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10 Reasons New Love Is Like Crack Cocaine

Critical insights for successful relationship formation

My work was recently featured on a live radio show on CBC Radio One (Canada’s version of BBC or NPR). In the wake of news of the Jolie/Pitt divorce, the topic of the show was “Is Marriage a Relationship Killer?”

I shared some thoughts about my three-phase model of the life course of successful relationships. After the show, I reviewed the comments and tweets that were submitted during the program. One comment questioned why I would call the first phase of relationship the “cocaine rush phase.” The commenter found the use of addiction language applied to love to be off-putting and suggested that we should continue to stick with “the honeymoon phase” as the term of choice for this part of a relationship.

Off-putting though it may be to some, here are ten reasons why I am sticking with “cocaine rush phase” as the best way to capture the first phase of new relationships.

1) First, there are very real chemical changes that occur when we perceive that we are falling in love. Massive amounts of dopamine and norepinephrine are released and the same brain pathways light up when we are falling in love and when we are smoking crack cocaine. This effect has been well established in high quality research.*

Just for fun, let’s substitute the words “falling in love” in the following sentence where the words “Smoking crack cocaine” had been.

According to the website, “smoking crack cocaine [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.”

I'd say the substitution fits really well, wouldn't you?  

2) The behavioral patterns of people in new relationships mimics those who are addicted to stimulants in some interesting and fairly amusing ways.

For instance, two symptoms of stimulant use disorders are cravings and “spending a great deal of time to obtain and use stimulants.” This brings to mind the way that people who have just met will often spend hours in any given day texting each other. They will often send out an endless stream of texts and will get a little zap of pleasure in their brains every time their new partner responds positively. (What in the world can be so fascinating about the blow by blow events of each others' days we might wonder? Nothing really, but the chemical zap you get is wonderful.)

In the early days of a new relationship, sleep may suffer because there is such a drive to stay on the phone whispering sweet nothings to each other night after night (or doing other things night after night).  A previously fulfilling job can become “that annoying thing I have to show up for and spend my day doing” until I get to connect with my partner again.

Another symptom is “continued use despite interference with major obligations or social functioning.” This brings to mind the way that people’s lives often get way out of balance when they have met a new person they are excited about. People in the thrall of new love will often fail to nurture their relationships with longtime friends, because it is so powerfully pleasurable to cocoon away with someone that you have cast as your soulmate.

3) Using the term “cocaine rush phase” is helpful because it prompts us to use appropriate caution lest we make legally and emotionally binding decisions while our brains are altered by this pleasure-inducing chemical explosion. One of the callers on the CBC Radio One program bravely described how her partner’s violent behavior showed up only after they were legally married. As I have written in my book, Marriage, For Equals, when you meet someone new and begin to have private feelings that they are your “soulmate,” in reality this may signal one of three things:

a) To start on a hopeful foot, it may be the real deal…the kind of love that is invigorating, freeing and sustainable for the rest of your life.

b) Or these feelings may be the very common “folie a deux” (madness shared by two) that you are perfectly compatible, which may turn out to be quite off-base and may result in later feelings of disappointment or heartbreak.

c) Or, these feelings may be echoes of former trauma that may signal a relationship that will morph into the nightmare of the abusive situation.

So using the term “cocaine rush” phase captures both the excitement we feel and the need to be careful about making binding commitments when our brains are altered in this way.

4) Using an addiction analogy allows us to understand how the cocaine rush phase may extend well beyond two years. If two years is used as a general upper limit for the cocaine rush phase, there are certainly many exceptions to the rule and they can be understood well if we look at dosage-effect patterns.

As I mentioned on the Ontario Today podcast “Is Marriage a Relationship Killer?”, exceptions would include situations where there is very little reality to allow people to transition out of the cocaine rush phase. For instance, when a courtship has occurred during a time when one or both partners have had multiple lengthy military deployments, there are several factors that can extend the cocaine rush phase of the relationship. Another very common example is in situations that are long distance where there is very little sustained real-time contact.

Using this model helps me explain why I don’t make a general rule about how long we should date before marriage. I think the more intelligent thing is to understand the hallmarks of the cocaine rush phase and the hallmarks of the testing phase so that we do not make emotionally binding decisions during the cocaine rush phase of a relationship.

