The Shadow Side of Falling In Love: The Power That Drives Addictions to Love, Sex and Romance

By Athena Staik, Ph.D.

Forever-April-1__97671_zoomWhereas genuine love fosters a mutually empathic connection between two persons, one that nourishes the mental, physical and emotional growth and capacity for compassion and self-actualization of each, the neurochemistry of love relationships can morph into a dangerous mix of drugs more difficult to part with than alcohol, cocaine or heroine.

These feel-good hormones can steal our ability to make optimal choices, and hold our authentic wise-self (frontal cortex) captive, in a virtual prison of sorts, deceived by subconscious, limiting beliefs and illusions of love and power. These physical signals consist of a potent mix of chemicals that seem to have the power to relegate our otherwise amazing human brain and body — a sophisticated communication system like no other — into a slave driver that steals our ability to make healthy choices or consider the costs, with its vehement and intoxicating demands for feel-good fixes.

A meta-analysis study by researchers at Syracuse University revealed that the “falling in love” state takes only about a fifth of a second to occur, and is potent enough to impair the higher thinking areas of the brain as it elicits the same euphoric feeling as cocaine.

In a word, the wiring of our sensory brain and body — when not modulated by our ability for conscious-mind awareness to influence decision making — can leaves us susceptible to falling in love with the state of “falling in love” itself, a craving for sensory pleasures that switches off the frontal cortex (ability to consciously think and make optimal choices), an apt definition of what love addiction is.

“Happiness is when what you think, what you say, and what you do are in harmony,” noted Mahatma Gandhi. Awareness of thoughts, choices, emotions, sensations, wants, dreams, core needs and drivesHealthy emotions and healthy thought patterns areappiness and healthy mindand wisdom go tother

What can feel like love, in effect, may be a state of body-mind that is so disconnected from the primary directives of its own operating system, the subconscious, that it steers us to want and go after (automatic default-choices) what is, literally, 180 degrees in the opposite direction of what we need (emotion-drives to matter and meaningfully connect in life) to live fulfilling and healthy lives and relationships.

