Romantic love is a psychological process between two people and it is also a physiological process that occurs in the brain for each individual. For men and women experiencing the warmth, touch and presence of another causes increased oxytocin levels in the brain and decreases blood pressure. In research examining the impact of maternal separation on baby rats, it has been shown that chronic separation decreased dopamine (the brain’s reward chemical) and decreased the rats’ tolerance .
Drug addiction is oddly similar to the chemical process that goes on in the brain as a result of bonding and attachment. Being separated from a lover or feeling emotionally abandoned creates a series of reactions that are not unlike the body’s process of withdrawing from a drug.
A person first learns how to love and what to expect in romantic relationships through experiencing and observing love as children. If parents exhibit indifference and avoidance, children grow up unconsciously expecting to experience, on some level, the same from those they love in adulthood. The brain leaves childhood with a rough draft for how it expects love to proceed– comforting and loving or guarded and emotionally unavailable or some variation of these poles– and it creates shortcuts by filling in the blanks to repeat this love scenario in adult relationships.
If early in life loving one or both of your caretakers left you feeling rejected, dismissed or undervalued, then these are the feelings you will implicitly call up when you experience love in your adult relationships and you will likely be drawn to people who treat you similarly. In some cases, love addiction can be a dysfunctional way to offset some of the losses one experienced at the hands of caretakers in childhood. Even though a person may partner with an unhealthy prospect, this relationship may seem to offer a chance to triumph over past hurt.
The result is usually far less than desirable. When a person partners with an unhealthy match, an addictive kind of relationship dynamic may take hold. A love addiction is typically associated with strong highs, where both partners feel jubilant and passionate, and the lowest of the lows, often resulting in depression and generally feeling ‘stressed out’ for long periods of time. Just like a drug, the reward centers of the brain light up when the highs are high and the brain’s happy chemicals plummet when the lows occur. The highs and positive feelings may be short-lived, but people often stay in these dysfunctional unions for a surprisingly long time, sustained by the anticipation of the next endorphin rush.
Adult romantic relationships are powerfully influenced by early attachment experiences with caretakers. As I describe in my book, Having Sex, Wanting Intimacy, these experiences may pull you toward certain types of people, even if they are unhealthy or incapable of a reciprocally, emotionally, intimate relationship.
Just as small children passionately protest when a parent leaves the room the same kind of reaction may occur between ardent lovers who fear the ending of their bond: even if the union is a dysfunctional disaster. If the relationship does end, the absence of the bond leaves some people feeling inordinate pain, oftentimes even manifesting on a physical level. Part of this pain is the loss of the rewarding chemicals in the brain and, as a result, people may truly feel ‘love sick.’ People frequently stay in addicted love relationships out of a fear of experiencing this pain and a desire to avoid it.
Take stock of your past history with love, start with your early experiences in your family and then move through your romantic relationship history. As you become more fully aware of your love history and how your needs went met or unmet, you will develop a greater ability to see others as they really are. Ask yourself if in your adult relationships you are playing the same role you did as a child? Have you adopted the role of one of your parents or even the role you played in a previous romantic relationship? Become fully aware of who you are choosing to become romantic with and assess whether they remind you of a dysfunctional relationship from your past. Learn to take time to get to know people who treat you well and make you feel good. Surround yourself with people who are compassionate and kind toward you. Transcending love addicyion means consciously attaching to healthy partners.
As powerful as negative childhood experiences are, it has been often demonstrated that they may be overcome with awareness and effort.
Cozolino, L. (2006). The Neuroscience of Human Relationships: Attachment and the Developing Social Brain. W.W. Norton & Company: New York.
Lewis, T. Amini, F. & Lannon, R. (2000). A General Theory of Love. Random House: New York.
Jill P.Weber , Ph.D. is the author of Having Sex, Wanting Intimacy—Why Women Settle for One-Sided Relationships. She specializes in the impact of culture on female identity and relationship development. She is a clinical psychologist in private practice in the Washington, D.C. area. She holds a Ph.D. in psychology from American University. She has appeared as a psychology expert in various media outlets, including Nightline, Teen Vogue, Redbook, Family Circle, Seventeen, CNN, Associated Press, U.S. News and World Report and Discovery Channel.