HOOKED ON A FEELING
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
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?
LOVE AND OTHER DRUGS
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
‘LOVE ADDICTS BECOME LOST IN THE DEPTHS OF THEIR DENIAL’
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.’
LOVE ME TINDER
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.’
‘THERE’S MORE PRESSURE THAN EVER TO HAVE THE PERFECT RELATIONSHIP’