ‘grown up believing it was my fate to be alone. So once I began to explore the neuroscience of love, I thought that this was why I was meant to be single. I could be entirely objective. I saw love as this mysterious phenomenon in need of an explanation. My solitude was a kind of badge of honour rather than a burden.’

Meeting John blasted that away within hours. From that first encounter in the conference room, followed by three hours of nonstop talking at the evening reception, then a moonlit walk back to their separate hotel rooms, Stephanie experienced physical symptoms she’d never felt before. As a neuroscientist, she understood the biological fireworks behind them. Dopamine was flooding her brain’s ‘reward circuit’ to create euphoria. Her heart rate was elevated, adrenaline was expanding the capillaries in her cheeks to make her flush. Her norepinephrine levels were spiking, allowing her to focus intensely on their conversation with an excited, nervous energy that made her lose track of time.

Did knowing the bald biological facts beneath the sensations make it less magical? The answer is no. ‘Imagine you are a rocket scientist who knows everything required for going to space, who one day finds themselves in space,’ she says. ‘Does that dampen your sensation? No – because it’s so unbelievable, so mesmerising and exciting, the sensations are so overwhelming. You have a deeper appreciation because you know how it works!’

For a few months, their relationship was long distance – by phone and email – with intense reunions on the conference circuit, which could be anywhere in the world. On paper, it wasn’t a perfect match. They lived on different continents and there was quite an age gap – John was 60, Stephanie 37. They were both consumed by their work. However, Stephanie’s years of research had taught her enough to embrace what she’d found.

In September 2011, they married in Paris in a spontaneous, ad-hoc ceremony. John was there for an academic conference and Stephanie had come to see him when he learned that a fellow attendee had been ordained to officiate weddings. Stephanie rushed off to buy a white dress and the ceremony took place in the Jardin du Luxembourg, during John’s lunch break. The conference metamorphosed into a wedding party: a professor of public health gave Stephanie away; a sociologist stepped up as official photographer.

‘It was a magical moment, like a dream,’ says Stephanie. ‘I remember Jack, who gave me away, asking, “Are you worried?” I thought for a second and realised, “No, I’m not!” What I felt in that moment was peace and joy. I think I said something generic, like, “When you know, you know!” It was one of the best days of my life.’

It was followed by the best years. There was no honeymoon. Stephanie moved to Chicago to be with John and started work at the same university. They shared an office, happily working 13-hour days side by side, co-writing articles and mentoring the same students. ‘We were living proof of our science,’ she says. ‘We did everything together and we were doing things better – at least, I was doing better with John than by myself. I was more productive, I had better ideas faster. It was a life lesson for me.’

Stephanie Ortigue and John Cacioppo fishing
The couple on a fishing trip in Aspen, Colorado, 2017

Outside work, they were also inseparable. ‘We cooked together, ran together, shopped for food together,’ she says. ‘We had spent too long without each other to want to spend time apart. We woke up with a smile and went to bed with a smile. It felt like I was walking on sunshine – or on dopamine!’

In 2015, that happiness was cut short. What had initially felt to John like toothache had become a persistent pain in his cheek. He’d seen a doctor, a dentist, then been given a CT scan which led to the diagnosis of a rare cancer, stage 4, of the salivary gland.

Stephanie remembers the moment John’s consultant called to deliver the news. ‘At first it was very emotional,’ she says. ‘We cried, we held each other. But within that first hour, we really put our scientist hats on and tried to be rational. “OK, what are the facts?” We looked at the odds, the latest therapies, the best doctors to provide some slivers of hope. Then we really tried to apply our science of love and connection to help us get through this ordeal together.’

John’s treatment was brutal. The eight-hour surgery on his cheek followed by chemotherapy and radiation initially required a seven-week stay in hospital. Stephanie moved in, too, and slept beside him in his hospital bed. At one point, John became so sick and skeletal, he was fed by a gastrostomy tube straight into his stomach.

After 14 weeks, though, he was in remission. Stephanie believes love played a part here – her book cites plenty of research which shows that people in happy, long-term romantic relationships sleep better, have better immunity, suffer fewer recurrent strokes and have better survival rates for some diseases, including certain cancers. Blister wounds have even been shown to heal faster when tended with love – probably because of the connection between oxytocin (the so-called ‘bonding’ hormone) and the immune system.

‘We were really thinking of love as a superpower in those last years,’ says Stephanie. ‘I must have drunk too much of my own Kool-Aid. I thought that, somehow, we’d made the impossible possible by surviving stage 4 cancer.’

