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Besotted men and women crave emotional and physical union with their beloved. This craving is a central component of all addictions. Lovers also feel a rush of exhilaration when thinking about him or her, a form of “intoxication.” As their obsession builds, the lover seeks to interact with the beloved more and more, known in addiction literature as “intensification.” They also think obsessively about their beloved, a form of intrusive thinking fundamental to drug dependence. Lovers also distort reality, change their priorities and daily habits to accommodate the beloved, and often do inappropriate, dangerous, or extreme things to remain in contact with or impress this special other.
Even one’s personality can change, known as “affect disturbance.” Indeed, many smitten humans are willing to sacrifice for their sweetheart, even die for him or her. And like addicts who suffer when they can’t get their drug, the lover suffers when apart from the beloved — “separation anxiety.”
Trouble really starts, however, when a lover is rejected. Most abandoned men and women experience the common signs of drug withdrawal, including protest, crying spells, lethargy, anxiety, sleep disturbances (sleeping way too much or way too little), loss of appetite or binge eating, irritability, and chronic loneliness.
Lovers also relapse the way addicts do. Long after the relationship is over, events, people, places, songs, or other external cues associated with the abandoning partner can trigger memories. This sparks a new round of craving, intrusive thinking, compulsive calling, writing, or showing up — all in hopes of rekindling the romance. Because romantic love is regularly associated with a suite of traits linked with all addictions, several psychologists have come to believe that romantic love can potentially become an addiction.
If at first the idea is not absurd, then there is no hope for it,” Einstein reportedly said. Few academics and laymen regard romantic love as an addiction — because they believe that all addictions are pathological and harmful. Data do not support this notion, however. When neuroscientists Andreas Bartels and Semir Zeki compared the brains of happily-in-love participants with the brains of euphoric addicts who had just injected cocaine or opioids, many of the same regions in the brain’s reward system became active.
Many professionals define addiction as a pathological, problematic disorder. And because romantic love is a positive experience under many circumstances (i.e. not harmful), researchers remain largely unwilling to officially categorize romantic love as an addiction. But love addiction is just as real as any other addiction, in terms of its behavior patterns and brain mechanisms. Even when romantic love isn’t harmful, it is associated with intense craving and anxiety and can impel the lover to believe, say, and do dangerous and inappropriate things. Moreover, all forms of substance abuse, including alcohol, opioids, cocaine, amphetamines, cannabis, and tobacco (as well as the non-substance addictions to food, gambling, and sex) activate several of the same reward pathways that are activated among men and women who are happily in love, as well as those rejected in love.