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

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.

Notably, we use many of the same words to describe the personality shift observed in those (our 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.

A meta-analysis study by researchers at Syracuse University revealed for example that the state of “falling in love” takes only about a fifth of a second to occur, and is potent enough to impair the higher thinking areas of the brain. Its potency lies in its ability to elicit 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 leave us susceptible to falling in love with the state of “falling in love” itself. It has to do with the power that certain sensory cravings have to switch off the frontal cortex (ability to consciously think and make optimal choices). This explains why an addiction can be such a controlling factor in a person’s life (and relationships).

Biologically, the human body is wired to gravitate toward what produces comfortable, feel-good sensations in us — and correspondingly to avoid what produces pain and discomfort. Conceivably, the highest purpose of this design feature is to prompt us to stay on track (to both survive and thrive). Ideally, our body reminds us, on the one hand, to avoid what is unhealthy, harmful or a threat to our survival, and on the other hand, to keep reaching to fulfill core drives to matter and live meaningful lives.

In the state of falling in love, these sensory signals consist of a potent mix of chemicals, which 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 (consider costs) with vehement and intoxicating demands for quick feel-good fixes.

Out of fear and mistrust, the sensory system takes over.

When it comes to fulfilling the emotion-drive to matter, to feel loving and loved, the subconscious mind mistrusts the capability of the conscious mind’s thinking and decision-making– and puts it on hold, or offline position.

It’s a coup d’etat d’amour.

Essentially, this means in certain circumstances feel-good hormones have the power to steal our ability to make optimal choices, and hold our authentic wise-self (frontal cortex) captive, in a virtual prison of sorts, deceived by limiting subconscious beliefs … and mere illusions of love and power.

Whether the “drug of choice” is sex, love or romance, or substances or activities such as gambling or spending for that matter, a common experience of all addicts is an inability to stop behaviors they themselves recognize at some level as destructive or harmful, and yet feel powerless to stop.

Without conscious-thinking and discernment, however, our subconscious body-mind cannot distinguish between pain — or pleasure — that threatens rather than promotes our growth and wellbeing and aliveness.

Pain is an essential part of all growth, physical, mental and emotional; unnecessary pain leads to suffering. Pleasure is a emotional and physiological yearning for health and wellness, a sense of feeling good about our self and our capacity to contribute to life, create healthy, vibrant relationships that sustain us, and so on; pleasure at the expense of our physical, mental and emotional wellbeing is a trap that leads to needless and endless suffering of an addiction.

To learn how to receive and bring love in relation to both self and the other is no small feat. It is  not for the faint-hearted.

It takes courage, stamina, hope, believe, and the willingness to face challenges that will keep stretching our ability to love with our whole heart. As infants, we could not survive without some love from a caregiver, however imperfect. The need for love to survive of a small child is only half-hearted love. It will not serve us in our couple relationship. As adult lovers, we must go to our love relationship for the purpose of learning how to become an ever better version of our self and capacity to love both self and other … just because … love is the essence of who we are. It is our highest need in infancy and early childhood to survive. It remains our highest need to give and receive in adulthood to thrive and meaningfully connect, to contribute our love to life in and around us.

What snaps us out of love: the shadow side
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, most would also agree that our key relationships with loved ones can the greatest source of mental and emotional suffering and anguish.
There’s also consensus that couple relationships are in a category of their own when it comes to the highs and lows of pleasure and suffering they produce, the desperate things we do to get and keep them as sources of security.
What snaps partners out of a state of being in love often has to do with the following two factors at minimum:
(1) An event that introduces “doubt of the other’s love” in the mind one partner.
What breaks the bubble state of have “fallen in love” is always an “event” in which one of the partners gets triggered, which for the first time, introduces a sense of “doubt of the other’s perfect love.” This in turn introduces new perceptions or “judgments” that may tarnish the mental image of “perfect love,” deflating the initial state of euphoria.
As soon as one person introduces “doubt” of the perfection of one, the mirror neurons in the brain of the other partner automatically mirror back the same doubt. The opportunity to hone our amazing human ability to empathize and be a compassionate presence for the other, in this case, is not only activated, it works in the opposite direction instead to activate the survival system and its aggressive (or passive aggressive) defense strategies.
What each partner needs and wants are in conflict. They want to be loved according to their own survival-love map. They need however is to break the hold of this early map to be free to see, love and value the other as a separate human and unique human being, and not merely an extension of who they want them to be. As part of their early survival-love map, each person brings their own personal triggers and triggering-emotions into the relationship. All of this is subconscious. For a relationship to mature, this shadow side needs to become conscious, accepted and integrated as part of the experience of the person’s whole-hearted love in life.
(2) When a triggering event occurs, not knowing how to thoughtfully respond versus react.
An optimal response is always one that disallows our body’s defense strategies to activate unnecessarily, so we may remain in optimal emotion states of body and mind. In other words learn how to express and listen to pain in ways that feel loving and caring when they get triggered, and consciously do so in order to prevent their body from automatically activating their survival system and protective defenses strategies.
Up until that point each person felt a sense of self as unconditionally loved and accepted, a sense of their love as a contribution of immeasurable value or worth to the other…
What if when we think about our partner, we have formed habitual thought patterns that intensify our emotion states of anger and fear inside, whether conscious or subconscious, as a result of ongoing frustrations in the relationship? How common or likely is that in a couple relationship? Without doubt, at least 100 percent. Think about it. What are the chances that in the course of your couple relationship (or any relationship with someone you live and deal with daily…) that you have to deal with:
  • Sense of unfulfilled expectations of longings you had at the start?
  • Anger at your partner’s unresponsiveness to your requests?
  • Feeling not appreciated for your contributions?
  • Judging your partner as needing to be fixed when they get upset with one of your actions?
(3) Overall thinking patterns (beliefs) that mismanage the sensory systems of pain and pleasure.
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, to remain aware and ensure our wise-self (frontal cortex) remains in charge of our choices when dealing with the pain and pleasure sensations of our body.
“Happiness is when what you think, what you say, and what you do are in harmony,” noted Mahatma Gandhi.
Awareness of our own thoughts, choices, emotions, sensations, wants, dreams, core needs and drives etc. is essential to understanding both self and the other. Happiness is inseparable from health. Health is inseparable from wholeness, a love that permeates every aspect of our being mental, physical and emotional. We are intricately connected by emotion-drives that are arguably at the same time relational and spiritual yearnings. Only a love that is wholehearted, understanding, empathic and compassionate can create a meaningful connection between two people.

