Love is like Cocaine: The Remarkable, Terrifying Neuroscience of Romance – Part 3

Yes, you really are addicted to love.

Taking the Drug Away

“You are perfect in every way, just not for me,” “I need to find myself and I just can’t do that with you,” “I need to learn to love myself before I can love you,” “I think you feel more than I do and I don’t want to hurt you.”

We know what these are. Breakup lines, the lines of the visible breakups, the lines that put an end to something that once was. The reason a breakup can be so hard to handle, especially for the person who wanted the relationship to continue, is not that the breakup erases the past. It doesn’t. The past is as real as it ever was. When Rick (Humphrey Bogart) and Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman) leave each other in Casablanca, Rick tells Ilsa to focus on the time they fell in love, adding “We’ll always have Paris.” A breakup leaves the past intact but erases the future. It pokes a knitting needle through your expectations for the future. It doesn’t ruin what was. It ruins what was going to come. It shatters the hopes and dreams you had about the future. The losses that hurt most are those that abruptly deprive you of the future experiences you depended on. Those losses make you a different person with a different future and with too many empty spaces to fill with experiences less wonderful than those you had hoped for. A breakup is also a major rejection of you as a person, a demonic destruction of your self-esteem and your self-worth that leaves you raw, open, exposed. As Dennis Quaid once put it, “when you break up, your whole identity is shattered. It’s like death” (Food for the Soul, p. 147).

Breakups often lead to a psychological state that resembles withdrawal from an addiction. They literally take away the crack you were on. So now you experience withdrawal symptoms, making it painfully clear to you just how addicted you were to wonderboy or wondergirl. When you are addicted, you satisfy at least some of the following conditions:

  1. You need more and more of the activity or drug for you to achieve the desired effect (tolerance).
  2. You experience withdrawal symptoms when you do not engage in the addictive activity or drug.
  3. You engage in the activity or take the drug more frequently and for a longer period of time than initially intended.
  4. You have a persistent desire to quit or control the activity or drug.
  5. You spend a great deal of time ensuring that the activity or drug access can be continued.
  6. You give up or reduce important social, occupational or recreational activities because of the addiction.
  7. You continue the activity or drug despite knowledge of its physical or psychological consequences.

The severity of your addiction can be seen as a function of how many of these criteria you satisfy.

Addiction is different from obsession in the clinical sense. The main difference is that in cases of obsession, the “drug” consists of recurrent or persistent thoughts or images. In cases of obsession, the obsessive person seeks to control or avoid the thoughts or images by suppressing them or neutralizing them with other less uncomfortable thoughts or with convenient distractors. But the relief is only temporary. What we commonly call “love obsession” typically has both elements of obsession and addiction to a particular person.

A love-obsessed person is in a state of denial, believing that she is still in a relationship, or that she can convince the other person to return to or continue the liaison. The occasional increase in the brain’s levels of dopamine and norepinephrine infuses the tormented and obsessed individual with sufficient energy and motivation to refuse to relinquish. But the “energy high” doesn’t continue. It occurs in intervals. This is because an obsessed individual has widely fluctuating neurotransmitter levels, which makes her go from action-driven to bedridden.

This is the respect in which love obsession differs from drug addiction: when a cocaine addict no longer has access to the drug, his neurotransmitter levels remain low until he recovers or gives in. In love obsession, the neurotransmitters are on a roller coaster ride that makes the obsessed person hang onto the past with ferocious energ y, even when it is blatantly obvious to everyone else that there is nothing to hang onto.

Love obsession following unrequited or unfulfilled love differs from addictions to, or obsessions with, sex and being in love. In the 1979 article “Androg yny and the Art of Loving,” American psychologist Adria Schwartz describes a case of a young man addicted to the chase of women.

A man in his mid-twenties entered therapy after a series of unsuccessful relationships with women. Virtually his entire psychic life was spent in compulsive attempts to meet and seduce women. Occasional successes were followed by brief unfulfilling liaisons which he inevitably ended in explosive fits of frustrated rage, or boredom. Recurrent dreams occurred where he found himself running after a woman, catching up to her only to find some physical barrier between them. Women were “pieces of meat.” He found himself excited by the prospect of imminent sexual conquest, but he often ejaculated prematurely and was physically and emotionally anesthetized to the experience of intercourse.

Addiction to “the chase” is similar to addiction to being in love with someone (or other). People with an addiction to being in love have trouble staying in relationships. When the initial feelings of love turn into a calmer state, they get withdrawal symptoms and end the liaison. The “drug” they need is the cocktail of chemicals that floods the body during the initial stormy phases of a relationship. In the online Your Tango article “Am I Addicted to Love and Sex?” Sara Davidson, the author of “Loose Change” and “Leap,” describes her love addiction as an addiction to being in love with someone who is in love with her. The relationship that made her realize that she was a love addict was with a man she “didn’t even like.” She describes her relationship as follows:

Okay, I know, this sounds like an addiction, but I didn’t recognize it until an affair I had last year with a man I call Billy, The Bad. Billy pursued me and wouldn’t take no for an answer. He wore cowboy boots, wrote decent poetry and drove a hybrid Lexus. “I have a tux and a tractor,” he wrote in his online profile. “I can work with my head or my hands.” He said he loved me and took it back, said it again and denied it again. When he turned on the love it was bliss, and when he withdrew it was hell. When he told me again that he loved me the pain went away, only to return with greater intensity the next time he reneged. I cut things off when I couldn’t stand it anymore. I mean, I realized I was crying over a man I didn’t even like! Something deeper, more primitive was clearly going on, and I turned to books and even a 12-step program for help.

In the Psychology Today online article “Can Love Be an Addiction?” Lori Jean Glass, program director of Five Sisters Ranch, reveals that she once was diagnosed with an addiction to being in love. Unlike Davidson, Glass describes her addiction as more than just being addicted to the feeling of being in love. For her, the addiction involved being completely absorbed in someone else’s life and the feeling that someone else needed her and admired her. Someone, anyone; it didn’t matter who it was as long as it was a warm body capable of overflowing her brain with love chemicals. Glass also describes her insanely intense relationship as jumping : “I went from relationship to relationship. The idea of intimacy was foreign. God forbid, I let anyone see inside my wounded spirit. Often, I had several relationships on the back burner, just in case. Keeping the intrigue alive and active was important.”

 

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2 thoughts on “Love is like Cocaine: The Remarkable, Terrifying Neuroscience of Romance – Part 3”

  1. When I was young I was always the one ending the relationship by pushing my partner away. Terrible but, I saw myself alone later in life and that was scary scarier that my real relationship and marriage was at the beginning recognized. True love can be recognized and 24 years with my 18 years younger husband are proof. I chose wisely even if many doubted It would last, I knew it would.

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