Love is maddening and inconvenient and exhilarating and wonderful. We often feel overwhelmed by it, heart pounding, “head over heels,” “crazy in love.” But how much is too much? And what’s the difference between feelings of normal love and desire, and love addiction? Where, exactly, is the line?
For years I've known a woman we'll call Elaine. Elaine at the time was in her mid-40s, fun-loving and attractive. “Let’s do a drive-by,” she whispered. “We’ll go by Richard’s house. I want to see what he’s doing,” Richard her long-time ex-boyfriend. At this point, I slunk low in the car, envisioning an arrest or otherwise embarrassing debacle. I thought I was in the clear when Richard proved to be out for the evening. Alas, no, instead, Elaine went through Richard’s garbage. A woman, who, two hours earlier had swapped fashion tips on a routine shopping trip with me was now reduced to sifting out two bottles of wine in a trash can -- to her, an obvious indication that he’s seeing someone, and a debilitating blow to her psyche.
My mind was racing -- where had sense gone? Who would go to such lengths, risking further alienating the object of her affection?
And, of course, it isn't just women. I once briefly dated a magazine executive, who, after I asked to part ways, proceeded to call my office and email me for months (even years) after the fact, begging for any sort of connection, a man who many would call the epitome of New York success with prestige, charm and influence. From where do these acts of desperation arise?
We hear stories like this again and again, taken to the extreme in stories and popularized in shows like Stalked on Investigation Discovery. (Disclosure: I work for a branch of Discovery.) Stalking, a frightening form of obsession, may, in some cases, be love addiction gone wild.
The “compulsive need” for a partner can be as psychologically dangerous as any drug, perhaps more so because we're all seeking love in our lifetime, where as alcohol or vicodin could be weened from our lifestyle.
Reading anthropologist Helen Fisher’s “Why We Love,” I was staggered by just how much we actually need one another -- we rise and fall with our lover’s heartstrings, exhibit emotional dependence, have moods that wane and wax with our lover’s. And who’s to say this is negative?
Fisher conducted a simple survey in the vicinity of an American university and a university in Japan (839 participants), which showcases our level of attachment to one another. Age, gender, ethnic group and responses through other key demographics remained consistent.
A snapshot of the findings:
- 73% of men and 85% of women remembered trivial things that their beloved said and did
- 79% of men and 78% of women said their mind continually drifted to their beloved when they were at school or work, and furthermore, 47% of men and 50% of women agreed that "no matter where it starts, my mind always seems to end up thinking about _________"
- 68% of men and 56% of women showed support of "My emotional state depends on how ________ feels about me"
We commit a high volume of mental real estate to whom we romantically love.
fMRI results support the notion that romantic love is a form of addictive drug (PDF), stimulating the same pathways as opioids and cocaine, the mesolimbic reward system. This, as Fisher points out, allows for tolerance, withdrawal and relapse. Sound familiar?
Like substance addicts, love addicts trying to break cycles with toxic partners need to avoid triggers, situations that stimulate their amygdala or reptilian brain and raise their cravings to "use." These include old meeting places, songs, and shared pastimes.
Relapses look a lot like obsession, crazed, nearly unconscious actions, described by Derek Walcott’s “The Fist”:
The fist clenched round my heart
loosens a little, and I gasp
brightness; but it tightens
again. When have I ever not loved
the pain of love? But this has moved
past love to mania. This has the strong
clench of the madman, this is
gripping the ledge of unreason, before
plunging howling into the abyss.
Hold hard then, heart. This way at least you live.
It's understandable why even the most "normal" among us seem to lose our minds when spurned or losing in love -- we're undergoing withdrawal. We seek neurochemical hits of this drug and would live and die for a fix, like many under the pull of a drug addiction. It's our brain chemistry's nature.
But ultimately, we're all looking for a long-term relapse, a stable maintenance of this neurochemical flow, attachment, as Fisher notes in her TED talk below. The lesson here is to treat ourselves gently, to understand that this primordial drive for love and affection is present in us all, and to be kind with ourselves in recovering and feeling the need for it.