Some researchers say we're all technically addicted to love, but when does it become a problem?
Photo by Viktor Solomin
Love: It's the reason we text "U up?" to everyone in our phones, endure Tinder and the ensuing bad dates, and open our hearts up to the possibility of being ghosted. Everyone wants to fall in love and, ideally, stay in love; anyone who has been rejected knows that the empty sadness of unrequited affection or a breakup is unparalleled.
Researchers at the University of Oxford recently analyzed the scientific literature on why we can't get enough of love—and to varying degrees freak out when we don't have it—and found that it might be because we're addicted to it. "These phenomena—including cycles of alternating ecstasy and despair, desperate longing, and the extreme and sometimes damaging thoughts and behaviors that can follow from love's loss—bear a resemblance to analogous phenomena associated with more 'conventional' addictions like those for drugs, alcohol, or gambling," the survey of nearly 400 studies on love addiction, published in the journal Philosophy, Psychiatry, & Psychology, explains.
Read more: Why Men Fall In Love Faster Than Women
The study was lead by Brian Earp at the Oxford University Center for Neuroethics. Earp found that there's two emerging ways to look at love as an addiction: narrow and broad. Under what he's termed the "narrow" view, you're a certified love addict only when the pursuit of love is really getting in the way of your day-to-day life. "When a person in love repeatedly seeks contact with another individual—for physical intimacy, attention, or merely to be in the same room—it is often to secure momentary feelings of intense pleasure and to relieve obsessive thought patterns about the object of her passion," one study concluded. "If this sort of behavior threatens the individual's (or another's) safety, mental or physical health, or incurs serious social or legal costs, it may rise to the level of an addiction."
Another study found that love addicts "feel desperate and alone when not in a relationship," "continue trying to romance the love object long after the relationship has broken up," and "replace ended relationships immediately" despite such declarations as, "I'll never love again."
It's well known that when we're in love, different biochemical reactions occur in the brain. Some researchers, the survey notes, have theorized that this natural response can develop into an unhealthy reward signal, therefore causing a disordered addiction. "The narrow view of love addiction is narrow, then, in the sense that it sees only extreme, radical brain processes, attachment behaviors, or manifestations of love as being potentially indicative of addiction—and hence [love addiction] is thought to be quite rare," the analysis notes.
But another way of looking at love addiction holds that basically all love is addiction. This is the broad view, which argues that addictions—whether for love, food, or drugs—"are simply appetites: they are felt needs that can be temporarily satisfied, but which become urgent and distracting if one abstains from fulfilling them for too long."
In other words, everyone is on a spectrum of addiction. "This approach would claim that to love someone is literally to be addicted to them, though perhaps only weakly," the paper notes. Studies have shown that plain, normal love—as opposed to the disordered behavior described above—stimulates our reward centers in the same way that drugs do.
"With respect to dopamine, both mating and addictions elicit very similar neurochemical activity, concentrated in the reward circuitry of the brain: sex, orgasm, and all known drugs of abuse stimulate high levels dopamine release in the nucleus accumbens," the researchers write in the survey. "Some scientists have suggested that this dopaminergic overlap may explain why experiencing love or engaging in sexual activity can feel like a cocaine rush."
A broad view of love addiction would describe the behaviors and emotions of someone who obsessively checks their ex's Instagram every day not as a disorder, but as a valid response to a breakup, though perhaps extreme.
Earp says the distinction between the two approaches raises important ethical questions about how we might treat love addiction in a future in which there's a love potion you could drink to prevent a breakup, or a pill you could take to get over an ex. In fact, he wanted to look at the literature on the topic because his other research deals with how medicine might be able to intervene in the brain-level systems that underlie romantic attachment.
For example, Earp notes, antidepressants could be prescribed to help you leave a partner: "SSRIs (often used to treat depression) sometimes have the side effect of lowering your libido, but they can also sometimes block your 'higher-level' ability to care about other people's feelings, and may degrade certain romantic attachments. Normally, that's seen as a bad thing; but if you're trying to get out of a relationship, then this side-effect of the drug might actually be helpful for your goals," he said. Earp doesn't recommend that people use antidepressants in this way—you need a prescription and a valid diagnosis—but he points out that these kinds of effects are already possible; they aren't just science-fiction speculation.
...There could be an argument for using pharmacology in some cases to help the process of emotional separation.
But in what instances would someone need medicine to regulate the emotions they experience around love? If love addiction is indeed a spectrum, at what point, if at all, should someone turn to pills to intervene?
If the narrow view is correct, the study points out, medicating the symptoms of a disorder is uncontroversial. But if the broader view is correct, the idea of offering treatment for someone who is simply in love and processing emotions related to that starts to sound odd.
Earp says it could ultimately come down to whether or not the love-afflicted individual is harmful to themselves or others. "As it stands, there are all sorts of ways to try to 'get over' your feelings for someone, especially if you realize that the person is truly bad for you, or you're in a toxic relationship that really should end, one way or another. And we think that these 'traditional,' non-pharmacological ways of altering your feelings should be tried first, even in the future when strategies for medically 'treating' harmfully addictive love are more widely available," Earp said in an email. "But we just want to raise the possibility that, for some people, if those 'traditional' methods have been tried and didn't work, and the person's feelings really are causing them or vulnerable third parties considerable harm overall... then there could be an argument for using pharmacology in some cases to help the process of emotional separation."
"But again, we just want to stress that the pain of heartbreak, and trying to learn how to get over your feelings for someone when you realize that they are out of control and may be leading you into dangerous territory, is part of life," he added. "That struggle is, in part, how we learn and grow and avoid getting into bad situations in the future. So we don't recommend that people just start popping pills to turn their emotions on and off at whim. Instead, the idea would be to try to identify those very specific situations where the suffering is so great, and other means have been tried but turned out to be ineffective, that taking a 'medical' approach could be helpful all things considered."