Notably, we use some of the same words to describe the personality shift observed in those (self included) we experience to be “in love” and those with an addiction to drugs or alcohol, such as: impulsive, foolhardy, dependent, obsessive, compulsive, heedless, cavalier, negligent, reckless, irresponsible, and so on.
Whether the “drug of choice” is sex, love or romance, as with substance addictions or, for that matter, gambling or spending sprees, a common experience of addicts is an inability to stop behaviors they themselves recognize at some level as destructive, and yet feel powerless to stop.
Biologically, the human body is wired to gravitate toward what produces comfortable, feel-good sensations in us – and correspondingly to withdraw from what produces pain and discomfort. Ideally, this helps to keep us on track by reminding us, on the one hand, to avoid what is unhealthy and harmful (painful), and on the other hand, to keep reaching for what promotes a sense of health and well being, and makes us feel good about our self and our capacity to contribute and create healthy, vibrant relationships.
Even before the recent findings in neuroscience, no one would argue that a good relationship can be a great source of energy and fuel us to soar to previously unimaginable heights. At the same time, there is also full agreement that relationships with loved ones can the greatest source of mental and emotional suffering and anguish.
Most would also agree that couple relationships seem to be in a category of their own when it comes to the highs and lows of pleasure and suffering they produce.
The secret to personal health and happiness, in fact, may come down to how we manage our sensations of pain and pleasure, more specifically, identifying situations in which we are vulnerable, and remaining aware to ensure our wise-self is in charge of our choices when dealing with the pain and pleasure sensations of our body.
On the shadow side of falling in love, how we manage our sensations of pain and pleasure can put us at risk of developing addictive habits. For example:
  • Not all feel-goods are healthy, i.e., junk food and a sedentary lifestyle.
  • Similarly, not all feel-bad sensations are unhealthy, i.e., studying for a test or confronting an issue.
  • Our subconscious mind forms “beliefs” automatically all the time on the “simple” principles of pleasure and pain. These beliefs can be limiting, false and in conflict with some of its directives, i.e., the directives to ensure we survive and prompt us to thrive.
Thus, our body manufactures chemical highs in response to what we perceive makes us feel good and less anxious, loved or loving; and this can deceive us into rationalizing risky activities.
As with all addictions, the key factor is the good-feelings the activity produces and how the addict produces them. In short, this is what a person gets addicted to – and must be addressed for healing to take place. (In similar ways, this also applies to the co-addict or codependent, the person who’s unwittingly in an unhealthy relationship with the addict.)
If the addict, co-addict or professional working with an addicted client fails to see the high as the key driving factor, they may underestimate its power, or miss a necessary aspect of treatment.
The high is what makes addiction ultimately about power, or defined as a healthy, human yearning to have primary control over their choices and ability to feel good about themselves and life. Power is ultimately about who has a choice and who does not. Someone who feels they do not have a choice in general or describes themselves as feeling controlled by their partner, for example, can be a prime candidate for addiction.
In the pure sense, to “control” something is to feel one has a choice. Personal power is “the ability to take action,” states Anthony Robbins, a best selling author and recognized authority on leadership and peak performance. This means personal power is a perceived ability (or adequacy) to act in ways that are effective in realizing goals, feeling happy. Ultimately, how good we feel at any moment is based on how overall loved, valued, connected, recognized, heard, understood, appreciated, right?
Addiction is all about power because power is a perceived ability to control how good we feel in body and mind. In personal relationships, especially with a spouse, it’s often about having the power to block the power of the other, such as a parent, spouse or child.
In relation to the co-addicted partner, the addict feels powerless in their ability to influence the other. Their addiction however is evidence that they have the power to limit or block the other’s attempts to control them.
This is why asking the addict to give up a destructive behavior can cause them to feel attacked. To an addict, at visceral levels, it feels as if they are being asked to relinquish control and power, even though the opposite is true. In truth, addictive substances or activities are what render an addict powerless; they have no power to say “No” to the chemical demands of their body for instant gratification.
So, the actual fixation is on the production of feel-good feelings, and the means are merely ways that feel physiologically, emotionally and mentally “proven” to work.
And, it’s all about power because pure power lies in our perceived ability to control in certain situations or moments how good we feel physiologically, mentally, emotionally.
There are at least three hormonal chemicals that the body produces to make us feel we’re in love — whether we are or not. Persons addicted to sex and love spend a lot of time in varying states of arousal, depending on the stage of the cycle, for example, indulging, recovering or planning for the next fix. There is also excitement in getting increasingly better at obtaining and sustaining the high. Additionally, there’s arousal in getting good at blocking obstacles to getting the high, such as spouses or family members’ attempts to circumvent from achieving their high.
This feeds the entangling power struggle between the addict and the co-addicted (co-dependent) person
When love comes together with addiction, the result is a witnessing of immense and prolonged pain and needless suffering of the addict as well as their loved ones. The news is replete with accounts of people’s lives that lead to scandalous loss of reputation, career, relationships with partner, family, children, and even health and life.
Most addicts will easily say that their drug of choice is dependable and people are not. That’s why it’s all about control and power.
The drive to feel good about our self and life and relationships is not only natural, it’s a motivation that is as real a drive or hardwired need as food and water. This drive is not the problem. The drive can be thought of as a “healthy” pain, such as hunger or thirst, that reminds us of core inner strivings (emotion-drives) to matter, to meaningfully connect with life in and around us. The pain that arises when our nourishing supply runs low calls us to take action.
It reminds us of the physical laws that govern our nature and life, in this case, the principle that can be described as “use it or lose it” or “no pain, no gain,” and more commonly known as Wolf’s Law. Though this Law is mostly applied to observations of how to strengthen the human body, muscles and bones, etc., our brain’s mental and cognitive skills have been shown to follow the same “Use It Lose It” law.
Arguably, our emotion-drives to matter also follow the no pain, no gain principle. In part, we have a plethora of addictions because the prevailing beliefs we hold about emotional pain do not serve us, they mislead to avoid emotional pain and regard those that express it as weak, defective. In other words, we regard emotional vulnerability as a weakness not associated with strength, status, success, whereas nothing could be farther from the truth.
These feel-good hormones are not to be trusted as they can:
  • Steal our ability to make conscious, healthy choices.
  • Hold our frontal cortex (wise-self capacity for real thinking) captive, in a virtual prison of sorts.
  • Deceive the otherwise amazing mind of our body, the subconscious, with illusions of love and power.
  • Manipulate our body – a sophisticated communication system like no other — into becoming a slave driver that steals our ability to make conscious, healthy choices by making vehement do-or-die demands.
  • Demands feel-good sensations for the sake of feel-good sensations, and wants them now.
  • Get us addicted to quick and easy ways of feeling, our body’s natural inclination to taking the path of least resistance.
  • Confuses the natural wisdom of our body, in particular, the primary directives of the subconscious to ensure we survive and thrive, so much so, that our body literally steers us 180 degrees away from what we really, really, really need to be happy and healthy, physically, mentally and emotionally, and create healthy and nourishing relationships.
A new understanding of addiction as quick-fix albeit temporary sense of power to create, albeit temporary and false, helps us better see the shadow side of “falling in love.” It helps to define power as a perceived ability to feel effective in making healthy versus unhealthy choices in creating the meaningful lives and relationships we are wired to live.

