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Robin Marantz Henig

A Web Site for the Heartbroken

Losing love might be like withdrawing from a powerful drug

Robin Marantz Henig
Source: Robin Marantz Henig

Is romantic love a kind of addiction? A group of scientists seem to think so. And if it is, do other kinds of love -- such as the kind that parents and grandparents feel -- make the same physiological imprint on the human brain?

I found myself wondering about all this when reading a cute little Style section article about a web site for the heartbroken, which caught my eye the other day. I've been lucky in love -- well, either lucky or unimaginative -- and haven't really suffered from devastating breakups too often. (Most of my intense heartbreaks were over teenage crushes; I married my college boyfriend when I was 19, and have stayed married to him for 43 generally happy, generally drama-free years.) But I know, mostly from watching friends and from reading novels, how devastating and all-consuming romantic breakups can be.

That's where Mend comes in. It's an online one-stop shop where the lovelorn can find professional help, a sympathetic ear, and a ready-made support group of other people in pretty much the same boat.

What really grabbed me in the article were the comments from Mend founder Ellen Huerta, who talked about a recent scientific study about the physical nature of heartache. A good romantic relationship, Huerta said, is one in which all systems -- especially hormonal and neurological systems -- are buzzing in concert between the lovebirds, and severing that connection leads to a physical state not unlike withdrawal. The investigators (psychologists and neurologists from the Kinsey Institute and elsewhere) wrote about this in their abstract:

[R]esearchers have not categorized romantic love as a chemical or behavioral addiction. But by embracing data on romantic love, it's [sic] classification as an evolved, natural, often positive but also powerfully negative addiction, and its neural similarity to many substance and non-substance addictive states, clinicians may develop more effective therapeutic approaches to alleviate a range of the addictions, including heartbreak -- an almost universal human experience that can trigger stalking, clinical depression, suicide, homicide, and other crimes of passion.

This observation about the addictive nature of romantic love makes me wonder whether other good relationships, not only in romance but in families, might also lead to that wonderful buzz -- and whether losing them, through death or divorce or just maybe the growing up of the child in question, might be something like withdrawal, too. That's a question to ponder now: whether the head-over-heels feelings that come with being a parent, or a grandparent, can be traced to the same neurological changes seen in a person in the throes of other kinds of love.


About the Author

Robin Marantz Henig is a science journalist and the co-author, with her daughter Samantha Henig, of Twentysomething: Why Do Young Adults Seem Stuck?