Love is typically seen as a positive experience. So, can too much love really be a bad thing? For those struggling with love addiction, the answer is yes.
People with a love addiction are often in love with the feeling of being in love, which triggers compulsive behavior.1 But falling in love is not an act of magic, as some people believe. Instead, it is a complex physiological process that involves hormones, neurotransmitters, and other bodily chemicals.2
Some have theorized about a multi-staged process of falling in love, which begins when a person first feels affection for person. After the initial lust and attraction stages, the two people idealize each other and then attach to each other.3 If they stay together, their love eventually matures and changes. Shared affection and mutual growth as individuals and as a couple contribute to a constructive relationship.4
Some studies have shown that romantic love is a natural addiction that evolved in mammals as a survival mechanism.1 Love is also associated with intense craving, which can lead to negative behaviors.1
People with love addiction seem to never get past the initial stages of falling in love; this gives those with a love addiction a sense of purpose and meaning. They become dependent on their objects of affection,1 hoping that these people will somehow complete their lives. The feeling of falling in love creates an emotional intoxication that deepens the addiction. And this feeling of euphoria or intoxication can result simply from the thought of a lover, which creates a craving for this lover, making the beloved the sole focus of the addict.1
People addicted to love tend to attract love-avoidant partners because both individuals have a fear of being abandoned and controlled.5 Love-avoidant individuals are also emotionally unavailable individuals.5 Avoidant partners are afraid of being smothered by their addicted partners, and they are afraid to show their true emotions.
This is why they tend to enter into relationships with people who lack emotional boundaries or have difficulty thinking for themselves. When someone addicted to love and a love-avoidant person get together, their relationship can trigger feelings of helplessness and hopelessness, chaos and dependency.5 This type of relationship is often rooted in childhood trauma.5
It is important to note that a love addiction is not technically listed as a disorder in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Edition (DSM-5), the standard by which all addictions are assessed, categorized, and treated. However, it tends to fall into the category of compulsive disorders, which the DSM-5 does have a lot to say about. As such, the terminology around love addictions may vary, but the intent is the same: to communicate a dysfunctional set of behaviors focused on something—in this case, love.
What Causes Love Addiction?
Evidence suggests that the psychobiological patterns of love addiction are quite similar to that of drug addiction. Love addiction has both physical and psychological components. The physical aspects of love addiction are linked to chemicals called neurotransmitters,2 which help the brain communicate with the rest of the body.
Love, especially the excitement of new love, triggers the release of these neurotransmitters, stimulating the brain’s reward system.2 The result is feelings of pleasure and excitement, which propel a person to seek more of that pleasure, eventually leading to addiction in some.2
As love addiction progresses, the addicted person seeks out newer and more exciting relationships to achieve this pleasurable feeling. Evidence suggests that the psychobiological patterns of love addiction are quite similar to that of drug addiction.6
Some people develop love addiction as a response to their childhood experiences, particularly childhood trauma when a major caregiver does not relate with the child to develop healthy intimacy.5 When someone receives a lot of love and nurturing as a child, it is likely that the person will develop good self-esteem and healthy relationship boundaries. Consequently, without this nurturing, a child may develop poor self-esteem, lack in confidence, and insecurity.5 Because the brain’s reward system is activated by falling in love, the person experiences pleasure, so someone with love addiction may obsessively seek to regain that pleasurable love state to keep their negative feelings at bay.7
Common Signs and Side Effects of Love Addiction
The signs and symptoms of love addiction vary by individual, and the severity of the symptoms may vary based on personal and environmental factors. People with love addiction may display the following behaviors:8,9
- Constant searching for new romantic partners
- Difficulty spending time alone
- Using sex to keep a partner interested
- Consistently picking partners who are abusive
- Frequently starting relationships with emotionally unavailable people
- Avoiding friends and family members to pursue romantic relationships
- Confusing sex with love
- Feelings of desperation when not in a relationship
- Unhappiness in romantic relationships
- Avoiding relationships for long periods of time
- Constant cycle of whirlwind relationships
- Difficulty leaving bad relationships
- Returning to abusive or emotionally unavailable partners
Not everyone who occasionally exhibits these behaviors has a problem with love addiction. The key to distinguishing love addiction from the normal ups and downs of relationships is the frequency or severity of the behaviors. A person who is unhappy in every relationship has a higher chance of being addicted to love than a person with a few happy relationships and one unhappy relationship.
Without appropriate treatment, love addiction may have physical consequences, since it often leads to unhealthy behavior patterns, including:10
- Engaging in risky sexual behaviors to maintain the interest of an avoidant partner.
- Unexplained physical pain.
- Unhealthy habits to cope with emotional pain.
- Other addictions (sex, drugs, alcohol).
Some unhealthy methods of coping may include alcohol or illicit drug abuse or binge eating. The addicted person may develop alcohol-related complications or eating disorders that carry their own set of harmful physical and emotional consequences.
