The Neuroscience of Addictive Love: Attributes of Love Addiction
What is this thing called ‘love’? Plato labeled love an ‘irrational desire,” and song titles such as “The Things We Do For Love,” as well as lyrics of songs such as “Why Do Fools Fall In Love,” convey the befuddling impact love relationships can have on human brains. For human beings, men and women alike, there is perhaps no bigger fascination or obsession for the senses, heart and mind, body and spirit.
The good news from fields of neuroscience and intimacy (known as social neuroscience, attachment, affective neuroscience and cognitive neuroscience) is that up-close studies of the brain mechanisms underlying behavior in social relationships have taken much of the mystery out of our quest to understand couple relationships.
As Dr. Sue Johnson states in a recent book, Hold Me Tight, quite the contrary, love relationships seem to be governed by an “exquisite logic” that follows rather precise algorithms. Bonding behaviors, it turns out, are less of a mystery and more a science.
We now understand, for example, there are neurochemical reasons why we tend to make poor decisions in certain relational contexts.
- Love-seeking behaviors produce one of the most powerful combinations of neurochemicals. The power of these chemicals lies in that, not only do they operate subconsciously and activate automatically, and thus can go undetected, they also easily overrule the logic mechanisms of the higher cortex, which is where “real” thinking (reflective thinking, possibility thinking, etc.) takes place.
- Then consider the chemicals released by core intimacy fears, associated with our relationship needs, or emotion-drives. It is no secret, if we really think about it, that: if we’re human, fear of intimacy is most likely our greatest fear. It is in intimate encounters with those closest to us, after all, that we feel most vulnerable. This is where our core survival-love or existential fears surface — rejection, inadequacy, abandonment — as we struggle to feel we matter for who we are, feel capable of securing happiness and a meaningful relationship, or feel valued in relation to each other, and so on.
- Next add the fear chemicals released by cultural taboos for each gender to meet cultural expectations that demand proof of self-worth (in couple relationships) for men (i.e., to judge thus avoid as “not masculine” emotions of vulnerability, such as pain or tenderness, etc.) and for women (i.e., to judge thus avoid as “not womanly” emotions of strength, such as anger or assertive requests).
The blend of fear and love chemicals, alongside the shame men and women are conditioned to feel for “needing” a deeper connection or understanding from one another (rather than “proving” they can reach the cultural ideal for being as emotionally detached as Mr. Spock!) produces a set up of sorts for men and women to fail in their relationships.
If this isn’t a setup for both men and women to fail at emotional intimacy, what is? This failure is not due to lack of effort, however, and rather because most actions are desperate attempts to reach a better “feeling state” in the relationship, produced by a mix of neurochemicals that activate survival-love strategies and intimacy fears, such as fear of inadequacy, rejection, abandonment, and so on.
When fear intensifies to levels that trigger defensive ways of lowering anxiety, men and women alike engage in desperate behaviors, most often punitive shame-, fear- or guilt-inducing tactics. Somehow each partner is totally convinced that the particular pattern of shaming or withdrawing, guilting or intimidating the other is their best hope for getting back the love connection they yearn to restore, and once felt secure in at the start of their relationship.
In truth, the “logic” of survival strategies defies logic. From the outside, it’s easy to see this logic is not rational.
These rigid and limiting either-or thought patterns of the brain and body in survival mode, however, make perfect sense to the subconscious mind, the mind of the body. Defensive strategies are quick fix ways of lowering anxiety. It means we’ve trained our body to think that we do not know how to reach for a better feeling state (to restore balance and sense of safety) without attacking the dignity of our self and, or partner (a healthier option for both self and relationship), it will automatically activate old tried-and-true strategies restoring balance (to at least lower anxiety, at least temporarily…a quick-fix).
If this doesn’t make sense, consider all the times that your parents used these quick fix ways of restoring their sense of safety with the use of punitive tactics with one another 0r while parenting you and, or your siblings.
This is not about blaming parents (like you, they likely did the best with what they knew at the time). This is about understanding the irrational “logic” of survival-love and addiction patterns, so that, if you really, really wish to do so, you can choose to break free of problem patterns that are blocking you from realizing the personal and relationship happiness you deserve.