Couple Communications: 5 Prerequisites to Unlock Imagination (And Get Out of Stuck Places), 3 of 4

By Athena Staik, Ph.D.

images-846When it comes to healing your couple communications and relationship, there are at least five prerequisite shifts in perception that are critical to help you unlock your imagination, and galvanize the energy you need to take action – to break out of stuck places and let go of old comfort zones (thus making it more likely your partner will do the same).

Continuing from Part 2, the third prerequisite shift in perception allows you to take 100% responsibility for how you respond to life events, and thus who you become (and what you create) as a result of your responses.

3. See your self as fully equipped and capable captain of your life (thus own body’s relaxation response).

This is a choice you make to see your self as capable of creating a fulfilling life — i.e., making good decisions, learning from them, thoughtfully connecting to your wants and needs, handling emotions along the way (triggering ones in particular), etc.

You know that repeated actions form habits, or emotion-command neural pathways, that are automatically activated by the subconscious mind as “default” options. Old habitual responses must be unlearned, retrained or replaced by new optimal ones.

As captain you understand that energy is too precious to waste, and that taking the reins as captain is not a mere option, rather a prerequisite to realizing the fulfilling happy life you aspire. More specifically, this means that you now understand why you must (learn to) let go of such energy-wasting patterns as blame, denial, withdrawal, avoidance, comparing and judgments of self and others, etc., all of which were perhaps useful to ensure your physical survival in childhood, but are now simply blocking your personal growth and healing, as well as aspirations to create an emotionally fulfilling connection with your partner. Knowing this, you’re ready to do what is necessary to take command of the direction and energy flowing in your body.

  • This perception allows your body and mind to stay connected, thus, to work together on your behalf, disallowing your body’s “old” subconscious programs to take control and automatically put your frontal cortex (higher thinking capacity) in offline mode.

Conceivably, nothing matters more to living a fulfilling life, than realizing you have access to a powerful human capacity to bring, create and express love in your life and relationships. Stop waiting for this or that, or for a time when all problems go away. The option at any moment to allow your subconscious mind (emotion-body) to stay connected  your conscious mind (reflective, wise-self), however, remains dormant unless learned and cultivated.

Regardless the intensity of a trigger (except where the threat to physical survival is real), you have the option of responding in a way that goes opposite a fear-based defensive reaction that automatically occurs at present. Knowing how to self-activate your body’s relaxation response is a choice (power) you have, in any given moment: to optimally observe (rather than judge); to create new possibilities (rather than stay stuck); and to make informed decisions and learn from them (rather than repeating old knee-jerk reactions).

