3 Surprising Facts About the Dangerous Power of Love

Love can make you feel some powerful emotions, some of them too powerful.

Posted Jul 22, 2016

oneinchpunch/Shutterstock
Source: oneinchpunch/Shutterstock

Love is a positive experience for most people, but it is also important to be aware of the potential downsides to being in love. Here are just three:

1. Love Makes You Dumb

Love, especially passionate love, can be all-consuming. Some researchers have compared passionate love to addiction (e.g. Reynaud et al., 2010): Our obsessive thoughts and single-minded attention to our lover can impair the more mundane aspects of our daily lives such as studying or working (van Steenbergen et al., 2014). Research reveals that individuals who consider themselves to be passionately in love with a significant other exhibit less cognitive control—the ability to focus on one piece of information while ignoring other distracting material (van Steenbergen et al.). Even puppy love may make us less capable: As discussed here, men’s performance on working memory and attention tasks declines after interacting with a beautiful woman (Karremans et al., 2009).

Researchers hypothesize that feelings of love, which activate the areas of the brain associated with reward, may also deactivate areas of the brain associated with other cognitive functions (Wlodarski & Dunbar, 2014). However, the news is not all bad: While love may impair some cognitive functions, such as working memory and attention, the experience of love may improve other cognitive functions such as identifying emotional states (Wlodarski & Dunbar).

2. The Co-Existence of Love and Hate

A former colleague of mine was happily married for 20 years when his wife suddenly passed away. While going through her personal items, he found a diary she had written a few years before her death. My friend was comforted to read the expressions of love he found in her diary but was crestfallen to discover that his wife had also written about negative feelings she had for him.  

Love is a strong positive emotion which can evoke feelings of euphoria, but sometimes the people we love may cause us to feel negative emotions such as fear and hate (Zayas & Shoda, 2015). These feelings can be unconscious; we might automatically experience strong positive or negative feelings for our significant other even if we don’t consciously recognize that we feel those emotions. 

In order to test our unconscious feelings for our significant others, researchers Zayas and Shoda asked individuals to think of a “significant person” in their lives who they liked most or least. Respondents usually chose parents, romantic partners, ex-partners, and friends in both categories—most and least liked. The researchers also asked the participants to do this same task with objects. (Objects liked most included things like sunsets; those liked the least included spiders and liver.)  

The researchers assessed respondents’ automatic or implicit attitudes toward these significant individuals and objects, and found that liked objects were strongly and quickly associated with positive words (e.g. lucky) while disliked objects were strongly and quickly associated with negative words (e.g. cancer). When it came to people, significant others who were liked most were strongly and quickly associated with both positive and negative words. Significant others who were liked the least were also strongly and quickly associated with both positive and negative words. 

The authors suggest that our relationships with friends, partners, and family members are complex, and that it is common for significant others to simultaneously activate both positive and negative emotions, even though we may be unaware of the experience of these emotions. These spontaneous mixed feelings may explain why we so quickly exchange positive feelings for negative feelings after we break up with a romantic partner, or how we can both strongly love and be exceedingly frustrated by family members.

3. The “Love Hormone” May Increase Intimate Partner Violence

Oxytocin is a neuropeptide which facilitates pair bonding and is associated with the experience of romantic love and familial love (Schneiderman et al., 2012). Couples in the early stages of a relationship who have higher levels of oxytocin are more likely to stay together than counterparts with lower levels of oxytocin (Schneiderman et al.). Oxytocin is also associated with other positive feelings, such as trust and empathy (see DeWall et al., 2014). However, the positive effects of oxytocin may be reversed in individuals who are aggressive or violent (DeWall et al.). DeWall et al. found that administering oxytocin nasally increased aggressive tendencies toward romantic partners, but only among participants who already had aggressive tendencies. The authors suggest that a boost in oxytocin levels may stimulate the desire to keep partners close to us, which might enhance the aggressive tactics used by some individuals to keep their partners faithful.  

Portions of this post were taken from The Social Psychology of Attraction and Romantic Relationships. Copyright 2015 Madeleine A. Fugère. 

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References

  • DeWall, C. N., Gillath, O., Pressman, S. D., Black, L. L., Bartz, J. A., Moskovitz, J., & Stetler, D. A. (2014). When the love hormone leads to violence: Oxytocin increases intimate partner violence inclinations among high trait aggressive people. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 5(6), 691-697. doi:10.1177/1948550613516876
  • Karremans, J. C., Verwijmeren, T., Pronk, T. M., & Reitsma, M. (2009). Interacting with women can impair men’s cognitive functioning. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 45(4), 1041-1044. doi:10.1016/j.jesp.2009.05.004
  • Reynaud, M., Karila, L., Blecha, L., & Benyamina, A. (2010). Is love passion an addictive disorder? The American Journal of Drug and Alcohol Abuse, 36(5), 261-267. doi:10.3109/00952990.2010.495183
  • Schneiderman, I., Zagoory-Sharon, O., Leckman, J. F., & Feldman, R. (2012). Oxytocin during the initial stages of romantic attachment: Relations to couples’ interactive reciprocity. Psychoneuroendocrinology, 37(8), 1277–1285. doi:10.1016/j.psyneuen.2011.12.021
  • van Steenbergen, H., Langeslag, S. E., Band, G. H., & Hommel, B. (2014). Reduced cognitive control in passionate lovers. Motivation and Emotion, 38(3), 444-450. doi:10.1007/s11031-013-9380-3
  • Wlodarski, R., & Dunbar, R. M. (2014). The effects of romantic love on mentalizing abilities. Review of General Psychology, 18(4), 313-321. doi:10.1037/gpr0000020
  • Zayas, V., & Shoda, Y. (2015). Love you? Hate you? Maybe it’s both: Evidence that significant others trigger bivalent-primingSocial Psychological and Personality Science, 6(1), 56-64. doi:10.1177/1948550614541297