Rebecca came to our first therapy session agitated and fidgety. She was 48 years old, and stunning with piercing green eyes and brown/black hair that curled tightly when it got humid. But on that day, her hair was frizzy and her eyes were flat. She looked wrung out.
From ages 23 to 38, Rebecca had been a self-destructive alcoholic. She had lost a marriage, custody of two young kids, all social support, and three jobs before getting sober and reversing her direction. Since getting sober, she had resumed custody of the kids, bought a lovely old Victorian home, established close ties to an AA sponsor, and began a successful business.
But Rebecca had relapsed. All the success she had found was now precariously perched on a foundation that was, well, tipping. She was distracted and unproductive at work, impatient with her children, and had again let most of her social support fall away. She had reverted to old patterns.
She hadn’t taken a drink, though. What she had done was fall in love.
What Does Addiction Have to do With Love?
Numerous functional MRI studies of people who described themselves as newly in love have identified the activation of subcortical dopaminergic structures known as the “reward center” of our brains. These are the same centers that light up in the neuroimaging of people who suffer from alcohol and drug addiction (Aron, Fisher, Mashek, Strong, & Brown, 2005; Zeki & Bartels, 2004).
More recent studies have found even stronger similarities between the experience of being “in love” and of using drugs. A 2010 metaanalysis of fMRI studies of those newly in love and those using drugs like cocaine found cortical as well as subcortical structures that were similarly activated. These structures work together to release the chemicals, like adrenaline, vasopressin, dopamine, and oxytocin, that give us a sense of euphoria. The researchers also found similar cognitive functions coming into play when one is on drugs and in love. These include mental representation and body image (Ortigue, Bianchi-Demicheli, Patel, Frum & Lewis, 2010). This finding suggests that the way we talk to ourselves and think about ourselves may have similarities when we’re in love and on drugs.
The subjective experience of love can feel like addiction: the craving, the obsession, the emotional highs and lows. And it can have a similar impact upon our functioning in several domains, including social and professional.
What Conclusions Can We Draw?
It doesn’t make sense to pathologize the experience of falling in love based on these findings. Early love serves a strong evolutionary purpose: It draws us and binds us to another person, it creates an almost irrational sense of safety and trust, and it encourages us to do things like procreate. It can also affect our brains and bodies in positive ways. One study suggests that new love mitigates our autonomic stress response, making us more resistant to negative events and emotions (Schneiderman, Zilberstein-Kra, Leckman, & Feldman, 2011).
New love also serves a purpose for long-term relationships, establishing the foundation for a strong emotional bond and a font of positive memories to guide us through difficult times.
It does make sense, though, to think of falling in love as destabilizing, or even somewhat dangerous. The singularity of the experience, the peaks of intensity that find parallels nowhere else in our lives threatens our balance. If health is balance and flexibility, early love is antagonistic to that end. It requires cognitive muscle to keep ourselves in check in the face so much tumult.
Perhaps you find yourself like Rebecca did, feeling elated to see your lover and devastated to be apart. If you stalk their Facebook account and the pages of their exes, find yourself chained to your cell phone, or feel like everything and everyone is flat compared to your loved one, it might be time to get some perspective. Love may be an emotional/chemical process, but we’re also (often) rational creatures, capable of recognizing and correcting our self-indulgence. We’re capable of challenging destructive patterns, balancing social connection with romantic connection, and talking to our friends or therapists when we feel destabilized. New love, when done right, can be thrilling, rather than destructive. It can augment an already rich life.
*** NOTE: The name and identifying information of the client have been changed to protect confidentiality.
Aron, A., Fisher, H., Mashek, D, Strong, G., Li, H., & Brown, L. (2005). Reward, motivation and emotion systems associated with early-stage intense romantic love. Journal of Neurophysiology, 93, 327-337.
Ortigue, S., Bianchi-Demicheli, F., Patel, N., Frum, C., & Lewis, J. (2010). Neuroimaging of love: fMRI meta-analysis evidence toward new perspectives in sexual medicine. Journal of Sexual Medicine, 7(11), November, doi: 10.1111/j.1743-6109.2010.01999.
Schneiderman, I., Zilberstein-Kra, Y., Leckman, J. F. & Feldman, R. (2011). Love alters autonomic reactivity to emotions. Emotion 11 (6), December, 1314-1321. doi: 10.1037/a0024090
Zeki, S., & Bartels, A. (2004). The neural correlates of maternal and romantic love. NeuroImage 21,1155-66.