Scientists now officially regard passionate romantic love to be an addiction just like substance and behavioral addictions (Fisher et al. 2016). In this article, I present the two main arguments for why passionate love is an addiction, explain the evolutionary underpinnings of romantic love, and propose a treatment strategy for love addiction.
Why passionate love is an addiction
Passionate romantic love has the same common symptoms as addictions to substances and behaviors:
- enhanced focus on the object of desire
- intense craving for the object of desire
- obsessive thinking about the object of desire
- rush of energy when seeing the object of desire
- withdrawal symptoms including emotional instability, lethargy, anxiety, irritability, insomnia/hypersomnia, and abnormal appetite
- extreme risk-taking to obtain the object of desire
- potential to trigger depression, homicide, crime, and suicide
- relapse when certain places, people, photos, songs, etc. trigger old memories
Shared brain systems
Passionate romantic love activates the same brain areas as addictions to substances and behaviors:
- the ventral tegmental area in the midbrain,
- the caudate nucleus in the forebrain, and
- the nucleus accumbens in the forebrain.
These parts of the brain’s dopaminergic reward system are active when people have recently fallen in love, when they view a photograph of their sweetheart, when they think about alcohol, nicotine, opioids, cocaine, or certain foods, and when they play video games, watch porn, or gamble.
Why we experience romantic love
Romantic love evolved as a mechanism to motivate people to stay with a mate long enough to produce and rear their infant offspring. As our ancestors started to walk on two feet around 4 million years ago, women had to carry their infants in their arms. This made them vulnerable. A man could protect them, though not a harem of females at once. A man should thus focus his time and energy on defending and provisioning a woman who carried his genetic legacy. Romantic feelings, rooted in the brain’s reward system, provided this focus. Love was adaptive because it ensured pair-bonding and survival of the couple’s genetic material.
When adaptive romantic feelings get out of control, however, focus can turn into obsession and love into addiction—into “a disease of the reward system” (Behavioral Addictions by Rosenberg & Feder).
How to treat love addiction
Since love is an addiction, you can overcome it like any other addiction:
- Stay away from your object of desire.
- Write about your addiction using positive language.
- Remove or avoid everything that reminds you of your object of desire.
- Find a reward replacement: Pick up a new hobby, engage in a new sport, start a new business, or make a new friend.
- Participate in group activities: Going out with friends works for love addiction like AA meetings work for alcohol addiction because group dynamics engage the brain’s reward system.
- Wait with patience: Never forget that beating an addiction requires your brain to rewire itself; if you follow the advices 1 and 3, your reward system will heal itself naturally—but it takes time.