In the case of falling in love, what can feel like love, in effect, may be merely a state of body-mind that is so disconnected from the primary directives of our body’s 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 (physically and emotion-drives to matter and meaningfully connect in life) to live fulfilling and healthy lives and relationships.

This is particularly true in the case of infidelity, whether sexual and, or emotional.

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.)
Managing the shadow side to consciously remain in love
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, specifically defined as a healthy, human yearning to act as agent of 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.
The shadow side is our habitual reaction to our deepest fear: fear of intimacy. Intimacy fears have to do with our fears of inadequacy, rejection, abandonment, and they are survival-fears fear of not existing –in particular the ability of another person (our parents) to decide whether or not we live. Throughout life, the fear of not mattering in relation to our self and life around us shapes our every behavior. It is likely to some degree misplaced fear. We continue to treat our love partner as if they, like our parents when we were infants, have the power to stop us from existing.
Fear of intimacy is fear of the other, in particular, their ability to block the fulfillment of our yearnings to feel effective in realizing our yearnings to matter in relation to our self and life around us.
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 can be 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 is akin to physical pain of hunger or thirst. It prompts us to take action to nourish our self, to fulfill our own need.
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 us to avoid emotional pain and regard those that express it as weak, defective, and so on. On the whole as a culture, most of us still learn to 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.
  • Turn our body – a highly sophisticated communication system — into a slave driver that steals our ability to make conscious, healthy choices by making vehement do-or-die demands.
  • Focus our energy on seeking feel-good sensations for the sake of feel-good sensations, now, without regard to costs.
  • Get us addicted to quick and easy ways of feeling good, thus over reliance on our body’s natural inclination to taking the path of least resistance.
  • Silence or block communications coming from the natural wisdom of the body, in particular, the primary directives of the subconscious mind to ensure we survive and thrive, so much so, that in confusion, our body literally steers us directly toward what blocks — and 180 degrees away from what we really, really, really need — to live happy and healthy, physically, mentally and emotionally, nourishing lives and relationships.
A new understanding of addiction as a pleasure-seeking, pain-avoiding, quick-fix sense of power (albeit temporary and false sense) that helps us avoid dealing with our shadow side (fears and doubts in our capacity to  create the happiness and meaning we yearn for that activate our defenses, survival system),  helps us better see the nature of “falling in love” as a beginning stage of the promise of creating genuine love together. From this view, power is defined as a perceived ability to feel effective and confident in our ability to make choices that lead to living the purpose-driven and meaningfully connected life and relationships we are driven by our nature to create.
The Shadow Side of Falling In Love: The Power That Drives Addictions to Love, Sex and Romance

Athena Staik, Ph.D.

Relationship consultant, author, licensed marriage and family therapist, Dr. Athena Staik motivates clients to break free of anxiety, emotion reactivity, and other addictive patterns, to awaken wholehearted relating to self and other. She is currently in private practice in Northern VA, and writing her book, What a Narcissist Means When He Says 'I Love You'": Breaking Free of Addictive Love in Couple Relationships. To contact Dr. Staik for information, an appointment or workshop, visit, or visit on her two Facebook fan pages DrAthenaStaik and DrStaik

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APA Reference
Staik, A. (2014). The Shadow Side of Falling In Love: The Power That Drives Addictions to Love, Sex and Romance. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 28, 2020, from


Last updated: 19 Dec 2014
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