You can’t eat, you can’t sleep and all you can think about is your next fix. You may be addicted to love.
Intense romance can often come with symptoms resemblingaddiction– euphoria, craving, dependence, withdrawal and relapse – and brain scans have shown that it can be linked to drug-addiction-like activity in the brain’s reward centres.
But the idea that people can be addicted to love is contentious. “It gets complicated because people disagree on the correct theory of addiction, and people especially disagree about what we mean when we use the term ‘love’ ”, saysBrian Earp, at the Oxford University Centre for Neuroethics.
“I think it is when you realise you do not want to be in love yet cannot avoid it, and it causes bad things, like abuse, that we cross the line into something addiction-like,” says Anders Sandberg, also at the Oxford University Centre for Neuroethics.
Now Earp and his team have found evidence that there are in fact two different types of love addiction, after reviewing 64 studies of love and addiction published between 1956 and 2016.
They found that people who feel desperately alone when not in a relationship, and try to replace an ex-partner straight away, could have what the team has called a “narrow” form of love addiction.
These people struggle to ignore strong cravings to be near the object of their affections. They want to spend all their time with them, and develop obsessive thoughts and behaviour. In some cases, this has led to stalking or murder.
Addictions like this involve impaired control and social impairment. Like other types of addictions, this behaviour is triggered by abnormal processes in the brain that boost reward signals.
“Drugs of addiction flood the brain withdopamine, causing an unusually strong reward signal, which drives a person to use the drug again even when this involves some setback to other interests in their lives,” says Earp. In their review of the studies, they found that some experiences of love similarly produce an unusually strong reward signal, which drives a person to pursue that experience again.
But the team also found evidence for a second, “broad” type of love addiction, which falls on the same spectrum of normal love, but with stronger – yet still controllable – cravings.
Euphoria and depression
This category is based only on observations of behaviours similar to drug addictions – a rush of euphoria after each encounter, but desperation, grief and depression when relationships met an abrupt end. Some researchers do not consider this type of behaviour an addiction because experiencing these stages are not necessarily bad for a person in the long run.
However Earp’s team found evidence that people with both kinds of love addiction can experience harmful impacts on their lives. In some cases, being addicted to love seems to have contributed to people staying in abusive relationships, or following a cult leader.
Lucy Brown, a neuroscientist at the Einstein College of Medicine in New York, was one of the first researchers to suggest the notion of love as an addiction. She and colleagues have argued that romantic love is a natural addiction that evolved millions of years ago, as a survival mechanism to encourage bonding between the members of a couple.
But she does not agree with the idea of classifying love addiction in two types. “It is a strange paper to me,” she said about Earp’s review. If she had to pick which kind best reflected her view of love addiction, she says she would go with the broad view. “We see love as natural and take the broad view.”
“The main time that love is painful and needs treatment is heartbreak,” saysBrown. For most people, heartbreak goes away with time, or with the help of therapy or even anti-depressants, says Brown.
But people struggling with love addiction may one day benefit from other types of drugs. Theoretically, drugs could be developed that disrupt the bond we feel with someone.
A study in 2013 manipulated hormones in prairie voles. These animals are monogamous, forming strong pair bonds – a process that involves the hormone vasopressin. The team found that blocking the voles’ receptors for this hormone caused males to stop defending their mates, and spend more time with other females.
There is also evidence to suggest we may have anti-love networks in the brain, that help us become less attached to people we have previously felt close to. Tapping into these might help accelerate a person’s ability to get over someone, but we don’t know how to do this yet.