Taking the path of least resistance to “feel-good” states is what addictions are about, and in this case, more specifically, addictive love patterns.
Sex versus love addiction
Like sex addiction, love addiction is a condition in which a certain mix of neurochemicals can produce devastating effects on a person’s life because, as with other mind-altering substances, they overrule the logic capacity of the frontal lobes and put the sensory systems of body in charge of a person’s behaviors and actions. Treatment and recovery are distinct yet overlapping, and overall follow many of the same steps for treatment of all addiction.
What makes love addiction distinct, and in some cases more difficult to treat, is that the problem behaviors are not as clearly identifiable as problematic, thus, it takes more focus and energy for a person with a love addiction problem to apply and change their relating patterns. Whereas the behavior patterns and consequences of most addictions, to include sex addiction, are evident, i.e., loss of marriage and family, prostitution, loss of income, compulsive masturbation, etc., most all of the destructive behaviors in love addiction are in the mind of the person and not visible in their outward behaviors.
Love addiction typically involves a pattern of regularly getting physically or emotionally involved in one relationship after another, or multiple relationships at the same time, most of which begin with intense passion, work to dramatically intense “highs” and “lows” and end somewhat quickly. In many cases, these relationships may be staggered and take place in different stages of life, with periods of abstaining in between.
An addiction to love can also come in the form a long-term involvement with one person, with a similar range of intensity that entails a roller coaster ride of emotional highs and lows, breakups and startups, with or without involvement with persons outside the relationship (more likely but not always during the lows). With each “low” period, the relationship patterns have a more pronounced and evident negative effect on person’s confidence, esteem and sense of self. Sadly, the person often reacts by intensifying their search or seeking of another person to make them feel okay, loved or needed.
Culturally speaking, after all, for centuries addictive love-relating patterns have been touted as “normal” or evidence of romantic “true love,” once proclaimed as ideal by poets and troubadours, and in modern times, the entertainment industries continue the trend of romanticizing dominance (for women) and eroticizing (for men).
Love addiction typically involves a pattern of regularly getting involved in one relationship after another, or multiple relationships at the same time, most of which begin with intense passion, work to dramatically intense “highs” and “lows” and end somewhat quickly. In many cases, these relationships may be staggered and take place in different stages of life, with periods of abstaining in between.
An addiction to love can also come in the form a long-term involvement with one person, with a similar range of intensity, a roller coaster ride of emotional highs and lows, breakups and startups, with or without involvement with persons outside the relationship more likely but not necessarily during the lows. With each “low” period, the relationship patterns have a more pronounced and evident negative effect on person’s confidence, esteem and sense of self. Sadly, the person often reacts by intensifying their search or seeking of the other (or another) to make them feel okay, loved or needed.
Similarly, sex addiction patterns are promoted as cultural norms for men, in particular, i.e., multiple sex partners, casual sex, use of pornography, etc. Even some fields of science, such as sociobiology, promotes male aggression, promiscuity and even rape as normal biological behaviors –ignoring that human beings as creatures are unique in their capacities for imagination, creativity and choice to transform their lives.
Persons with love addiction tend to show signs of low self-esteem and immaturity in their personal relationships. They tend to act in ways that push away intimacy and getting to know others more closely, or Intensity is what drives their behaviors in the relationship, and they typically either play the rescuer or the rescued in one or more areas, and perhaps switching between the two. For example, one partner tries to rescue the other from being overly emotional, i.e., angry outbursts, demanding, and the other seeks to rescue their partner from being too detached, aloof, unresponsive. They complain about not being appreciated for what they contribute, and expect their due reward to be expressed with either simple gestures of appreciation and love – or (for the more demanding love-addicts) unyielding acts of respect and devotion.
Addictive relating attributes:
- Feeling instant intimacy with someone new, whether disclosed or not.
- Having regular intense yet brief emotional encounters.
- Needing to feel the other is the ‘end-all’ to their existence – or to feel they are the other’s ‘end-all’ – or both.
- Feeling a sense of desperation regarding what to do to start or keep the relationship.
