Love Is More Addictive Than You Think

By Britni de la Cretaz 05/04/17

Researchers examined the parallels between drug addiction and love addiction in a recent study. 

Woman forming hands in a heart shape.

It seems Kesha might have been onto something when she sang, “Your love is my drug.”

By analyzing and reviewing 64 studies from 1956 to 2016, researchers have determined that there are two kinds of love addiction, and that there are parallels to drug addiction in terms of the effects on the brain. Intense romance is often accompanied by symptoms resembling addiction—euphoria, craving, dependence, withdrawal and relapse. Brain scans have also shown that it can be linked to activity similar to drug addiction in the brain’s reward center.

A study published last month in the journal Philosophy, Psychiatry & Psychology found that there are two different kinds of love addiction, which they’ve termed “broad” and “narrow.”

The "broad" form of addiction is the one that most people have experienced. It falls on the same spectrum as “normal” love and some researchers don’t even consider it to be an addiction. It’s categorized by extreme feelings on either end of the spectrum—euphoria after interactions with a partner, and feelings of depression or grief when a relationship ends.

While in the relationship, the feelings of “need” to see a person may be intensified if long periods of time pass between visits. But the cravings and needs typical of this broad type of love addiction are generally considered “controllable.”

The “narrow” kind of addiction, however, is much more damaging and troublesome and may be closer to what we typically think of as “obsession” and “abuse.” People who experience this kind of love addiction ignore damaging effects and consequences of their relationship in order to be near that person. They may want to spend all their time with the object of their affection, struggle to stay away from them when separated, and can lead to stalking and murder.

Like other types of addictions, this behavior is triggered by abnormal processes in the brain that boost reward signals, and may play a role in keeping people in abusive relationships.

“I think it is when you realize 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,” Anders Sandberg, at the Oxford University Centre for Neuroethics, told New Scientist.

However, it’s important to not equate addiction with abuse, and to not make excuses for abusive behavior by writing it off as being out of someone’s control.

Relationship abuse and substance abuse are highly correlated; but there are also plenty of people who struggle with substance abuse who do not demonstrate abusive behavior. And it’s also important to recognize that there are plenty of other reasons why people stay in abusive relationships besides reward signals in their brain—things like financial reasons, safety reasons, and being isolated from other support systems.

The study concludes that their “research suggests that romantic love can be literally addictive”—much more so than previously thought.

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Britni de la Cretaz is a freelance writer, baseball enthusiast, and recovered alcoholic living in Boston. Follow her on Twitter at @britnidlc.