We’re not talk­ing se­rial bed-hop­ping – we’re talk­ing a raw, deep and de­struc­tive crav­ing for one of the strong­est emo­tions out there. New re­search is re­veal­ing the darker side to love

Women's Health (UK) - - CONTENTS - words ALIX O’NEILL

Are you ad­dicted to love?

Your heart is rac­ing, your palms are sweat­ing, you feel dizzy. There are no flash­ing lights, mu­sic or crowds – you’re alone in bed at 3am, stone cold sober, read­ing a text. From that person. A smile creeps over your face and you feel like your heart could burst right out of your chest. It’s of­fi­cial: you’re in love. If you’ve ever felt those but­ter­flies when you’ve locked eyes, re­cruited the col­lec­tive wis­dom of your near­est and dear­est to de­ci­pher the sub­lim­i­nal mes­sage of a What­sapp or felt sick to your stom­ach when they walk out the door after Sun­day snug­gles, you’ll have felt the ad­dic­tive qual­i­ties of love. A ma­jor re­view of ex­ist­ing re­search ear­lier this year con­firmed that be­ing in love can drive peo­ple to dras­tic be­hav­iour in the same way as an ad­dic­tion to al­co­hol or drugs; and in much the same way, some are more sus­cep­ti­ble to the ad­dic­tion than oth­ers. Sober­ing news for any­one who’s ever con­tem­plated do­ing a surprise drop by (but it would be ro­man­tic, right?). So what’s the neu­ro­science be­hind that neu­ro­sis?


The team at the Ox­ford Univer­sity Cen­tre for Neu­roethics re­viewed 64 stud­ies of love and ad­dic­tion pub­lished be­tween 1956 and 2016 and found an abun­dance of be­havioural, neu­ro­chem­i­cal and neu­roimag­ing ev­i­dence to sup­port the claim that love can be ad­dic­tive. They specif­i­cally iden­ti­fied two sorts. First, there’s a ‘broad’ type, which falls on the same spec­trum as con­ven­tional love, but with stronger crav­ings. More con­cern­ing is the ‘nar­row’ type – the more ex­treme form of love ad­dic­tion – which refers to peo­ple who feel such strong crav­ings to­wards the ob­ject of their af­fec­tions that it in­flu­ences their be­hav­iour in dras­tic ways. Re­searchers linked both types to ex­pe­ri­enc­ing an unusu­ally strong re­ward sig­nal in the brain, driv­ing the person to pur­sue that ex­pe­ri­ence again. ‘This nar­row view counts only the most ex­treme forms of love as be­ing po­ten­tially ad­dic­tive in na­ture,’ says Brian Earp, who led the study. ‘Re­search in this vein fo­cuses on sex­ual com­pul­sions, toxic or abu­sive re­la­tion­ships, ab­nor­mal at­tach­ments and un­healthy tol­er­ance of neg­a­tive life and re­la­tion­ship out­comes. I think of ad­dic­tion as be­ing on a wide spec­trum. On one end, you’ll find nor­mal ap­petites for love, and on the other there’s a de­sire for re­ward­ing sub­stances or be­hav­iours that’s so pow­er­ful it be­comes dan­ger­ous. Be­ing in love is re­ward­ing for most peo­ple. It’s only when you be­have in ways that are harm­ful to your­self and oth­ers that you be­gin to have a prob­lem.’ The idea of love as a pathol­ogy is noth­ing new. Bi­o­log­i­cal an­thro­pol­o­gist Dr He­len Fisher led one of the first stud­ies to ex­am­ine the brains of the bro­ken-hearted. In 2013, Dr Fisher and her col­leagues scanned the brains of 10 women and five men who had all re­cently ex­pe­ri­enced a break-up. They found that when par­tic­i­pants looked at pho­tos of their former part­ners, the brain’s re­ward sys­tem was ac­ti­vated – specif­i­cally dopamine path­ways as­so­ci­ated with mo­ti­va­tion, ec­stasy and long­ing. In­ter­est­ingly, re­gions of the brain as­so­ci­ated with co­caine and cig­a­rette ad­dic­tion were also ac­ti­vated. Dr Fisher thinks that this ad­dic­tive re­sponse is rooted in evo­lu­tion. ‘It’s my be­lief that the brain’s cir­cuitry for ro­man­tic love evolved mil­lions of years ago to en­able our an­ces­tors to fo­cus their mat­ing en­ergy on one person at a time,’ she ex­plains. ‘When you’ve been re­jected in love, you’ve lost your love life’s great­est prize, which is a part­ner to mate with,’ adds Dr Fisher. ‘The brain sys­tem prob­a­bly be­comes ac­ti­vated to help you win that person back. This is known as “the protest phase”.’