  • This prerequisite offers “new” instructions to your subconscious mind that can rewrite (heal) old programming imprinted in memory from childhood.

This necessary shift away from childhood dependency on subconscious defenses to conscious choices needs to occur sometime in adulthood for healing to take place. It is a choice that puts healing power in your hands.

Unlike the formative years of childhood when your subconscious mind had to to automatically activate certain learned defensive strategies, at a time when this literally ensured your physical survival, as an adult, the rules have now changed! True, your intimacy fears of rejection, abandonment, rejections are no doubt still be painful, however, they no longer pose a threat to your physical survival.

In fact, the opposite is now true. The cortisol levels produced by regular activations of your body’s survival system can physically harm your body.

Besides, if you’re about 25 years of age or older, you now have the cognitive development to do so. As an adult, the greatest need is to learn how to break out of old comfort zones, and in the process build the knowledge, understanding and confidence necessary to stretch your inner capacities for empathy and compassion, courage and determination — at a felt level — to remain in command of your power (choose) to thoughtfully respond (rather than react) to any triggering-emotion events.

  • This perception tells your conscious mind that, in “most” relationship contexts upsetting to you, you have the ability to increase your own sense of safety, to intentionally feel safe enough to love — so you can feel vulnerable emotions — and perceive them as useful information rather than (irrational) threats to your survival.

This is a necessary stage in human development where, like learning to ride a bicycle, at some point, you know you have to let go of “feeling you have to have” the training wheels (defense strategies) to protect you. It makes sense to not want to fall. If you had waited however until you felt sure you would not fall, you may have never learned to ride a bike. You learned to ride because at some point your desire to ride a bike was greater than the desire to prevent yourself from falling.

In other words, you reached a point where you were willing to fall and perhaps skin a knee. Similarly, when it comes to navigating the emotional seas of your intimacy fears, your subconscious mind needs to know at some point that, at a felt level, that your desire to become a capable and fully equipped captain of your heart and mind is greater than your dependency on your habitual defense strategies. You no longer want to be rescued by the old ways you learned to protect yourself because they are blocking you from growing and realizing your full capacity to love with your whole heart.

The capability comes alive however only when put into action and practiced in real life situations, that is, in opportune moments where you may choose between allowing old defense strategies to automatically activate by default (path of least resistance) or taking the helm as captain to steer in the opposite direction of an old programmed response, that is, to stretch out of an old comfort zone and self-activate your body’s relaxation response instead.

  • In a sense, this prerequisite is a form of self-love and self-acceptance that invites your subconscious mind to stop acting like an over-protective parent, and instead accept that you are now a capable adult who can take care of yourself and make life impacting decisions.

Safe to say, you are hardwired to become a consciously aware creator and choice-maker of thoughts and emotions. The choice to take the helm as captain puts your wise-self in charge of your choices (rather than the wounded-ego, ever ready to activate your survival system).

This is a form of self-love and self-acceptance, in which consious-you takes the reins, as a mature and wise parent (healed from early childhood survival-love maps) and wise parent, to retrain your brain (subconscious) with new conscious awareness of yourself, for example, that: you can be trusted to be charge of caring for yourself in previously “triggering” situations; you can remain connected to do your own thinking and reassess old triggers (frontal cortex); you can decide at any moment to self-activate your body’s relaxation response (parasympathetic division of autonomic nervous system) — and intentionally disallow any “unnecessary” activations of your body’s survival system (sympathetic division).

Like a smothering parent, it doesn’t trust you to take care of yourself, and automatically steps in to usurp the power of making conscious choices, at any moment, to thoughtfully respond rather than automatically react. To be fair, your subconscious is simply misguided into thinking you still need to be rescued to survive, believing old imprinted information (thus, it activates your survival system to lower the cortisol levels that are automatically released when your self-talk activates fear-based emotions).

