Am I Addicted To Love? So What’s The Problem?
Have you ever felt addicted to love? As children become adolescents and move toward young adulthood, there is nothing more captivating, exciting and enticing than the experience of new love.
Do you remember your first adolescent experience of having the “hots” for someone? The heart-pounding, overwhelming feelings produced by just seeing this person across the school grounds likely made all other types of excitement pale in comparison.
At one time or another, you’ve probably been sucked into the vortex of attraction. The rush of feelings and fantasies of fulfilled dreams are dizzying to your senses. The attraction is automatic. A rush of electricity flows through you, drawing you to connect.
You pursue each other with focus and excitement. You feel addicted to love.
The cocktail of physical attraction, personality, and position is like a drug that signals your brain that you’ve found what your heart has been longing for. Once you latch on, there’s no letting go. You’ll stay in the dance of new love until you’ve either attached for life or concluded that this was not your heart’s desire after all.
What can be wrong with something that feels so right?
Understanding the chemistry of new love is critical. So many hearts are broken and marriages destroyed when people do not understand the difference between new and mature love. Every one of us can recall a time in our lives when new love had its hold on us. More songs and poems have been penned about new love than any other subject.
As single adults, we spend more time thinking about, fretting about, and pursuing new love than we care to admit. In a sense, we become addicted to love. Desire for it motivates us to make heroic efforts in order to attract the attention of our desire’s object. For single and available adults, new love is nothing short of magical.
After we’re married, it’s a different story. New love in that context can destroy our lives. The biological and spiritual purpose of new love is to ignite our rocket engines so we can defy the gravity that keeps us to ourselves.
New love inspires us to overcome our inhibitions and propels us toward another at the speed of light. It goads us into seductive behaviors such as flirting, sexual banter, and the overwhelming need for physical touch. These things can distract even the most committed people from their marriages.
New love is full of big emotions—but it is also a predictable, biologically programmed drive. It has the power to destroy what we have spent a lifetime loving and sacrificing our lives for.
How can new love ruin true love?
It may have been 10 or 40 years that you’ve remained committed to your marital vow. Thoughts of infidelity are the furthest from your mind.
So, why do people with every intention of being faithful fall under the spell of new love at the expense a partner’s trust? What is so powerful in this kind of liaison that causes loss of control and putting marriage and family in jeopardy?
In their book The Chemistry Between Us: Love, Sex, and the Science of Attraction, Neuroscientists Larry Young and Brian Alexander suggest that new love is an addiction.
When people are under the influence of a powerful drug, they will do just about anything to get more of it, often destroying the relationships that matter most to them.
Why is love so addictive?
Meet the brain chemical known as dopamine. It is important to understand that dopamine is essential to our lives—in the right balance. And it makes total sense why so many become addicted to love.
Dopamine depletion is associated with Parkinson’s disease. Chronic dopamine over-activity is associated with schizophrenia. Too little dopamine can cause involuntary tremors. And too much can make us crazy to the point of losing touch with reality.
The power dopamine has to affect mood and motivate behavior is profound. Rats will turn down food and water to get more of it. Humans will do just about anything to stay under its spell.
Dopamine makes us “dopey” when it comes to love. Pour a little dopamine “lighter fluid” on the dry kindling of a marriage that has become too busy for time in the bedroom, and the right spark can easily ignite a fire that can burn out of control.
Biological anthropologist Helen Fischer has done extensive research on how different kinds of love produce different neurochemistry and activate different brain structures.
Using powerful imaging technology, researchers are able to look at specific activity inside the brain as subjects are shown pictures of people they have feelings for. Fischer’s research has demonstrated that new or erotic relationships produce different chemistry and activate different parts of the brain than mature attached relationships.
The novelty and intrigue associated with new and erotic relationships stimulates dopamine, the most powerful reward neurochemical present in man and beast. Dopamine is required to stimulate the pleasure center of the brain, called the Nucleus Accumbens.
The mice don’t lie
To study the phenomenon, scientists hooked laboratory mice up to electrodes that stimulated their brain’s pleasure centers. By pressing a lever, the mice would get the same kind of feeling as from sex or addictive drugs. Needless to say, they loved it.
In fact, they loved it so much that they could not focus on anything else, including their own survival. The mice ignored food and water and continued to stimulate themselves to a point of physical collapse. That’s a powerful drug.
Researchers have associated the obsessive euphoria that people feel when stimulated by dopamine with the effects of cocaine. This makes perfect sense. Use of cocaine stimulates dopamine release, which activates the Nucleus Accumbens pleasure center of the brain. So yes, it’s as though you’re addicted to love.
Dating without the dope
Even if you wanted to, you can’t escape the powerful effect of dopamine when you open yourself up to a new love relationship. At any age you’ll probably feel like a goofy teenager while under the intoxicating influence of dopamine.
New-love dopamine-driven relationships elevate sexiness to a new level. Men and women alike can’t get enough of the romantic talk and kissing and touching that keep the stream of dopamine flowing.
Yes, each new relationship is special—but what they all have in common is that they’re usually entered under the influence of dopamine’s power. It’s a primary factor as early as the first date.
“Dopamine dating” vs. “attachment dating”
When you understand that dating under the influence of dopamine may cause disastrous errors in judgment, you’ll become cautious about allowing it to motivate important decisions. Talk openly about it.
You can slow down dopamine production by touching less and talking more. You can make a decision to really get to know the person you’re dating by being with them in different social settings. And at family gatherings.
