True love is an act of will that often transcends ephemeral feelings of love…it is correct to say, ‘Love is as love does.’” ~ SCOTT PECK
Romanticized ideals for love, and romantic love that leads to long term healthy companionship love with all the trimmings, produce two dramatically different outcomes.
Many of the futile attempts of partners to get the love they want in their couple relationships today have to do with “romanticized love” ideals, infused into Western society during the Middle Ages. These ideals, in effect, impose unfair expectations on men and women alike, with regard to what it means to be a “successful” man or woman.
Whereas romantic attraction may form the basis of initiating an interpersonal bond from which authentic love is a possibility, in and of itself, romanticized love defines love in a way that puts each person’s fulfillment in the hands of the other, thus, sparking an obsessive, watchful focus on the other as a love object, a potential setup for addictive relating, love and sex addiction.
A few decades ago the idea of love as an addiction seemed absurd and controversial. “Most all relationships harbor some elements of addiction,” Dr. Brenda Schaeffer announced in a book published in the 1980s, Is It Love or Is It Addiction.
What was once theory, however, is now proven science. While struggles with addictive substances may still seem “more” real, advances in brain imaging and other methodologies have helped us understand how, to our brain and body, addictive love, sex and relating patterns can have the same, if not more intense, physiological effects as cocaine, for example, in quickly taking over life to become lethal habits.
Addictive relating stems from healthy inborn strivings to love and be loved, find value and meaning in life – and key relationships. Our brains are relationship organs, and love relationships have special pulls on the heart. Our brains are wired to produce pleasurable sensations, and nothing promotes our health more than experiences of love, affection, caring, compassion.
“If you love something, set it free; if it comes backs it’s yours, if it doesn’t, it never was.” ~ RICHARD BACH
Authentic love nourishes, however. It frees and heals us to be all we can be. Problems occur when we become dependent on the pleasurable sensations of arousal that alter our brain chemistry, and associate the pleasure with a person or activity as the sole source of these good feelings.
Addictive love, in contrast, causes a dramatic disruption in the activity of the brain’s circuitry. The neurotransmitter dopamine activates receptors in the reward centers of the brain that stimulate pleasure. Over time the receptors adjust to the excesses of dopamine by decreasing the number of receptors. As a result, more of what produces the high is required to achieve the same pleasure.
Briefly, love and sex addiction can be defined as patterns of sexual relating in which individuals experience self and other as objects, and that persists despite evidence of increased negative impact to self and others. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Psychiatric Disorders lists the behavior under the category of “Sexual Disorders Not Otherwise Specified,” and defines love and sex addiction as “distress about a pattern of repeated sexual relationships involving a succession of lovers who are experienced by the individual only as things to be used.”
Truth be told, to make the possibility of a lifelong healthy relationship a reality would require conscious and determined action. It takes commitment to mutually nurture self and other’s highest good and well-being, so well captured by Dr. Scott Peck’s definition for authentic love in The Road Less Traveled:
“Love is not a feeling. Love is an action, an activity…Genuine love implies commitment and the exercise of wisdom…love is the will to extend oneself for the purpose of nurturing one’s own or another’s spiritual growth.”
In contrast, romanticized love sets up unrealistic, and often dehumanizing, expectations for male and female sexuality that seem a setup for failure.
According to traditional roles, for example, men are expected to forgo what allows human beings to meaningfully connect – the capacity to feel emotions of vulnerability (as well as love). It’s taboo, for example, for men to feel hurt, sad, fearful, as these emotions imply weakness, inferior status, and the like. Men are also warned against emotions of exuberance and expressive love, regarded as ‘fluffy’ or ‘feminine.’
On the other hand, women are expected do without emotions of anger, hatred, and negativity in general. It’s also taboo for women to say what they want or need, make direct requests, say no to other’s requests, and in general display strength or confidence. Regardless the “equality” gains, we still tend to frown upon women doing what makes men feel uncomfortable, threatened or turned off. (It may be surprising, yet most women, consciously or subconsciously, feel responsible and vigilantly act to “protect” men’s feelings or ego.)