An overprotective parent may mean well, however, they are hindering and not helping you, and you must lovingly let them know that: You are an adult. Your life is yours. You are capable. The power to choose, to learn from mistakes, to decide what is best for you, your life and relationships is your birth right. Thank your overacting “parent” (subconscious) for understanding and believing in you, and for meaning well and taking care of you to ensure your survival.

  • This perception gives you a new vision-led, action-orientation that says you own100% responsibility for generating the optimal states of mind and body that you need in key moments … to also respond optimally.

This puts conscious-you in charge of your choices and energy (emotion that fires and wires neurons!), more specifically, you understand that you always have a choice to allow your mind and body to remain at least relatively calm, centered, confident when a triggering event occurs, and that you choose the option that allows you to remain in charge of your own sense of safety from within.

As a capable and conscious choice-maker, you see life as a gift that continually invites you to ponder such big questions as:

Who will you become as a result of your experiences, an ever better version of yourself or bitter?

What possibilities do you envision the future you aspire to create, and will be the primary fuel that energizes your ship on course, love or fear?

In Part 4, the remaining two prerequisite shifts.

A Meditation to Awaken Whole-Heart (Conscious) Love

By Athena Staik, Ph.D.

images-769Meditation and mindfulness are practices proven to strengthen our connection to emotions of the heart, in particular our ability to more easily and efficiently navigate the stormy seas of painful emotions, allowing us to thoughtfully respond rather than defensively run away or go into attack mode.

Based on recent findings in neuroscience, poets have been right all along: Love is the only antidote to fear, conscious love that is.

Brain research in the last decade inform us that empathy and aggression share the same brain circuitry, and that there is an inverse relationship between the two, in other words, when one goes up in intensity, the other goes down.

It takes love, a consciously empathic love for self and life at minimum, to stay present in the moment when a triggering fear shows up. Practicing empathy works to lower aggressive impulses (and, the opposite is true: a habit of aggressive reactions inhibits the capacity to respond with empathy).

The good news is that there is an array of positively charged emotions, rooted in love, ever willing and ready to refresh and strengthen us. Meditating on love-emotions of the heart empowers a uniquely insightful experience that can open up new possibilities to experience our self and life around us more fully, with our whole-heart rather than the limiting view depicted by fear (which one do you wish to be in control your imagination?). This comes in quite handy, considering that negatively charged emotions can also be great teachers, for example, telling us much about who we are and are not as human beings, what we’re capable of realizing, what we most yearn to contribute as unique individuals, and more.

Continue reading… »

Wired to Heal and Create Love-Connections: Four Stages of Building New Competencies

By Athena Staik, Ph.D.

iStock_000001216907XSmallEmpathy is a listening and talking skill that is critical to healthy relating. It creates a love-connection, a buffer of sorts that serves to absorb some of the shock or impact of a painful experience (emotions…). Without empathy (for self and another), we are less likely to feel safe enough to prevent our body from unnecessarily activating its survival system.

We are social creatures, whether we think of ourselves in these terms or not, simply because our brain is a social organ. We naturally move in the direction of increasing our sense of mattering in relation to life in and around us, an emotional connection that frees us to engage and grow, to heal and learn how to restore inner sense of peace, balance.

In moments when we feel securely connected, we have access to our brain’s reflective processing capacity (frontal cortex), and thus are free to consider optimal choices (self-regulate). When our frontal cortex is in learning or online mode, we feel safe enough to make eye contact, to touch or be touched, to love and be loved, to accept and feel accepted for who we are, all of which are emotions communicated by looking into the eyes of another.

Continue reading… »

Couple Communications: 5 Prerequisites to Unlock Your Imagination (And Get Out of Stuck Places), 2 of 4

By Athena Staik, Ph.D.

couples comYes, resolving conflict is a worthy goal, and understanding “the problem” is also important. The biggest obstacles in couple communications, however, more often have to do with unlocking the heart and imagination of each partner to want to hear or listen to what the other says, to want to understand where each is coming from, and so on.

