Addicted To Love?

The Parallels Between Addiction And Romantic Love

“Love is a smoke made with the fumes of sighs.”
-Shakespeare

The parallels between love and addiction can be understood intuitively. Intoxication, obsession and pursuit are characteristic of both. Throughout history we see references to this observation in poems, plays, songs, sculpture, ancient documents, and religious doctrine. So often it seems the words of the enamored echo those of the addicted and vice versa.

In “The Chemistry Between Us“, Larry Young and Brian Alexander asked a recovering addict if he loved drugs. The addict replied, “Hell yeah, I loved drugs! I looovvved them,” but this didn’t quite communicate the depth of his passion, so he searched the ceiling and continued, “I mean, I LOVED them. I loved them more than me. I loved drugs…Loved getting them, having them, using them (Chapter 7, audio Section 9 7:42:27).”

Could there be empirical evidence to support these anecdotal similarities in symptoms? What research has indicated is that romantic attachments are formed by the reward and motivation systems in our brains. Other research has revealed that serotonin levels are similar between those who are passionately in love and those who are suffering from anxiety disorders characterized by obsessive thoughts and compulsions. And systematic reviews of research on drug addiction and research on social attachment reveal empirical evidence that suggests that the neurobiological processes and pathways associated with both are similar. There is extensive overlap in the roles of important neurotransmitters and hormones in both processes.

Let me stop here and clarify something: biological mechanisms are only part of a larger picture capturing the meaning and power of human experience. Let’s not confuse the car with the road trip while we take a look at the engine.

Kinky History: Words of Utter Abandon

Addiction And Romantic Love Use The Same Fuel

Dopamine – often defined as part of the reward and pleasure system of the brain, it is better understood as part of a seeking system. When we like something, dopamine is released, and consequently dopamine is released in pleasant anticipation whenever we are about to get our next fix – be it a dose or a kiss.

Opioids – prescribed or naturally released (endorphins), buffer pain and when plentiful they can produce a sense of well-being and even euphoria and help boost libido and sex drive.

Corticotropin releasing hormone (CRF) is the Paul Revere of the body landscape, carrying a call to arms throughout the body, mobilizing resources to extinguish or escape stress. CRF is released when substance withdrawal occurs and as a result those in withdrawal feel acute anxiety and an urgency to quell that anxiety. CRF is also typically released with the loss or separation of a loved one and similarly, a sense of urgent need or profound deprivation is felt.

Oxytocin and Vasopressin have been aptly labelled “love hormones.” Oxytocin and vasopressin are thought to trigger a sense of well-being and a sense of belonging and contentment. The presence of these chemicals is associated with sexual arousal, lactation, skin-to-skin contact, trust and recognition, bonding, and other cozy stuff. If dopamine says “seek”, these chemicals say “stay put.” These neuropeptides are important for attachment to loved ones but do not seem to play a role in drug addiction, one of the few differences between these systems.

When there is a surplus of dopamine and opiods, our own factories for these neurotransmitters slow down production – mirroring economic supply and demand principles. When we have a good supply, demand is met, and production can slow down. When dopamine and opioids are no longer being fed into the body, supply is low and the demand increases. Meanwhile, CRF and low levels of oxytocin and vasopressin amplify a sense of urgent need. The object of our attachment – be it substance or person, seems the best option to satisfy this need.

Where Are We Going?

Thus, addiction and romantic love follow parallel pathways. The road trip is much the same in that emotional, cognitive, and behavioral elements of addiction and love are similar. During the process of addiction, you try the substance and you like it. Perhaps you feel a sense of well-being, escape pain and reduce stress – until you don’t. To return to the sense of well-being, you seek the drug. And so the cycle continues. During the process of falling in love and establishing attachments, you meet a person and you come to like them – a lot. You come to feel a sense of well-being and contentment with them and perhaps even when only thinking about them. Everything else, including pain and stress, melt away when you are engrossed with this person. You yearn for them. You seek them out or pine for them when you are unable to be with them. Simply put, “besotted men and women express the four basic traits of addiction: craving, tolerance (intensification), withdrawal symptoms, and relapse.”

Why Does The Route Matter?

Though substance addiction is generally defined as a pathological disorder, romantic love and attachment are considered to be positive experiences and important for our survival. This difference is one reason it would not be prudent to equate the two completely and say that addiction is love or that love is an addiction. However, understanding that addiction and attachment may share neurobiological pathways can provide insight. For example, our options for treatment expand, which is just what you need when you are breaking bad or breaking up.

When A Relationship Just Clicks