“There’s no conversation without vulnerability.” ~ DAVID WHYTE
Emotions of vulnerability and anger, however, are energies that do not just go away. They remain in the body, and can cause harm. To soften the blow, the subconscious mind, which runs the body, seeks to find ‘valves’ to release some of the steam, not unlike a pressure cooker. As the operating system of the body, the subconscious knows that, if not directly and authentically expressed, painful emotions will be via acting-out or acting-in behaviors.
Some of these substitute ways of expressing anger and vulnerability, according to Drs. Mary Ann Lamanna and Agnes, include the following:
Addictive relating and love and sex addictions stem directly from these emotional taboos, and these taboos come along with the package of ideals for romanticized love.
Acting out is merely a substitute means for dealing with suppressed emotions—at subconscious levels—that in turn further erode emotional intimacy in relationships, with an array of subconsciously driven misguided behaviors. Brain studies show the regions of brain that regulate aggression and empathy overlap, thus, activation of neural patterns in one direction reduces activity in the other. In other words,encouraging empathy inhibits aggression, and vice versa.
Addictive love, and its counterpart, co-dependency, are not diseases or disorders as much as they are patterns of thinking that cripple the mind. They are a product of a culture that romanticizes dominance and submission as desired qualities, with dominance more often associated with those deemed superior and strong, i.e., men or gods, and submissiveness with those deemed inferior and weak, i.e., women and children.
“Where love rules, there is no will to power; and where power predominates, there love is lacking. The one is the shadow of the other.” ~ CARL JUNG
These cultural taboos suppress emotions of vulnerability for men and anger for women, exacting personal and relational costs. Emotions of vulnerability or anger are vital to the healthy functioning of men and women’s brains alike. Studies on vulnerability by Dr. Brene Brown, for example, found persons who are willing to be vulnerable are significantly happier and healthier, emotionally and physically. Not surprisingly, other findings show low levels of anger are a motivating force that leads to successful action.
And we wonder why women and men seem to be from different planets? They are not. Brain studies show the differences between the brains of men and women are not significant, as many have proclaimed in the past.
It is these cultural standards that get us to “see” differences that are illusions, and, at the same time, impose taboos on expressing emotions and conflict in marriage and family.
Beliefs are powerful. They form the filters, or perceptions, that our subconscious mind uses to determine whether we feel safe or in danger at any given moment. It’s job is to activate our body’s “fight or flee” system if we “perceive” a threat.
The brain and body are always in either a learning (safety and love) or protective (fear) mode.
Ideals for romanticized love cause men and women to relate anxiously. Each seeks to feel valued in relation to the other, yet uses tactics that cause distance, rather than the sense of safety and love they aspire. Both deserve so much more.
Healthy love and romance instead promotes healthy intimacy—and intimacy is first and foremost an emotional connection between a man and a woman that is based on empathy, understanding and compassion for self and other as human beings on spiritual journey designed to transform them personally as individuals to love authentically with their whole hearts.
Johnson, Robert A. (1983). We: Understanding the Psychology of Romantic Love. NY: HarperCollins.
Lamanna, Mary A. & Agnes Riedmann (2011). Marriages and Families: Making Choices in a Diverse Society (11th ed.). Belmont, CA: Wadsworth/Thomson Learning.
Schaeffer, Brenda (2009). Is it Love or Is It Addiction? Center City, MN: Hazelden.
Schneider, Jennifer P. (2004). Sex, Lies, And Forgiveness: Couples Speaking Out on Healing From Sex Addiction (3rd ed.). Tucson, AZ: Recovery Resources Press.
Weiss, Robert, Patrick Carnes & Stephanie Carnes (2009). Mending a Shattered Heart: A Guide for Partners of Sex Addicts. Carefree, AZ: Gentle Path Press.
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Athena Staik, Ph.D. (June 4, 2011)
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Last reviewed: 5 Jun 2011