As re­as­sur­ing as it is to blame evo­lu­tion for that drunken voice­mail (or six) you left on your ex’s phone, it begs the ques­tion: at what point does the odd drunk dial spill over into some­thing more dam­ag­ing? ‘Any ad­dic­tion is iden­ti­fied by the chaos, ill health or dis­rup­tion caused to a person, their fam­ily and their work­ing life,’ says Annie Ben­nett, a psy­chother­a­pist spe­cial­is­ing in love ad­dic­tion. ‘A mild ob­ses­sion won’t have se­ri­ous con­se­quences and, over time, it will fade – even if it doesn’t feel like it now. But love ad­dicts be­come lost in the depths of their de­nial over the re­al­ity of that re­la­tion­ship.’ Dr Fisher agrees that love is a nat­u­ral ad­dic­tion that can be good or bad for us. ‘A pos­i­tive ad­dic­tion is when the person’s love

is re­cip­ro­cated, non-toxic and ap­pro­pri­ate (for ex­am­ple, nei­ther part­ner is mar­ried to some­one else); a neg­a­tive one is when the sub­ject’s feel­ings are in­ap­pro­pri­ate, toxic, not re­cip­ro­cated or for­mally re­jected. Like all ad­dicts, those hooked on love will of­ten go to ex­tremes in search of their next fix – and yes, that can in­volve do­ing de­grad­ing or dan­ger­ous things to win back the ob­ject of their af­fec­tions or find a new part­ner.’ It’s a fa­mil­iar sce­nario for Kate*, 34, a se­nior mar­ket­ing ex­ec­u­tive who’s strug­gled with love ad­dic­tion for much of her adult life. ‘Peo­ple usu­ally de­fine them­selves by what they do – they’re a writer, lawyer, mother – I used to de­fine my­self as so-andso’s girl­friend,’ she says. She’d of­ten date mul­ti­ple peo­ple at once in case a re­la­tion­ship didn’t work out and, on one oc­ca­sion, after an ar­gu­ment with a boyfriend who had al­ready bro­ken up with her three times, she re­sorted to dras­tic ac­tion. ‘He walked out of the house after a row and just never came back,’ she re­calls. ‘He ig­nored my texts for a week, but we had a “share location” func­tion on each other’s phones, so I kept on eye on his move­ments and, when I saw that he was on his way to his dad’s house, I de­cided to turn up at the same time. He was cer­tainly shocked to see me. We ac­tu­ally ended up rec­on­cil­ing that time. But it didn’t last. If some­one who claims to love you can drop you and walk away from you like that, they’re sim­ply not worth pur­su­ing.’ ‘Kate’s per­sis­tence is a clas­sic sign of love ad­dic­tion,’ says Nicky Wal­ton-flynn, founder of Ad­dic­tion Ther­apy Lon­don. Other signs in­clude be­com­ing emo­tion­ally at­tached to peo­ple with­out know­ing them, hav­ing few bound­aries, re­peat­edly re­turn­ing to painful, de­struc­tive re­la­tion­ships and feel­ing empty or in­com­plete when alone. ‘Peo­ple will rarely come to me re­al­is­ing they’re a love ad­dict. They’ll want to work through the end of a re­la­tion­ship and we’ll later un­cover that they’ve been in a fan­tasy over that re­la­tion­ship,’ adds Wal­ton-flynn. ‘I would say that if a friend tells you you’re act­ing a bit crazy and you’re able to ac­knowl­edge that and take a step back, then that’s really pos­i­tive. But if your fix­a­tion with that person starts to make life un­man­age­able – you’re no longer eat­ing or sleep­ing much, you’re us­ing al­co­hol as a crutch, you’re sleep­ing around to try to repli­cate the feel­ing you got from that person – that’s when it’s time to seek help.’


