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Is It Love or Just an Addiction?

Getting real about connection from biology to society.

Key points

  • Bonds form when something or someone helpful becomes reliable and we lose our ability to do without it.
  • This process originates in biology and explains how networks of connectivity form, for example with multicellularity or ecology.
  • When well held, we feel most independent, taking for granted what we depend upon. When dropped, we suddenly awaken to our dependence.
  • The difference between love and addiction depends on whether you predict that a bond is good and reliable or bad and unreliable.

You don’t miss your water ’til your well runs dry—a simple and familiar observation with profound implications.

What becomes reliably available to us becomes an ignorable necessity. We get hooked but don’t notice we’re hooked unless the supply gets unreliable. That’s true of your partner’s reliable presence, your internet service, the roads you commute on, the stores you shop at, the local seasons, and the climate. You don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone. You don’t even notice that you got hooked on it.

We adjust our expectations to what is and isn’t predictably available. We settle and make do. We also settle in and let others do for us. We become partial—parts of larger wholes.

When your partner becomes your source of reliable soothing, you don’t need to be self-soothing. Your partner has you covered. If you lose your partner, you have to regain your ability to self-soothe. Same with anything your partner does for you. If they do all the cooking or bookkeeping and you end up alone, you must restore your lost abilities. One becomes partial to a reliable external source. When the external source disappears, you’re just a part. It’s like the Beatle’s song Yesterday: Suddenly, I’m not half the man I used to be.

It’s like an addiction. People who get addicted to morphine stop producing their own endorphins. That’s what cold turkey is about—waiting for one’s body to resume endorphin (internal morphine) production.

It’s also like love. Indeed, the difference between love and addiction is a prediction. If you predict that becoming part of a larger whole is good and reliable, it’s love. If you predict that it’s bad and unreliable, it’s addiction.

But mostly, we don’t think about our loves and addictions. They become second nature, consumed and assumed. You don’t worry about what’s reliably present because you’ve got other things to worry about. Losing our ability to do for ourselves is a kind of blind optimism. When a need is met, or a problem goes away, we assume it’s forever. Problem solved once and for all. Now we’ll live happily ever after.

Except we don’t stay happy. Just contented. We’re told we should be more grateful for everything that’s working in our lives. It’s good advice. A glass-half-full attitude can comfort us when something stops working.

We should also be grateful for our ingratitude. We need our mindless dependencies. Minds can’t stay preoccupied with what’s working. In decision theory, it’s called satisficing. We don’t have the bandwidth to optimize so we satisfice, settling for the sufficiently satisfying. When a wheel gets a little grease and mostly stops squeaking, we move on to other squeaky wheels. We can’t afford to sit there all day appreciating the obviously reliable. Attention turns toward the iffy. We turn what we can into ignorable habits of dependency though that leaves us bereft if what we depend upon disappears.

That’s the paradox of dependency: When well held, we feel most independent, taking for granted what we depend upon. When dropped, we suddenly awaken to our dependence. Don’t miss your water til your well runs dry.

It’s also co-dependency, which is as good as it’s bad. Reciprocated love is co-dependency. Literally, each partner is supplying what the other depends upon. Society is held together by such co-dependencies. We depend on others as much as they depend on us. And why do we depend on like that? Because some of your self-sufficiency is lost when others covered you.

Centuries ago we grew our own food. Now we depend on grocery stores. Most of us wouldn’t begin to know how to grow our own food. We’ve lost that ability. We’re in love with or addicted to grocery stores. The evidence is in the dedicated work we do to maintain access to them, the money we earn, the cars we maintain. Grocery stores freed us up to engage in all sorts of other specializations. That’s the economy. The butcher, baker, candlestick maker all co-dependent upon each other. Which is it, love or addiction? It depends on whether you think reliance on grocery stores is good and sustainable.

My definition of love or addiction and its milder varieties, like and dependence, isn’t some romantically vague poetry. It highlights doing dedicated work to maintain that which we depend upon. Dedication and dependence are both constraints. Dedicated work: Of all the things you could do, you do a constrained range of things that maintains the constrained set of things you depend upon. For example, of all the things you could do, you do what keeps your partner happy. Of all the things you could do, you do what maintains your access to grocery stores. That’s the heart of economics. What we value is revealed by what we dedicate ourselves to accessing. And why? Because we’ve become partial to external sources of things that we’d otherwise have to produce for ourselves.

It’s also the heart of biology. The biologist Terrence Deacon calls it falling up. We rise to greater complex synergies by losing the ability to do for ourselves. For example, multicellularity, our cells having lost the ability to be independent cells.

Genes aren’t selfish, but they are lazy. Our ancestors used to be able to make their own vitamin C the way other mammals do. When we gained access to fruit 35 million years ago, we didn’t need to make our own C anymore. The genes that enabled us to produce C for ourselves got lazy. They became junk DNA, and it was OK. We could survive on fruit. Now we’re addicted to fruit or other external sources of C. And like earning wages for groceries, we gained other abilities to sustain our dependency. For example, color vision, which biologists agree evolved first to distinguish ripe from unripe fruit.

It’s a beautiful process when you stop to think about it. And it does suggest some tips for living well. For example, be careful what you become dependent upon. It may feel like love but sometimes it’s an addiction you’ll later regret.

This article as a video:

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