Addicted to Love

Robert Palmer may have already known what researchers now claim: Love can be an addiction. In a new study published in the American Journal of Drug and Alcohol Abuse, investigators examined and compared the clinical, psychological and biological details of love, passion, gambling, and substance dependence. It turns out that an addiction to love is almost indistinguishable from other addictions.

Love addiction, or pathological love, has been described as repeated or uncontrolled care and attention to a romantic partner. This attentiveness often occurs at the expense of other responsibilities or activities, with or without returned emotions, causing considerable pain and suffering. Love addiction is not often studied, and can even be glorified to some extent by society and the media (or stoic fashion models playing guitars in music videos), but an addiction to love is not as warm and fuzzy and it sounds. Love addiction — distinct from sexual addiction or delusional love — has no unique clinical criteria, but the new study reports that the phenomenon shares striking characteristics with better-understood substance and behavioral addictions.

The lights are on, but you’re not home/Your mind is not your own/Your heart sweats, your body shakes/Another kiss is what it takes…

Love addiction renders euphoria in the presence of the object of affection, just as drug intoxication elicits euphoria. Negative mood and affect, lack of interest in once pleasurable activities, and sleep disturbances accompany separation from the loved one, just as they accompany withdrawal from drugs of abuse. Obsessive and compulsive thoughts and behaviors, including focused attention and intrusive thoughts about the loved one and maladaptive or disruptive behaviors, knowingly and despite the consequences, are also signs of an addiction to love, as well as substances or behaviors.

…You can’t sleep, you can’t eat/There’s no doubt, you’re in deep/Your throat is tight, you can’t breathe/Another kiss is all you need…

A handful of studies, mostly in non-human mammals, suggest that the regions and transmitters of the brain that are involved in the reward system mediate not only healthy, appropriate reward and emotions, but also substance and behavior abuse. Researchers believe that a dysregulation of the reward and stress systems, which include dopamine, opioid peptides and corticotropin-releasing hormone, lead to dependence and a vulnerability to addiction and relapse. There may be genetic markers that control the development of compromised reward and stress systems, but none has yet been identified.

…You like to think that you’re immune to the stuff…It’s closer to the truth to say you can’t get enough/You know you’re gonna have to face it, you’re addicted to love…

The neurobiology of love likely evolved as a way to make the mating process in humans more efficient. Romantic and sexual attraction allows humans to focus their courtship attentions on specific people, conserving valuable time and energy. The attraction and subsequent monogamous pairing facilitates mating and parenting, and, therefore the propagation of the species. Romantic love and monogamy share the same dopaminergic reward pathways as other pleasurable activities, emotions and actions necessary for survival and progress. The formation, expression, and maintenance of healthy social pair bonds are reliant on dopamine. However, in most cases, the reward system functions normally, and a romantic relationship does not descend into an addiction.

…Might as well face it, you’re addicted to love…

Still, the similarities between love and substance abuse are undeniable. Love is as strong of a pleasurable experience as cocaine or other drugs of abuse, and obsessively seeking love’s “high” is no less harmful than that of a drug. People at risk for love addiction are the same who are at risk for substance use disorders: those who suffer from rejection, loss of self-worth, low self-esteem, anger, impulsivity, feelings of failure, distrust or loss, or other self-defeating behaviors. Similar to other addicts, love addicts will seek out one relationship right after another, will compartmentalize relationships from different areas of his or her life, and will have a high tolerance for risky behavior. While a clinical diagnosis for love addiction has not been defined, many clinicians do recognize the signs and characteristics that so closely resemble substance and behavior abuse diagnoses. In the future, a better understanding and criteria for the disorder will allow clinicians to tailor cognitive and behavioral therapy to treat patients who are addicted to love.


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Jennifer Gibson, PharmD

Jennifer Gibson, PharmD, is a practicing clinical pharmacist and medical writer/editor with experience in researching and preparing scientific publications, developing public relations materials, creating educational resources and presentations, and editing technical manuscripts. She is the owner of Excalibur Scientific, LLC.
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