The emotional pain of losing a loved one or facing rejection often feels overwhelming for this person, and since love addiction involves the same areas of the brain as other types of addiction, this person may easily transition to drugs or alcohol.11
Sex addiction is another possible consequence of love addiction.12 When someone is constantly searching for a relationship, that person might use sex to attract new partners. Of course, participating in sexual activity also activates the pleasure centers of the brain, which increases the chances of developing a sex addiction.
Love addiction affects family, friendships, and romantic relationships too. When family members and friends point out addictive behavior, the addicted person may respond with denial, aggression, or hostility.13 The cycle of addiction will continue with infatuation for a new relationship, followed by periods of highs and lows during which the person may experience reduced self-esteem and exhibit self-destructive behaviors to cope.
This process affects not only the addicted person, but also his or her loved ones, so it is important to seek help to break the cycle of addiction.
Treating Love Addiction
While there are similar traits between love addiction and drug addiction, the treatment options are in some ways similar, yet in other ways different.
One way in which treatment is similar is the use of cognitive behavioral therapy.14 Cognitive behavioral therapy, also known as “talk therapy,” helps someone with dysfunctional emotions or behaviors resolve their problems by understanding the thoughts and beliefs that support certain behaviors and changing them to more positive, helpful ones. The therapist helps the addicted person set treatment goals and develop a systematic plan for changing his or her behavior moving forward. Cognitive-behavioral therapy also helps addicts cope with cravings and avoid high-risk situations.15
One of the most innovative methods of therapy is computer-assisted cognitive-behavioral therapy. Here, a therapist delivers cognitive behavioral therapy via the internet or active voice response system.16 This is not a substitute for face-to-face treatment, but it can help patients take advantage of CBT if they lack transportation or live in an area that does not have any available therapists. This type of therapy costs less than traditional talk therapy, so it may be a suitable option for those who would like to supplement their CBT sessions. Computer-assisted CBT has shown success with anxiety patients, and the approach shows it can be expanded to treating other disorders as well.16
However, an important way in which love addiction treatment differs from drug addiction treatment is that there are no formal programs that currently exist specifically for it. This is because love addiction is not technically named as a clinical disorder, so treating them in these traditional rehab-type settings is tricky, particularly with billing insurance for the treatment. Seek out a licensed therapist with expertise in this area to help you navigate your options.
Overall, though, interacting with the person addicted to love in a kind and supportive manner is one of the most important roles friends and family members can play. Therapy does not take place in a vacuum, meaning that outside influences affect the success of rehabilitation for love addiction, as with many other addictions. When a person addicted to love has support from loved ones, the chances for recovery increase. Fortunately, there are several ways for loved ones to show their support:
- Using nonjudgmental tones and words.
- Offering to attend family therapy sessions.
- Avoiding making accusations.
- Offering support and empathy.
- Avoiding bringing up past behaviors.
Recovering from an addiction can take a toll on a person’s physical and spiritual well-being. The sooner the addicted person receives treatment, the better the outcome. Offering continued support shows an interest in their successful long-term recovery, and remaining involved through the recovery process, along with treatment and coping skills, increases the chances that the person will overcome the addiction.13
- Fisher H. E., Xu X., Aron A., Brown L. L. (2016). Intense, Passionate, Romantic Love: A Natural Addiction? How the Fields That Investigate Romance and Substance Abuse Can Inform Each Other. Frontiers in Psychology, 7(687), 1-10.
- Fisher H., Aron A., Brown L. L. (2005). Romantic Love: An fMRI Study of a Neural Mechanism for Mate Choice. The Journal of Comparative Neurology, 493, 58-62.
- British Broadcasting Corporation. (2014). The Science of Love.
- Simon J. (1982). Love: addiction or road to self-realization, a second look. American Journal of Psychoanalysis, 42(3), 253-63.
- Carnes P. (2013). Don’t Call It Love: Recovery From Sexual Addiction. New York, NY: Random House Publishing Group.
- Sussman S., Reynaud M., Aubin H-J. & Leventhal A. M. (2011). Drug Addiction, Love, and the Higher Power. Evaluation and the Health Professions, 34(3), 362-370.
- Timmreck, T.C. (1990). Overcoming the loss of a love: preventing love addiction and promoting positive emotional health. Psychological Reports, 66(2), 515-28.
- Griffin-Shelley E. (1997). Sex and Love: Addiction, Treatment, and Recovery. Westport, CT: Greenwood Publishing Group.
- Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous. (1990). Characteristics of Sex and Love Addiction.
- Mental Healthy. (n.d.) Love Addiction.
- Peele, S. (2010). Addiction In Society: Blinded by Biochemistry.
- Fong, T. W. (2006). Understanding and Managing Compulsive Sexual Behaviors. Psychiatry (Edgmont), 3(11), 51-58.
- National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence, Inc. (2015). Helping a Family Member or Friend.
- National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2012). Principles of Effective Treatment.
- National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2012). Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (Alcohol, Marijuana, Cocaine, Methamphetamine, Nicotine).
- Craske M. G., Rose R. D., Lang A., Welch S. S., Campbell-Sills L., Sullivan G…Roy-Byrne P. P. (2009). Computer-assisted delivery of cognitive behavioral therapy for anxiety disorders in primary care settings. Depression Anxiety, 26(3), 235–242.
