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The Role of the Brain in Love and Relationship Dependency

A person newly in love can react the same way a gambler feels after a big win.

Source: gstockstudio

Being in love and finding that perfect someone, has been compared to winning the lottery. Indeed, a person newly in love can react the same way a gambler feels after a big win. If you’re newly in love, you can experience a chemical jolt, akin to a drug hit.

Dr. Arthur Aron, a psychologist at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, says “intense passionate love uses the same system of the brain that gets activated when a person becomes addicted to drugs.” Aron’s co-author, Lucy Brown, a neuroscientist at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York, continues by saying “you can feel happy when you are in love, but also feel anxious. The other person becomes a goal in life, essentially a prize.”

So, while love can be like a hit of a drug, both can lead to an addiction. The authors of the study The Behavioral, Anatomical and Pharmacological Parallels between Social Attachment, Love and Addiction note that “a significant overlap exists” between the physiological effects of both love and addiction. One can become addicted to another individual, and these relationships include both romantic relationships and parent-child relationships. The authors coin the term “social addiction,” another term for relationship dependency.

The Brain’s Role

Being in a relationship triggers the brain’s reward center, just as a drug hit can. Conversely, being out of a relationship can trigger feelings of depression and anxiety. Emotional response, then, becomes intertwined with physical response, each supporting the other. This creates a powerful pull toward relationships. The relationship becomes the goal — the prize — that allows the person to feel good and reduce pain. Is it any wonder we succumb to relationship dependency?

The brain has a reward center within the limbic system. The limbic system is the control center for emotional responses and controls the release of a chemical substance produced by the body called dopamine. Dopamine makes us feel good, even euphoric. Certain drugs produce a heightened release of dopamine, flooding the brain with abnormal amounts of this feel-good substance.

Once the brain is awash with dopamine, however, it attempts to balance itself, shutting off dopamine production and creating a low or “crash” that follows the “high.” Over time, the brain can lose its ability to produce dopamine on its own, driving the person to become more and more addicted to the drug.

Behavioral addictions can also create conditions in which dopamine is produced. The brain can become trained to release dopamine at the pleasure received from shopping or gambling, for example. Those behavioral addictions intersect with relationship dependency. Foreign substances can create a pleasure response in the brain; but so can personal choices. The brain has an “expectation of pleasure” from an impending activity, which can trigger the release of dopamine.

If you’re a dependent person, you have a specific definition of what makes you happy, of what is pleasurable in a relationship for you. That definition can trigger the release of dopamine within your limbic system. Your behaviors train your brain to recognize pleasure and release the dopamine. So, in the case of the dependent person, it is not about the brain being addicted to a foreign substance, it is about the brain being addicted to its own chemistry. (…)

Just as with pleasure, we also have the ability to determine what causes us distress. It may be traveling over a high bridge, flying in a plane, or being in the same room as a spider. You may have good reason to fear certain situations based on a personal life experience or those of someone you know. Even the anticipation of these events can cause distress.

In dependent relationships, we not only have an avenue for anticipating and experiencing pleasure (releasing dopamine), we also have it for avoiding distress. But as we know, relationships have peaks and valleys. Newness can wear off. The honeymoon doesn’t last forever.

In dependent relationships, normal ups and downs become artificially steep. If our brain has compensated by suppressing the production of dopamine, the combination of lowered “feel-good” and a rough patch in a relationship can lead some to depression, anxiety and irritability. In a dependent relationship, the stability of the relationship becomes compromised by one’s dependency traits. The dependent person sets up conditions for pleasure that are impossible to maintain, guaranteeing failure and the distress that accompanies it.

Understanding the factors — emotional and physical — that contribute to certain behaviors, either within a single relationship or within a relationship revolving door, are important. If you have a fatalistic idea that you cannot change because your brain has been altered, this is your dependency talking. Refuse to listen.

You have trained your body how to respond. It has reacted in a way that it has been trained, even when you want to feel something different. The silver lining is that you can retrain your brain to act in a different way. You are an acting, thinking, reasoning being, not merely reactive and instinctive. You have the ability to change the way you think and feel. And if you have that ability, you have the ability to get to a healthier place in your personal life and in your relationships.

Authored by Dr. Gregory Jantz, founder of The Center • A Place of HOPE and author of 30 books. Pioneering whole-person care nearly 30 years ago, Dr. Jantz has dedicated his life’s work to creating possibilities for others, and helping people change their lives for good. The Center • A Place of HOPE, located on the Puget Sound in Edmonds, Washington, creates individualized programs to treat behavioral and mental health issues, including eating disorders, addiction, depression, anxiety and others.

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