Seek to understand their values and vision for a fulfilled life. Spread the dating process over at least a one-year period in order to get to know them during important life events.
All of these strategies can help you regulate how much you allow the new-love feelings that dopamine produces to influence the promises you are making in your new relationship.
It is the promises of love, not the drug high, which deepens and solidifies attachment.
When you securely attach you will begin to allow your psychology and biology to be profoundly influenced by one other special person. No other relationship will influence your life more than the one with the person to whom you choose to attach.
The path to lifelong health
Understanding the difference between dating for dopamine and dating for attachment is critical for lifelong health and happiness.
Dating for dopamine, whether intentional or not, is about using another person as a mood-altering drug. When one is “addicted to love” while at the same time racing down the track into a lifelong relationship, the results can be disastrous. A marriage that comes from such a situation can be disastrous.
When the excitement of new love inevitably wears off and the brain stops delivering mega doses of dopamine, it can be easy to question whether the relationship is the right fit after all. Casting it off and following the dopamine-dating trail once again will place you back in a vicious cycle.
It won’t be long before another new-love object starts the intoxicating music again—perhaps this is the one? Or not. The results are all too predictable.
An expert’s experience
I have worked with many middle-aged serial “dopamine daters” who really are addicted to love. They have ultimately found themselves in a state of devastating self-doubt. They are alone and out of sync with their attached friends, wondering why a healthy and happy lifelong partnership keeps eluding them.
I have also counseled many couples who have let the fire in their marriages die. When they hit middle age, or much earlier, and begin to wonder if they are still desirable, they often find themselves lowering their boundaries with the opposite sex.
The newfound excitement they experience in encounters outside of marriage is fueled by that new-love neurochemistry still lurking inside of them. The powerful dopamine hit makes them feel young, single, and on the prowl.
You’ll be an open target for the power that dopamine-induced love has over all of us if you are not securely attached in marriage,
Like a cocaine addict wanting to protect his fix at any cost, the “dopamine-driven betrayer” justifies his behavior, idealizes his new relationship, and begins to demonize his current life partner.
Building a relationship on attachment sets love in order. Its foundation is more solid and permanent. It’s less dependent on chemistry.
A better way
Attachment is about forming a lifelong, mutually fulfilling partnership. Its goal is lifelong connection rather than temporary new-love feelings. It’s not about being addicted to love but being committed to connection.
Attachment allows new lovers to lower their defenses. It invites the honest sharing of limitations. It builds enduring trust within a responsive reliable relationship.
The traditional notion that it is unwise to have sex before marriage is part of the strategy of attachment dating. While this is not a popular mindset today, sex in new-love relationships is such a powerful dopamine stimulator that it can cloud judgment. And this can lead to disastrous decisions.
Couples not able to discern the effects of dopamine may find themselves making relationship and life choices they will regret.
Attachment dating is about keeping the relationship secure and growing for the future. Couples who practice attachment dating talk about their physical relationship and actively choose to restrain the heat. They understand that overdosing on passion can cloud their judgment. They work to protect each other from the overwhelming feelings of the dopamine brain bath.
Their goal is to deepen their communication and compassionately talk through every problem that might trigger a disconnection. As couples learn how to connect and work through differences they will develop the emotional resiliency necessary to face the challenges that life will bring.
Preparation for lifetime partnership begins when each person in the relationship expresses a desire for an exclusive lifelong love relationship. This can happen early or late in the dating cycle.
Couples who are dopamine-driven may be obsessed with the euphoria of being in each other’s presence. They might declare their intention to forge a lifelong love relationship early. They might be motivated to marry as soon as possible if they have moral convictions that preclude sex before marriage. This could cause them to miss the slow steady benefits of dating for emotional attachment and connection.
A Commitment to connection
Committing to connection rather than committing to commitment is a different way of defining the marital covenant. A commitment to connection is committing to nurturing the emotions that will deepen and sustain the attachment bond.
Many couples who make the decision to get married place their faith on their willpower. They don’t understand how to form and grow attachment bonds.
They think a list of behaviors defines marriage. Things they will do only with each other and not with other people. These behaviors mainly involve sex. Most couples starting out in marriage agree that it is impossible to maintain trust without sexual exclusivity.
While it is true that sexual exclusivity is an essential foundation for trust, it alone does not build healthy attachment bonds. By committing to monogamy, as well as to the sharing of financial burdens, a couple constructs the walls of their house. But this is not the foundation.
The foundation of a strong, connected relationship involves a commitment to deepen the emotions that build strong attachment bonds. This has much more to do with reassurance than it does with insurance. It is impossible to insure a relationship for lifetime love. No amount of commitment to love will insure that a couple can withstand the ups and downs that life will throw at them.
No matter how much we believe that we have committed ourselves to another person for life, we are all destined to despair and divorce if we do not understand how to grow together in attachment. While close to fifty percent of married couples legally divorce, a large portion of the other remain miserably married, lacking in trust and deep attachment and emotional connection.
Engaging for attachment is about living life together in a way that deepens emotional bonds. It is a process of discovering what it feels like to have another person be there for you when you need them the most. It is a final test of emotional trust.
I’m Michael W. Regier, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist and Certified Emotionally Focused Couples Therapist and EFT Supervisor in Visalia & San Luis Obispo, California. I help couples understand and grow healthy, secure relationships and steer clear of addiction to love. My wife Paula and I co-authored the book Emotional Connection: The Story & Science of Preventing Conflict & Creating Lifetime Love and have developed an online learning course based on the science of attachment.