- Too willing and open to sacrificing anything to make relationship succeed.
- Ignoring the ‘signs’ and ‘flags’ and not trusting their gut instincts.
- Intense neediness and seeking of proof that they are liked, needed or appreciated (or “respected” (obeyed) and valued).
- Jealousy easily triggered by fear of other leaving or meeting someone ‘better.’
- Constant seeking of evidence or reassurance the other is not ‘cheating.’
- Losing interest once the ‘awe’ or ‘aura’ of romance (the intensity) is gone.
- Unrealistic perceptions or expectations of other from start to end.
- Instant rekindling of desire when the other starts to pull away.
- Acting in ways that destabilize the relationship when things are ‘stable’ to get an “intensity” fix.
- Unreasonable sense of failure, rejection or abandonment when a relationship ends.
- High pressure, intense reactivity, posturing and defensive interactions.
- Forcing “instant” permanency with other through “accidental” pregnancy, pushing for a quick marriage, pressuring other to make premature commitment, threatening to leave, act violently, retaliate, etc.
- Unwillingness to let go of feeling devastated after a breakup (unreasonable amount of time).
Healthy relating attributes that are notably missing:
- A healthy sense of self and boundaries in relation to self and other.
- A willingness to follow through to treat own and one another’s wishes and requests with dignity and care.
- A healthy seeking to build a partnership, mutual responsibility and active participation in one another’s growth, health and wellbeing (emotional, mental and physical).
- A healthy sense of curiosity (as opposed to judging) in seeking to get to know and treat one another as unique individuals with own ideas, passions, aspirations, wounds, emotional weaknesses and strengths, growth areas, and so on.
Behaviors are driven by beliefs about how core emotion-drives (to matter, to feel good about self and life) can or “should” be met. Beliefs act as emotion-command neural patterns that drive behaviors, thinking patterns, emotional experience.
Cultural beliefs that romanticize dominance (for women) and eroticize dominance and normalizing the treatment (increasingly, more often cruel) of women, children (and men) as objects of pleasure, is what pornography is about. As a multibillion-dollar industry, pornography has done much (Think about it: Whenever you’ve done this, you’ve seen success, right? You must somehow train and stop yourself from going back to focusing on changing him (as soon as you see some success). To render authentic relationships an unexciting option. It has a profit motive to do so, and is a major contributor to sex and love addiction crisis (in much the same way that the food industry manipulates food ingrediets (i.e., sugar) to promote what increase sales — food addiction! See book by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Michael Moss, Salt Sugar Fat).
Author and speaker, Pamela Paul coined the term “pornification” of American culture in her revealing work titled, Pornified: How Pornography is Damaging Our Lives, Our Relationships and Our Families. In her words, “It is easier to get pornography than to avoid it. We have protected the rights of those who wish to live in a pornified culture while altogether ignoring the interests of those who do not (p. 253). The reason has to do with putting profits first. As reporter Gail DInes notes, “predatory capitalists figure out ways to expand their customer base,” and unsatisfied with having hooking millions of men on a habit that blocks healthy sexual relations, “being the savvy businessmen they are, like nothing more than telling women that porn is actually good for them.”
It’s the basis for sex and love addiction, and it is what keeps men and women stuck in addictive patterns of relating to self and other, ignoring all the evidence their body is accruing from their experience, that: The real problem is the addictive relating patterns themselves.
Taking the path of least resistance to “feel-good states” is what keeps partners stuck in old comfort zones. These thinking patterns keep partners addicted to intentisity, and at the same time, are a blocking factor to growth and ability to learn from painful experiences (growth is a built-in directive of the body-mind), ultimately, to mature their love and commitment more and more in the direction of finding a more compassionate love for self and other, and the benefits of security, friendship and passion only a vibrant and healthy relationship can provide.
What does treatment involve? A topic of an upcoming post.
Staik, A. (2016). The Neuroscience of Addictive Love: Attributes of Love Addiction. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 18, 2017, from https://blogs.psychcentral.com/relationships/2014/07/the-neuroscience-of-addictive-love-attributes-of-love-addiction/