If you’ve ever found yourself impatiently waiting for a text, obsessively thinking about the object of your affections, or losing sleep, your appetite (even your sanity!) when caught in the throes of romantic infatuation or loss, the latest research on love addiction and treatment options may bring some comfort.
Love addiction has been the subject of hot debate for many years in psychology and neuroscience research circles.
Is it possible to become addicted to love?
What does love dependency look like?
And if it’s real, is there a cure?
Love addiction, with its symptoms of emotional dependency, ecstasy, cravings, and withdrawal, isn’t currently classified as a mental health disorder – but that may change.
Brian Earp and his colleagues at the Oxford Centre for Neuroethics recently published their research examining the phenomenon of love addiction.
After reviewing 64 love addiction studies published over the past 60 years, Earp identified two distinct models of love addiction – ‘narrow’ and ‘broad’ addiction to romantic love.
Love Addiction: The ‘narrow’ view
This type of love addiction is rare. It is considered to have neurobiological underpinnings, and may only affect 5 to 10% of the population.
The narrow approach to love addiction takes the view that there are unusual, abnormal patterns of function in the love addict’s brain, resulting in maladaptive behaviours such as:
- Intense and unhealthy emotional attachments
- Abusive or toxic relationships
- Compulsive sexual behaviours
- Obsession with the object of one’s affection
- Morbid jealousy (also known as ‘Othello Syndrome’)
- Pursuit of love despite negative life and interpersonal outcomes
This type of love addiction affects the brain in much the same way as addictions to drugs, food and gambling do. The pleasure and reward systems of the brain are activated, and flooded with dopamine (euphoria), vasopressin (attachment), oxytocin (intimacy) and serotonin (happiness and satisfaction).
The major difference is that love addiction is a ‘process’ (or behavioural) addiction, rather than an addiction to a substance.
The love addict’s brain is co-opted by intense physical and emotional highs when in close contact with a partner, followed by uncontrollable cravings and withdrawal in their absence.
Biological anthropologist Helen Fisher is one of many researchers who supports this model of romantic addiction:
“I’ve also come to believe that romantic love is an addiction: a perfectly wonderful addiction when it’s going well, and a perfectly horrible addiction when it’s going poorly.”
Her TEDTalk on the neural mechanisms that activate when someone is in love is a fascinating glimpse into the complicated phenomenon of love addiction:
The narrow model of love addiction argues that addictive love is a reflection of non-autonomous, abnormal brain processes: yet although not everyone has a desire to take heroin or gamble, most people have fallen in love at least once in their lifetime.
Love addiction: The ‘broad’ view
In contrast with the narrow view of love addiction, the broad perspective suggests that even the most intensely destructive behaviours of someone in love are simply extremes of a genuine emotion. Love addiction may even be considered a beneficial evolutionary drive.
In this model, love addiction is seen as a universal human drive towards social attachment, intimacy and pleasure.
Passion-related behaviours are positioned on a spectrum, from the extreme to the moderate actions or feelings of someone in love. Thus love addiction isn’t considered to be an illness caused by abnormal brain processes, but rather an appetitive desire to bond with another person that is common to all people.
Instead of seeking to eliminate the intense behaviours and feelings of love addiction, this model recommends that people seek support to moderate their behaviour if it’s creating distress.
In the broad view of love addiction, seeking the rewards of love isn’t the problem at all: it’s any personal difficulties, harm, or adverse consequences that result from the compulsion to love that need to be addressed.
Treatment options for love addiction
Specialist relationship counselling is the first-line therapy recommended for anyone struggling with the symptoms of intense, obsessive romantic cravings, or withdrawal after a break-up.
A combination of evidence-based therapeutic approaches including cognitive-behavioural therapy, psychotherapy, emotionally-focused therapy, and acceptance and commitment therapy may be beneficial. Counselling can help to address any underlying attachment issues, and provide practical strategies to moderate distressing love-related behaviours, thoughts and feelings.
Whether we adopt the narrow view – that love addiction is a neurobiological disorder that only a few experience, or the broad view – that love addiction is a universal condition of authentic experience that exists on a spectrum of desire, the fact remains:
If you’re feeling overwhelmed by your thoughts and feelings of another, unable to function in your daily life because you’re obsessively focused on your crush, partner or ex, speaking to a professional can help you recover your mind and heart from the painful extremes of love addiction.
Love addiction research resources
Acevedo, B. P., & Aron, A. P. (2014). Romantic love, pair-bonding, and the dopaminergic reward system. Nature and development of social connections: From brain to group. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
Earp, B. D., Wudarczyk, O. A., Foddy, B., & Savulescu, J. (2017). Addicted to love: What is love addiction and when should it be treated?. Philosophy, Psychiatry, & Psychology: PPP, 24(1), 77.
Fisher, H. E., Brown, L. L., Aron, A., Strong, G., & Mashek, D. (2010). Reward, addiction, and emotion regulation systems associated with rejection in love. Journal of neurophysiology, 104(1), 51-60.
Fisher, H. E., Xu, X., Aron, A., & Brown, L. L. (2016). Intense, passionate, romantic love: a natural addiction? How the fields that investigate romance and substance abuse can inform each other. Frontiers in Psychology, 7.
Lamy, L. (2016). Beyond emotion: Love as an encounter of myth and drive. Emotion Review, 8(2), 97-107.
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.
Marcus Andrews is the founder and director of Life Supports, which was established in 2002. He has extensive professional experience working as a counsellor and family therapist across a broad range of issues. The core component of his role at Life Supports involves the supervision of other counsellors, including secondary consultations. Marcus has worked in many sectors, including private, government, non-profit, health, forensic and community practice.