Inside the love addict's brain
Updated: Jul 23
In our last blog, we were discussing “love” addiction; what it is and what’s love got to do with it. To understand and really own the concept of being “hooked on” relationships and the different types of consequences we observe in love addicts, let’s look into the addict’s brain and see how the neural pathways for love, gratification and reward are changed.
Love is not just one of the emotions people experience. Our emotions are the ways we can connect to our environment. Without much thinking about it, we are able to feel if someone might be dangerous, so we feel fear, or not good to eat, so we feel disgust, we feel joy if everything goes well, or the feeling of sadness warns us that we are losing something important. These are the feelings, the emotions.
But love is something much more than liking someone and feeling joy about it, although it does feel similar. Like emotions, love is not something we may choose, or generate by wanting it and thinking about it. What makes it different is the attachment. Attachment is our capacity to choose a person among many others and make them a very special one. It is the capacity without which we would not survive, and that makes it our most important feature.
When we are born, we are tiny and vulnerable, unable to survive on our own. Nature takes care that all beings who are born immature have a need to attract someone who would take care of them, by making pleasurable the experience of taking care of a baby and being taken care of. And that's where love meets addiction. The way we experience love in our brain is through the same neural pathways that transmit pleasure and reward, and these can be manipulated and changed by frequent abuse. As we have seen in our previous blogs, addiction is, by definition, when one repeats a pleasurable experience so many times it becomes automatic, and does so for the sake of escape and numbing of some painful reality they want to avoid.
There's nothing wrong with loving a lot, but some components of the complex experience of love can be abused in the addictive way.
Let's now analyze these components of love, so we would understand where things might go wrong. Even the old Greeks, whose philosophy forms the basis of the western culture, have known that there were different kinds of love. They knew EROS, the erotic and sexual infatuation; then AGAPE, the unconditional divine love or love between spouses; and some more types which are not as important for us. In the Middle Ages, ROMANTIC or courtly love became an important source of artistic inspiration, when wandering knights were singing lyric songs about the beauty of their fair Princesses, often inaccessible and married to the king. Modern science has proven that, indeed, there are different ways or pathways in our brain that convey and make possible the experience of different kinds of love.
Remember how we explained in our previous videos that there were different pathways in our brain for everything we feel, know, see, touch, and even for the things our body does without our having to control it. The anthropologist and human behavior researcher Helen Fisher from The Kinsey Institute in Indiana proposed that humanity has evolved three core brain systems for mating and reproduction:
1. lust – the sex drive or libido,
2. attraction – early stage intense romantic love.
3. attachment – deep feelings of union with a long-term partner.
Similarly, dr. Patrick Carnes, the leading expert in the field of sex addiction from the International Institute for Trauma and Addiction Professionals in Arizona (and also my teacher in the program for Certified Sex Addiction Therapists) explains in his book Facing the Shadow that there are three sexual neural pathways in the brain, and therefore three different kinds of sexual feelings; erotic, romantic and relationships. Therefore, it looks like what we call love, actually consists of three different kinds of attachment, and different brain areas may be involved in different proportions in various stages of the development of a love relationship.
To explain things further, dr. Carnes proposes that there are essentially four different brain processes that can lead to addiction:
All of them can all preoccupy the brain and lead to escape into the obsessive world of addiction. That’s very interesting. Instead of naming the addictions by the substance or the process that is abused, he grouped them by what happens in the brain, and this makes perfect sense. Some substances and behaviors cause arousal and excitement: like extasy, cocaine for example, alcohol in the initial stages, and gambling for example. Others cause the opposite – numbing, drowsiness: like marihuana, alcohol in late stages, starving and overeating. It is no surprise that fantasy plays an important part, especially in process addictions: it is especially important in addiction to pornography, videogames, love addiction and gambling, but it plays a part in substance addictions too. Research has shown that brain patterns for addiction are activated already when a person starts thinking about using, or goes out to get the drug. And, last but not least, there is deprivation. It is very important in anorexia and cutting, and also in dieting and different kinds of obsession with sports. Getting high, zoning out, fantasizing and shutting down our needs all help us not to think about the pain we are not ready to face yet, and therefore can be used and abused, as well as become an addiction.
See below the original dr. Carnes’s Sexual Addiction Matrix, and find that some of the descriptions fit perfectly the behaviors of love addiction.
“Love” addiction means messing up with the neural pathways for love (sex, romance and attachment) by arousal, numbing, fantasy or deprivation, for the sake of escaping or denying our painful reality. Within relationship addiction, we can differentiate between sex addiction (we are going to talk about it in one of our next blogs), romance addictions (romance junkies, serial love relationships, virtual relationships, stalking) and relationship addictions (codependency, traumatic bonding, people pleasing, rescuing, and even relationship anorexia).
I know, it’s complicated. But at least it makes some sense in the complicated world of relationships. It means that we have a 3X4=12 ways in which we can mess up with the natural processes of attachment and love and corrupt them into addiction, and all of them are different. This is why there are so many definitions of “love” addiction. Different authors sometimes call it codependency, but supposedly some people find it insulting; they may call it relationship addiction, but then again this is too vague; it can go by the name of “traumatic bonding” (sometimes referred to as the Stockholm Syndrome); or it can be mistaken for just being a people pleaser and naïve. We have seen people behave addictively in all the different ways described above and all the definitions make sense in some way.
Just like dr. Carnes proposes in his work that there are several behavior types in sex addiction, we can call these other romantic and relationship types the behavior types for “love” addiction. This is much clearer than just stating that “love” addicts love too much or have unclear relationship boundaries. Just as you cannot tell an alcoholic from non-alcoholic by just the type of alcoholic beverage they consume, by saying that one loves too much it is not possible to tell genuine affection from addiction.
In our next blog, we will talk about what is a sure sign of addiction, and what is not; so that you will be able to tell, just like your doctor, whether the observed person is addicted or is just acting out something else by their behavior.
Check out my video on this topic here:
Sanja Rozman is a medical doctor, psychotherapist and author of 8 books on behavioral addictions.
Read more in her book Serenity: How to Recognize, Understand, and Recover from Behavioral Addictions
that is about to be published by Brandylane Publishers Inc., Belle Isle Books.