Have you ever stayed in a bad relationship or repeatedly returned to an ex even when you knew it wasn’t a good idea? When you’re in a committed relationship do you wonder if you’ve chosen the right one? Have you ever fantasized about someone from your past, thinking you should have kept them around? If you answered “yes” to any of the above, you just might be addicted to love.
It may sound ridiculous, but love addiction is a thing, and it can be as destructive, at least emotionally, as substance abuse. Love addicts enter each relationship with desperate hopes and constant fears that may eventually lead to their downfall. Fearing rejection, pain, and having little faith in their ability to receive love, they wait and wish for love, yet when they have it, they sabotage it.
The causes of love addiction are fairly easy to identify: low self-esteem, absence of positive role models for committed relationships, and obsession with the “happily ever after.” But neuroscience is beginning to offer considerable evidence that while love addiction stems from past experiences, it’s also rooted deep in the brain, and more specifically, it’s the result of the brain’s reward circuitry.
Anyone that has ever fallen in love knows the feeling — sleeplessness, loss of appetite, the feeling of euphoria, and the willingness to take risks that you wouldn’t normally consider. It’s an experience of feeling high not unlike the effect induced by narcotics, and it’s mighty addictive.
“Romantic love is an addiction,” says Helen Fisher, a biological anthropologist at Rutgers University. “My guess is that our modern addictions — nicotine, drugs, sex, gambling — are simply hijacking this ancient brain pathway that evolved millions of years ago, that evolved for romantic love. The brain system evolved to focus your energy on an individual and start the mating process.”
Coincidently, people in the early throes of love have brain activity identical to that of a drug addict in need of a fix. It’s involuntary. The brain’s fear alert system (the amygdala) along with our judgment and reasoning system (the anterior cingulate cortex and prefrontal cortex) are nearly muted while the neurotransmitter dopamine (the “pleasure chemical”) floods the brain’s pleasure and reward centers. What’s more, brain circuits associated with states of obsession, mania, and recklessness also become activated. Interestingly, amphetamines, cocaine, and opiates like heroin, morphine, and OxyContin, trigger these same neural circuits.
When that rush of dopamine is released and the reward circuit of the brain is triggered, our brain fires a message to our consciousness saying, “Pay attention to what’s happening and start craving this experience because it’s important.” And therein lies the reason we love the excitement and newness of blossoming relationships. The first kiss, cuddling, sex, or even just a mere touch is more exciting during the infatuation stages of relationships because the brain recognizes it as reward. As the relationship continues, love addicts need more and more affirmation to keep the high going, not unlike substance abuse users. When the relationship ends, the effects are no different than those felt during a drug withdrawal.
“Nobody gets out of love alive,” Fisher says. “You turn into a menace or a pest when you’ve been rejected. That’s when people stalk or commit suicide. There’s a very powerful brain system that has a dramatic effect on your entire life.”
To test this, Fisher recruited 15 college-aged heterosexual men and women still going through the pain of a recent breakup. On average, the participants had separated about two months prior to the study, and all of them said they were still in love. Each participant was given pictures of their ex lover while researchers used functional MRI to take a closer look at the behavior of their brains. The parts of their brain that bustled with activity were the same ones associated with cocaine and nicotine addiction, physical pain and distress, and attachment.
“You just crave this person. You’re willing to do crazy things, stupid things,” Fisher says. Just as like someone fighting a drug addiction, a lovelorn individual obsesses over their loss, craves the other person, and in this craze distorts reality. This in turn arouses desires to repair the broken relationship and repent for past mistakes, as well as a willingness to tolerate anything to re-connect with the lost partner. The second that you see or hear from the ex lover again, this incites hope and your brain automatically recognizes it as a reward — dopamine is replenished, the high is back, and our better judgment is suppressed.
Similarly, love addicts who are in committed relationships experience these same feelings. According to Suzanne Phillips, a licensed psychologist specializing in love addiction, love addicts tend to obsess over maintaining the connection, approval, or even fantasized attachment to a partner. These relationships are built on rigid and demanding versions of the other person, but unfortunately, the ability to trust is absent. Instead, there’s an inability to hold on to positive feelings about oneself or about the love of the partner.
Often anxiety is colored by jealousy and paranoid fears. A good evening, or even a great vacation, never holds. It always just ends up being a temporary fix for negative feelings of insecurity, despair, and fear of abandonment. In turn, the relationship is a cycle of euphoria, depression, and self-sabotage — the love addict denies reality and endlessly searches for a flicker of the early magic while tolerating anything to get it. The constant and insistent demands for reassurance ultimately ignite rejection, rage, and threaten to disconnect the sufferer from their partner.
Healthy relationships are the opposite. Couples go from the euphoria of the infatuation stage to a loving commitment, understanding, and acceptance of the other — faults and all.
WHAT STOPS ADDICTIVE RELATIONSHIPS?
Knowing why the brain does what it does during love addiction cannot change the unconscious drive of wanting to attach, at all costs — but it does help. If it really is an addiction, it has to be treated as one. And that’s usually a matter of spending time and space away from what’s causing the addiction.
According to Fisher, the age-old adage that “as time goes on, the pain fades away” is spot on, and there’s scientific evidence to support it. “Time does heal,” Fisher says, explaining that as more time passed, activity in the parts of the brain associated with attachment and addiction decreased. “People have always said time heals and we’ve proven it.”
The point is this: The drive to fall in love will always be hovering in the background. Being in love, however, is an incredibly elusive thing, and its ultimate success depends on more than the sporadic, euphoric rush. It requires emotionally healthy individuals. As a relationship progresses and the process unfolds, the brain needs less of the pleasure chemicals to spark the reward circuitry. Love evolves into a constant, emotional bond, one that is impervious to temporary highs and lows. We may not strike gold on the first, second, or even the 17th attempt — and that’s OK, because somewhere between time and experience, devastation and despair, we’ll figure things out.