My over-arching theory of the life course of successful relationships, described more fully in my book, includes the notion that all relationships begin with what I call the “cocaine rush” phase. The cocaine-rush phase is an initial period of intense, highly pleasurable bonding based on the mutual fantasy that you and the other person are ideally matched and perfectly suited for each other. (In reference to my recent series of blog posts on the concept of soul mates, it is during the cocaine rush phase that a feeling of having found one’s soul mate has tremendous emotional pull on new lovers.)
I would not be the first person to draw a comparison between the state of falling in love and the state of feeling high on drugs. The concept of new love as addiction appears with frequency in many aspects of popular culture. If a bit pessimistic, selected excerpts of the song "A New Way to Fly" performed by Garth Brooks certainly demonstrate a healthy level of insight of how this can play out in love relationships:
Like birds on a high line/They line up at night time at the bar/They all once were lovebirds/Now bluebirds are all that they are/They landed in hell/The minute they fell from love's sky/And now they hope in the wine/That they'll find a new way to fly…/They've all crashed and burned/But they can leave it behind/If they could just find/A new way to fly/…By the end of the night/They'll be high as a kite once again…*
A less insightful, and certainly less dark and foreboding, version of this notion surfaces in the song "Hooked on a Feeling" written by Mark James and performed by B.J. Thomas:
I'm… hooked on a feelin'/High on believin'/That you're in love with me/Lips as sweet as candy/The taste stays on my mind/Girl, you keep me thirsty/For another cup of wine/..I got it bad for you, girl/But I don't need a cure/I'll just stay addicted/and hope I can endure!**
Despite the existence of many cultural (and lyrical) analogies between love and addictive drugs, the degree to which this effect drives poor decision-making in relationships suggests that this concept may yet be underestimated and underappreciated. Though I’m not the first writer to compare falling into love to becoming addicted to a mind-altering drug, it seems to me that the most fitting comparison drug is crack cocaine.
That is, there are striking similarities between the brain state of a person falling in love and that of a person who has just smoked crack cocaine. We're not talking about the slightly buzzed feeling you might get from drinking a glass or two of wine, but rather about the high-octane euphoria associated with smoking crack cocaine. Falling in love is the best high you can get without breaking any laws.
Dr. Helen Fisher, an anthropologist and relationship researcher, conducted a series of illuminating studies on the brain chemistry of love. Specifically, she found that the same brain chemicals (that is, massive amounts of dopamine and norepinephrine ) are in play, and many of the same brain pathways and structures are active when we are falling in love and enjoying a cocaine-high.***
Consider the specific euphoric effects of smoking crack cocaine. In the short run, according to the website cocaine.org, smoking crack cocaine leads to enhanced mood, heightened sexual interest, a feeling of increased self-confidence, greater conversational prowess and intensified consciousness… “It offers the most wonderful state of consciousness, and the most intense sense of being alive [that] the user will ever enjoy.”****
I wonder…if we replace the words "smoking crack cocaine" with the words "falling in love," does the sentence still make sense? Falling in love leads to ‘enhanced mood, heightened sexual interest, a feeling of increased self-confidence, greater conversational prowess and intensified consciousness…It offers the most wonderful state of consciousness, and the most intense sense of being alive that the user will ever enjoy.’ Yes, I'd say that fits, wouldn't you?
A further common marker of both falling in love and smoking cocaine is a clear stimulatory effect. Users of cocaine feel that the drug sharpens their focus and allows them to achieve an almost superhuman state of electrifying purpose. Making this connection between the two states of being may provide insight into some of the commonly reported experiences associated with falling in love. For example, the similarity between the two states may explain why new love prompts us to float and flit between our daily activities with a certain glow, bursting with vitality and charged with energy, all while whistling a cheerful tune.
Unlike crack cocaine, the effects of this “falling in love” high persist for weeks, months, even two years in some cases. The stimulatory effect of “love crack” may also help explain how we are able to stay up night after night for weeks or months on end, staring into each other’s eyes and whispering words of adoration to each other despite having full days of work or school.
Later in a relationship, romance continues to be possible and even deepens in many ways in healthy relationships; however, our behavior in later stages tends to be governed more by the laws of normal reality. When the initial stimulatory effect of new love wears off, we are much more likely to tell our partners that we love them and that we wish them a good night's rest lest we invite massive headaches and foggy thinking at work the next day.
Ultimately, the explosion of pleasurable chemicals released during the cocaine-rush phase of new love relationships leads to some monstrously short-sighted decision making in the cocaine- rush stage of relationships. To illustrate, let’s shift gears away from love relationships for a minute. Imagine that you are moving from the East Coast to the West Coast and your realtor tells you that your dream house has just come on the market. She informs you that the house has all the features you've been seeking—enough bedrooms and bathrooms and the type of particular architectural style you favor.
Naturally, you might begin to ask about the history and condition of the house. Imagine that your realtor said, "Well, I don't know, there might be some problems, but there's no time to do a home inspection. Someone else expressed interest in this house earlier today, so we'd better submit the highest binding offer you can afford and do it today."
What would you do? If the contract were completely binding with no built-in escape clause (which, thankfully, isn't generally true when you buy a home), would you commit all of your savings to this deal? Would you take this particular leap, sight unseen, without any knowledge of serious potential problems in the foundation of the house, legal complications you might get saddled with, extensive infestation of termites, or expensive structural issues that may need to be addressed?
To shift back to love relationships, these stakes are puny in comparison to the acceptance of a legal bond with another person in which you bind your finances, your hopes, and dreams to theirs while exclusively committing your emotional and sexual fidelity to them for the rest of your life!
Would it be intelligent to smoke some crack cocaine and then make a binding decision about buying a house that sounds perfect on paper in this state of mind? Would it be intelligent to take a leap into marriage in this frame of mind?
* Williams, K., and Brooks, G. (1990). “New Way to Fly.” (Performed by Garth Brooks). From the Album No Fences. Nashville, TN: Capital Nashville.
** James, M. (1968). “Hooked on a Feeling." (Originally performed by B. J. Thomas.) From the album On my Way. [Recorded by Scepter Records].
*** Fisher, H. (2000). “Lust, Attraction, Attachment: Biology and Evolution of the Three Primary Emotion Systems for Mating, Reproduction, and Parenting.” Journal of Sex Education and Therapy, 25, 96-104.
**** “In Search of the Big Bang: What is Crack Cocaine?” Accessed February 10, 2011. <http://www.cocaine.org/>