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In the Brain, Romantic Love Is Basically an Addiction
By Helen Fisher | February 13, 2015 11:43 am
“If at first the idea is not absurd, then there is no hope for it,” Albert Einstein reportedly said. I’d like to broaden the definition of addiction—and also retire the scientific idea that all addictions are pathological and harmful.
Since the beginning of formal diagnostics more than fifty years ago, the compulsive pursuit of gambling, food, and sex (known as non-substance rewards) have not been regarded as addictions. Only abuse of alcohol, opioids, cocaine, amphetamines, cannabis, heroin, and nicotine have been formally regarded as addictions. This categorization rests largely on the fact that substances activate basic “reward pathways” in the brain associated with craving and obsession and produce pathological behaviors. Psychiatrists work within this world of psychopathology—that which is abnormal and makes you ill.
Face It, You’re Addicted to Love
As an anthropologist, I think they’re limited by this view. Scientists have now shown that food, sex, and gambling compulsions employ many of the same brain pathways activated by substance abuse. Indeed, the 2013 edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (the DSM) has finally acknowledged that at least one form of non-substance abuse—gambling—can be regarded as an addiction. The abuse of sex and food have not yet been included. Neither has romantic love.
I shall propose that love addiction is just as real as any other addiction, in terms of its behavior patterns and brain mechanisms. Moreover, it’s often a positive addiction.
Scientists and laymen have long regarded romantic love as part of the supernatural, or as a social invention of the troubadours in 12th-century France. Evidence does not support these notions. Love songs, poems, stories, operas, ballets, novels, myths and legends, love magic, love charms, love suicides and homicides—evidence of romantic love has now been found in more than 200 societies ranging over thousands of years. Around the world, men and women pine for love, live for love, kill for love, and die for love. Human romantic love, also known as passionate love or “being in love,” is regularly regarded as a human universal.
Symptoms of Addiction
Moreover, love-besotted men and women show all the basic symptoms of addiction.
Foremost, the lover is stiletto-focused on his/her drug of choice, the love object. The lover thinks obsessively about him or her (intrusive thinking), and often compulsively calls, writes, or stays in touch. Paramount in this experience is intense motivation to win one’s sweetheart, not unlike the substance abuser fixated on the drug.
Impassioned lovers distort reality, change their priorities and daily habits to accommodate the beloved, experience personality changes (affect disturbance), and sometimes do inappropriate or risky things to impress this special other. Many are willing to sacrifice, even die for, “him” or “her.”
The lover craves emotional and physical union with the beloved (dependence). And like addicts who suffer when they can’t get their drug, the lover suffers when apart from the beloved (separation anxiety). Adversity and social barriers even heighten this longing (frustration attraction).
In fact, besotted lovers express all four of the basic traits of addiction: craving, tolerance, withdrawal, and relapse. They feel a “rush” of exhilaration when they’re with their beloved (intoxication). As their tolerance builds, they seek to interact with the beloved more and more (intensification). If the love object breaks off the relationship, the lover experiences signs of drug withdrawal, including protest, crying spells, lethargy, anxiety, insomnia or hypersomnia, loss of appetite or binge eating, irritability, and loneliness.
Lovers, like addicts, also often go to extremes, sometimes doing degrading or physically dangerous things to win back the beloved. And lovers relapse the way drug addicts do. Long after the relationship is over, events, people, places, songs, or other external cues associated with their abandoning sweetheart can trigger memories and renewed craving.
Love on the Mind
Of the many indications that romantic love is an addiction, however, perhaps none is more convincing than the growing data from neuroscience. Using fMRI, several scientists have now shown that feelings of intense romantic love engage regions of the brain’s “reward system”: specifically, dopamine pathways associated with energy, focus, motivation, ecstasy, despair, and craving, including primary regions associated with substance (and non-substance) addictions.
In fact, I and my colleagues Lucy Brown, Art Aron, and Bianca Acevedo have found activity in the nucleus accumbens—the core brain factory associated with all addictions—in rejected lovers. Moreover, some of our newest results suggest correlations between activities of the nucleus accumbens and feelings of romantic passion among lovers who are wildly, happily in love.
Nobel laureate Eric Kandel has noted that brain studies “will give us new insights into who we are as human beings.” Knowing what we now know about the brain, my brain-scanning partner Lucy Brown has suggested that romantic love is a natural addiction, and I’ve maintained that this natural addiction evolved from mammalian antecedents some 4.4 million years ago among our first hominid ancestors, in conjunction with the evolution of (serial, social) monogamy—a hallmark of humankind. Its purpose: to motivate our forebears to focus their mating time and metabolic energy on a single partner at a time, thus initiating the formation of a pair-bond to rear their young (at least through infancy) together as a team.
The sooner we embrace what brain science is telling us—and use this information to upgrade the concept of addiction—the better we’ll understand ourselves and the billions of others on this planet who revel in the ecstasy and struggle with the sorrow of this profoundly powerful, natural, often positive addiction: romantic love.
Excerpted from This Idea Must Die, edited by John Brockman. Used with permission.
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Middle image: Denniro/Shutterstock
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