“I’m crazy about you.” “I’m addicted to you.”
We’ve all heard these phrases used to convey the euphoria and ecstasy people feel from being with the person they love, even if it makes them behave irrationally.
With advances in neuroscience, we now know that the similarities between love and drugs go beyond linguistics. Neurochemically, the experience of falling in love is facilitated by the release of different chemical messengers — particularly dopamine and oxytocin. A surge in the former produces pleasurable feelings, while the latter promotes social bonding.
Both chemicals have also been found to have critical roles in substance use disorders. When people use substances, studies show that high levels of dopamine release into the nucleus accumbens — an area of the brain involved in reward-seeking behaviours. People also exhibit high levels of activation in the same region of the brain when they look at photos of their romantic partners.
Oxytocin has shown promise in alleviating withdrawal symptoms for substance use disorder. “If you give oxytocin to animals that are in withdrawal, they don’t show any withdrawal symptoms,” Taryn Grieder, a U of T neuroscience researcher and lecturer, said in an interview with The Varsity.
As scientists continue to learn more about the parallel between love and drugs, some have suggested putting love in the same class as substance use disorders. The existence of ‘love addiction’ is a highly debated and controversial issue. What distinguishes ‘healthy’ love from ‘addictive’ love? And when is medical intervention deemed acceptable?
An ethical dilemma
Researchers generally use two frameworks to differentiate between ‘healthy’ love and ‘addictive’ love: the narrow view and the broad view.
In the narrow view, a person can only be considered ‘addicted’ to love when, in the quest of seeking affection, they exhibit extreme behaviours that result in negative consequences. Research under this framework looks at areas including sexual compulsions, toxic or abusive relationships, and abnormal attachments. In contrast, healthy love would not exhibit any of these signs, and if it did, they would be much milder.
The broad view takes a more liberal approach to ‘love addiction’. In this model, love and addiction overlap more because even ‘normal’ romantic passions are considered to be chemically and behaviourally similar to addiction.
Have you noticed personality changes, cravings, or loss of self-control? These are just some of the symptoms that researchers using the broad framework would use to confirm whether you show addictive behaviour toward love.
A treatment for lovesickness
Regardless of which framework they subscribe to, many researchers agree that there are exceptional cases where the harm and suffering caused by love-seeking behaviours warrant medical intervention.
“If it was negatively affecting their lives, that would [be] something that you would want to get help with,” Grieder said. “[In those cases], they kind of lost control of their behaviour and they are showing compulsive behaviours… a switch has been made from a nondependent to a dependent state.”
In these instances, treatment for people who are ‘addicted to love’ would be similar to the treatment used by people with substance use disorders. It would include psychotherapy and pharmacological agents, if they are available. For example, researchers have suggested the possibility of using oxytocin antagonists like an ‘anti-love’ potion, blunting the pleasure a person receives from seeing their person of interest.
Being in love can be an all-consuming frenzy. Given the real possibility for lovesickness, this frenzy gives an entirely new meaning to the phrase ‘your love is my drug.’