ILLUSTRATIONS BY KATHERINE STREETER
From ecstasy to withdrawal, the lover resembles an addict.
BY HELEN FISHER
“When we want to read of the deeds that are done for love, whither do we turn? To the murder column.”
— George Bernard Shaw
George Bernard Shaw knew the power of romantic love and attachment. Both, I will maintain, are addictions—wonderful addictions when the relationship is going well; horribly negative addictions when the partnership breaks down. Moreover, these love addictions evolved a long time ago, as Lucy and her relatives and friends roamed the grass of east Africa some 3.2 million years ago.
Take romantic love. Even a happy lover shows all of the characteristics of an addict. Foremost, besotted men and women crave emotional and physical union with their beloved. This craving is a central component of all addictions. Lovers also feel a rush of exhilaration when thinking about him or her, a form of “intoxication.” As their obsession builds, the lover seeks to interact with the beloved more and more, known in addiction literature as “intensification.” They also think obsessively about their beloved, a form of intrusive thinking fundamental to drug dependence. Lovers also distort reality, change their priorities and daily habits to accommodate the beloved, and often do inappropriate, dangerous, or extreme things to remain in contact with or impress this special other.
Even one’s personality can change, known as “affect disturbance.” Indeed, many smitten humans are willing to sacrifice for their sweetheart, even die for him or her. And like addicts who suffer when they can’t get their drug, the lover suffers when apart from the beloved—“separation anxiety.”
Trouble really starts, however, when a lover is rejected. Most abandoned men and women experience the common signs of drug withdrawal, including protest, crying spells, lethargy, anxiety, sleep disturbances (sleeping way too much or way too little), loss of appetite or binge eating, irritability, and chronic loneliness.
Lovers also relapse the way addicts do. Long after the relationship is over, events, people, places, songs, or other external cues associated with the abandoning partner can trigger memories. This sparks a new round of craving, intrusive thinking, compulsive calling, writing, or showing up—all in hopes of rekindling the romance. Because romantic love is regularly associated with a suite of traits linked with all addictions, several psychologists have come to believe that romantic love can potentially become an addiction.
When my colleagues reanalyzed our data, we found activity in a brain region linked with all of the addictions.
I think romantic love is an addiction—as I have mentioned, a positive addiction when one’s love is reciprocated, nontoxic, and appropriate; and a disastrously negative addiction when one’s feelings of romantic love are inappropriate, poisonous, unreciprocated, or formally rejected.
“If at first the idea is not absurd, then there is no hope for it,” Einstein reportedly said. Few academics and laymen regard romantic love as an addiction—because they believe that all addictions are pathological and harmful. Data do not support this notion, however. When neuroscientists Andreas Bartels and Semir Zeki compared the brains of happily-in-love participants with the brains of euphoric addicts who had just injected cocaine or opioids, many of the same regions in the brain’s reward system became active. Moreover, when my colleagues reanalyzed our data on 17 men and women who were happily in love, we found activity in the nucleus accumbens (unpublished data), a brain region linked with all of the addictions—including the cravings for heroin, cocaine, nicotine, alcohol, amphetamines, opioids, and even gambling, sex, and food.
Men and women who are intensely and happily in love are addicted to their partner. So my brain-scanning partner, neuroscientist Lucy Brown, has proposed that romantic love is a natural addiction, “a normal altered state” experienced by almost all humans…