5) Using the term “cocaine rush” to describe the first phase of new love helps us understand that we can fall in love with people independent of our relationship status. (Whereas the term “honeymoon phase” is dependent upon being in that particular relationship). We can have chemistry with a number of people at any time in our life. There are certain situations and conditions that will make this more likely to happen…for example, when we are working closely with people on common goals (e.g. with attractive co-workers) or when we simulate love and sex in romantic movies (should you be a Hollywood actor for example). Old flames are particularly combustible. In the context of a committed monogamous relationship, to privately connect with an old flame and incite “cocaine rush” feelings is to play with fire.

Since we can expect to have feelings of attraction for a variety of people outside of our relationships, using the term “cocaine rush” helps us understand that although we are not at fault to have these feelings, we do have a choice when a cocaine rush process kicks off. While having chemistry/attraction is normal and common, this experience needs to be metabolized in our committed relationships if they are to be sustainable and emotionally safe.

6) “Cocaine rush phase” as a label also helps us remember that new lover’s euphoria has an end – tolerance will be developed. When will this occur? When there is an adequate dose of reality and sufficient real information about each other to knock each other off our respective pedestals. Reality is the antidote to these chemical explosions. For all of us at some point, the chemical flood will recede and we will have to figure out how to construct a relationship that will be sustainable. The kind of pleasure we get during the next phase of relationships (“the testing phase”) can also be remarkably positive, but it is not the result of an effortless release of pleasure-inducing chemicals. It is the result of intentional choices, based on the energy we invest in creating an exceptional relationship.

7) Stimulant addiction is also associated with withdrawal symptoms that occur after stopping or reducing use. If a relationship ends during the cocaine rush phase, you may experience physiological withdrawal symptoms. There is a new phenomenon in the modern dating world called “ghosting.” “Ghosting” refers to the behavior of someone who suddenly disappears and cuts off contact in the midst of what the other person felt was a hopeful connection. If you are ever “ghosted,” based on the physiology of infatuation, we can reasonably predict that you may go through a withdrawal period.  And just like the explosion of chemicals is not the mark of true love (see my point #3 above), the withdrawal of this chemical explosion does not mean that you have lost something of great value. In fact, a good question to ask yourself at these times is whether you miss the person you were with in reality or whether you in fact miss your initial mis-perception of who you thought they were.

8) The cocaine rush feelings in new love may treat symptoms of mood depression, in the short run. The chemicals that are released during new love are the same chemicals that some antidepressant medications make more abundant in our brains. New love is not a cure for depression of course - what we can expect is a short-term reprieve followed by return to baseline when the cocaine rush phase transitions into “the testing phase.” When relationship excitement is used to mask depression or help us pave over grief or loss of a different relationship (rebound relationship formation), the relief is temporary. Like most addictive processes, long-term positive change as a result of substances (or new love’s euphoria) is generally speaking a mirage in a desert of engulfing loss.

9) The cocaine rush model explains why we should not compare the feelings we have about a long-term partner to a new attraction. It truly is apples and oranges. They are both sweet in their own way. It is important not to make the mistake of concluding that because we “do not feel the same way we used to” about our current partners or do not have the same intensity of effortless chemical attraction when we compare an exciting potential partner to a long-term partner, that this indicates that we are “no longer in love.” Feelings of love and attraction in a long-term successful partnership will fluctuate and are often a function of stress loads in our life and the energy we are putting into the relationship. A new potential partner is an idealized fantasy which makes for a very unfair, and potentially destructive comparison point. These fantasized alternative partners can be attractive people in our present, our past, or people we have never even been romantically involved with. Reminds me of the classic Simon and Garfunkel song, Kodachrome:

If you took all the girls I knew when I was single
Brought 'em all together for one night
I know they'd never match my sweet imagination

10) Finally, as in the addictive model, the law of diminishing returns applies. Within the same relationship, we don’t get the same intensity of effortless pleasure from physical contact with our partner over time. The fuel for attraction must come from a different source as we transition into “the testing phase.” The law of diminishing returns can also apply on a meta-level: there can be a profoundly negative impact on us when we hear the words “I love you and I’ll never leave you” repeatedly from different partners in the context of a string of unsustainable relationships or multiple divorces.  People can become addicted to the feeling of falling in love, but over time, I have to wonder if the capacity for sustaining a successful long-term relationship is increasingly diminished?

What are your thoughts? Let's discuss. :)

*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].