As discussed in Part 1, what you “see” subconsciously in your mind when you think of your partner and your relationship, or your “discussions” for that matter, may just be what you get.

There are are at least five prerequisites to unlocking your hearts — and subconscious minds — to break free of images and mindsets that keep each of you locked in reactive patterns, defensive showdowns, and the like.

Continue reading… »

What You See Is What You Get: 5 Prerequisites to Re-Envision Your Couple Communications, 1 of 4

By Athena Staik, Ph.D.

COUPLESIt cannot be said too often to couples: choose words (and nonverbals) carefully in sensitive discussions, more specifically, to opt for ones that energize optimal emotional states. This can mean letting go of triggering words or actions, and breaking old habits is not easy. What if the life and health of your relationship depended on it however?

The fact is, words produce images in your mind. Images produce emotions, and emotions shape behaviors. 

Continue reading… »

Handling Fears: Seven Steps to Break Through to Optimal Results, 2 of 2

By Athena Staik, Ph.D.

images-768The fear response can be a great teacher. In Part 1 we looked at three ways fear is your friend as an action activating signal. So, how do we handle fear to produce optimal results and meaningful change, when we get triggered? As an example, lets’ say the fear has to do with going after what you most want due to a fear of failure.

This article outlines a seven step approach.

1. Recognize and feel your emotions courageously, pausing to breathe deeply and notice your experience.

This first step allows you to turn within to recognize your emotions as natural responses, as key information you want to connect to — rather than fear or dismiss. Taking deep long breaths and noticing your experience is a key way to be present, and it also helps to recognize your feelings with words that identify your emotions and describe what you feel upset about, such as,

Continue reading… »

Handling Fears: Three Ways Fear Is Your Friend, 1 of 2

By Athena Staik, Ph.D.

images-248When we get triggered by an event, it’s tempting to follow the accompanying thoughts down a rabbit hole to the useless world of doubts and negative forecasts, and other “oh no’s and “what if’s.”

Doing so is usually counterproductive however and likely to intensify fear instead, perhaps to the point of activating defense strategies, and other stuck, harmful patterns. When thoughts intensify fears to levels that flood the mind and body with cortisol, fear can virtually shut down most normal processes of the body to include higher-thinking brain functions.

At best, this can leave us feeling powerless, perhaps losing our sense of hope.

There are more effective, and proven successful ways to handle fears, to learn and benefit from them, perhaps even support loved ones to do the same by modeling healthy responses. Before outlining some steps, there are several things to consider about fear:

Continue reading… »

How to Argue to Strengthen Your Relationship: The Power of Giving the Love You Each Want, 3 of 3

By Athena Staik, Ph.D.


Speaking of breaking free of the criticizing habit, a step discussed in Part 2, it’s a lot easier to achieve when you also shift your focus to wanting to understand what you each want, then actively giving or supporting each other to realize your wants and yearnings etc. – at minimum with the energy you bring. These two remaining steps strengthen your relationship, and are the subject of this post.

Step 4: Know What You Each Want — and Why

Step four consists of two parts: clearly understanding what you (really, really) want and why, and also what your partner wants and why.

Knowing what you want makes it more likely you will: (1) be heard and understood ; (2) say and express what you want in ways your partner can “listen” (not get triggered); (3) stay on topic focused on what is most relevant; and (4) eventually come to a mutually satisfying resolution.

Continue reading… »

How to Argue to Strengthen Your Couple Relationship, 2 of 3

By Athena Staik, Ph.D.

images-188Like it or not, you are the one constant in your couple relationship. If your couple relationship is on the rocks and you’re wondering why you seem to “attract” certain issues or partners, here’s a sobering thought (and potentially uplifting): What you bring to your relationship shapes you and your life. If you’re not consciously choosing what you bring, i.e., in terms of your intentions, thoughts, actions etc., you’re sitting on pure power, waiting to go to work for you.

In Part 1 we looked at the first two steps to shift “how you “argue” in ways that create an authentic connection between you and your partner. Here is step 3:

Continue reading… »


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