It was not to be. The cancer returned and spread to John’s lungs. On 5 March 2018, he died suddenly at home. John had woken in the night coughing – he managed to say ‘I love you’ before losing consciousness. Stephanie administered CPR until the paramedics arrived and took over. When they stopped the resuscitation, Stephanie begged them to continue, then tried again herself. At some point she stopped, too, and instead began screaming.

It’s a harrowing read. Stephanie doesn’t hide how low she became. Without John, she struggled to do anything – step outside their apartment, eat, even make a cup of coffee. She contemplated suicide. ‘Without John, everything I had meant nothing,’ she says. ‘All I needed was him. I once thought that I could do anything if I put my mind to it but now my mind was so lonely and depressed, my body was hurting, my heart was burning.’

She was lost in a fog of grief, but her husband had been a loneliness expert and he’d left reminders on how to recover. Stephanie recalls finding one YouTube video in particular where John was speaking at a convention about losing a loved one. It wasn’t ‘time’ that healed, he said, it was actions and reaching out to other people.

A key turning point for Stephanie was sending an SOS message to an old friend she trusted to give practical, unsentimental advice. One way this friend helped her was by pushing her to exercise. ‘If you can’t change your mind, the first thing to do is to train your body,’ she said. She began running six miles a day (at first it was mainly walking).

When she was in better shape, she returned to an old love, tennis. Knowing the importance of social connection, she joined a women’s doubles league instead of her usual singles. Slowly, surely, she was back in the world.

It was the pandemic that prompted her to leave Chicago for Oregon. John and Stephanie loved the state and had once talked of retiring there. ‘When Covid hit, I needed hope, I needed space, I needed peace to go through this,’ she says. Her life sounds solitary but also packed with projects and research aims – and filled with John. ‘I still see myself as his wife,’ she says. ‘He’s in my mind and in my heart.’ Every day, she remembers moments they shared and conversations they had.

One seems especially poignant. It happened very early in their relationship, before they married, during a rendezvous in Germany. Over dinner, John had expressed grave doubts about their age gap. As Dr Loneliness, his biggest fear was that Stephanie would have to live decades without him after his death. His work with widowers told him that he couldn’t, in good conscience, marry Stephanie knowing this was the likely outcome. Stephanie – as Dr Love – argued back: they were both so happy, they fitted together… how could age possibly keep them apart?

It must be a bittersweet memory. ‘I’m telling you this with tears in my eyes, but we were both right,’ says Stephanie. She has now known the loneliness John feared most of all – but the love made it worthwhile. ‘It’s hard without him and I can’t hide that… it’s really difficult,’ she says, her voice stumbling for a few seconds. ‘But the beauty of it is that all the love he gave me is still here. If I had to do it all over again, of course I would.’

The science of love

Stephanie explains three of its biggest brain-boosting benefits…

It makes you creative

Couples report that being with their partner makes them think faster and be more creative. In many measurable ways, couples in love enjoy cognitive benefits. Love facilitates the type of brainstorming that leads to innovation; the so-called love hormone oxytocin enhances creative performance; and ‘love priming’ – for example, asking participants to imagine taking a long walk with their beloved – helps them tackle intellectual challenges unrelated to their relationship.

It helps you heal

I realised that love plays an important role in the workings of the brain when I met 71-year-old Hugette, a successful painter. She suffered a serious stroke in the right parietal lobe, which makes sense of what we see and contains the VIP (the ventral intraparietal zone), which directs our eye gaze and helps orient our spatial attention to our surroundings. Her mind’s eye could only pay attention to objects on her right.

In rehab I made her, quite literally, sketch out new connections in the brain, using its natural power to adapt to tap into preserved, healthy regions and create new links that would compensate for the damage. When we placed a photo of a beloved family member on her neglected left side, she noticed it more easily than an image of an object or anonymous person. The positive associations triggered a powerful response, activating the brain’s limbic system, which manages emotions and memories, picking up on signals and sending them to the parietal lobe: love gave her brain the ‘push’ she needed to overcome her attentional deficit.

It eases pain

Compared to single people, those in healthy long-term relationships sleep better, have better immune function, exhibit fewer addictive behaviours, suffer fewer recurrent strokes and have a better survival rate for some diseases.

Being with your partner when they are suffering actually changes the biological reality of their medical experience. Love activates the brain’s reward centres, releasing oxytocin and a cascade of other hormones, neurochemicals and natural opioids that help our body heal and our mind deal with pain.

Wired for Love by Stephanie Cacioppo will be published by Little, Brown on 7 April, price £20. To order a copy for £17 until 17 April, go to mailshop.co.uk/books or call 020 3176 2937. Free UK delivery on orders over £20.