The location tracker in­ci­dent did in­deed prompt Kate to seek pro­fes­sional help in the form of ther­apy. On her ther­a­pist’s ad­vice, she broke off all con­tact with her ex and took a com­plete hia­tus from dat­ing. Dur­ing her ini­tial with­drawal pe­riod, she wore a rub­ber band on her wrist, which she’d snap any time she felt com­pelled to con­tact her ex – she


sub­se­quently had psy­chother­apy to un­earth the root cause of her ad­dic­tion. Kate be­lieves her issues with love stem from wit­ness­ing a dif­fi­cult dy­namic be­tween her par­ents – some­thing many love ad­dicts have in com­mon, ac­cord­ing to Ben­nett. ‘The pri­mary issues that un­der­line love ad­dic­tion are early in­fant aban­don­ment and trauma,’ she ex­plains. ‘The ca­pac­ity to cope with the dis­tress of­ten comes in the form of fan­ta­sis­ing. This cop­ing skill in­creases over time and in­forms adult re­la­tion­ships, cre­at­ing a dis­torted vi­sion of the real person the ad­dict is fall­ing in love with. They then pro­ject all their hopes on to that person.’ Most ther­a­pists spe­cial­is­ing in in­ti­macy dis­or­ders agree that talk­ing ther­a­pies and vi­su­al­i­sa­tions (imag­in­ing your life with­out that person) are the best ap­proach. But many ad­dicts credit ‘go­ing sober’ with break­ing the ad­dic­tion cy­cle. Sex and Love Ad­dicts Anony­mous (SLAA) is just one of the 12-step pro­grammes that helps those in the throes of in­ti­macy ad­dic­tion. The or­gan­i­sa­tion is no­to­ri­ously clos­eted, but Lau­ren*, a former mem­ber who’s been to more than 40 meet­ings, re­veals the set-up is sim­i­lar to Al­co­holics Anony­mous, with reg­u­lar group meet­ings and spon­sors. ‘There are peo­ple from all walks of life at SLAA meet­ings,’ she says. ‘There were 20-some­thing women like me, but also stay-at-home dads, busi­ness­women, grand­par­ents – all races, re­li­gions and creeds. This ad­dic­tion can af­fect any­one. The only re­quire­ment for mem­ber­ship is a de­sire to be free from sex and love ad­dic­tion.’ Lau­ren fol­lowed the 12-step pro­gramme in a bid to break her cy­cle of ad­dic­tion. ‘No one says: “Don’t con­tact your ex for 30 or 60 days,”’ she adds. ‘You start small. That might mean mak­ing the com­mit­ment to go an hour with­out reach­ing out or look­ing them up on­line, and then you build on your progress.’


Oh yes, then there’s the in­ter­net, which can make so­cial me­dia stalk­ers of us all. Dat­ing sites and apps like noth­ing bet­ter than to re­mind you that the love of your life could be the next right swipe, and you’re rarely more than a scroll away from yet an­other smug cou­ple selfie. A number of ex­perts have even claimed that Tin­der hi­jacks the brain’s plea­sure cen­tre in the same way as video games – giv­ing a hit of dopamine with every suc­cess­ful match – mak­ing se­rial swip­ing po­ten­tially ad­dic­tive. Could it be that mod­ern love is turn­ing more of us into love ad­dicts? ‘There aren’t any more love ad­dicts now than there were a decade ago,’ says Wal­tonF­lynn. ‘But so­cial me­dia cer­tainly presents a Dis­ney-fied ver­sion of ro­mance. The re­sult of all this stim­u­la­tion is that there’s more pres­sure than ever to have the “per­fect” re­la­tion­ship. I en­cour­age my clients to take some time away from so­cial me­dia and cer­tainly dat­ing apps. Like the al­co­holic need­ing to stay out of the pub while in ini­tial re­cov­ery, you need to re­move the stim­u­lus.’ Now 120 days ‘love sober’, Kate is still in reg­u­lar ther­apy, but she’s started go­ing on dates again – only this time, with her­self. ‘Ul­ti­mately, self-love is the key to break­ing the ad­dic­tion,’ she says. ‘Two weeks ago, I had a Sun­day with­out plans, so I went swim­ming, had a pic­nic and sat in the park with just a book and the squir­rels for com­pany. I en­joyed it so much that I’ve just booked a week’s hol­i­day for my­self. It will be the first break I’ve ever taken with­out a man or to pur­sue a man. It’s a huge deal for me. I just wish it hadn’t taken me so long to get here.’


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