Romantic love has always been something of a mystery, especially to sex and romance addicts, who tend to mistake the intensity of both sexual activity and new romance for something deeper and more meaningful – i.e., love.
But what, exactly, is love? Does it really exist? Can it be measured? And can it really become an addiction?
Poetically and philosophically speaking, love exists in the heart. And it is rather obvious why poets and philosophers tend to believe this. After all, our hearts beat faster when we experience love (or at least when we experience the first rush of love/attraction), and our chests tend to ache when the process goes awry. Of course, poetry and philosophy are not exactly hard science. What hard science tells us is that love lives not in our hearts but in our brains. In fact, thanks to functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) technology, we even know where in the brain this ephemeral emotion resides. In fact, using fMRI brain scans, tracking things like love, romantic attraction, and sexual attraction is actually a relatively straightforward process.
In one well-known study researchers tracked the brain activity of men and women who reported being “intensely in love.” Test subjects were shown images of their beloved, along with images of familiar but not beloved individuals. The results very clearly demonstrated that:
- Intense romantic love activates of dopamine-rich regions in the brain, such as the striatum. (The striatum includes the nucleus accumbens, also known as the brain’s “pleasure center.”)
- Intense romantic love also activates regions of the brain associated with motivation to acquire a reward, primarily the insula, which “gives value” to pleasurable, life-sustaining activities (to make sure we continue to engage in them).
Based on these findings, this research team concluded that romantic love is a goal-oriented motivation state rather than a specific emotion. In other words, individuals who are “in love” are strongly motivated to be with the object of their affection because being with that person provides a high level of neurological reward (pleasure). In other words, we are motivated to be with the person we love because it feels good.
Another well-known study went a step further, differentiating sexual desire from romantic love. This particular study analyzed the results from 20 separate fMRI trials, each of which examined brain activity while subjects were engaged in tasks like viewing pornographic photos and also viewing photos of their significant others. After pooling this data, the authors of the study were able to “map” exactly where and how both sexual desire and romantic love stimulate the brain. As it turns out, sexual desire and romantic love both activate the striatum (creating pleasure), with romantic love but not sexual attraction activating the insula (assigning value). In essence, the striatum is responsible for initial attraction and sexual desire, while the insula is responsible for transforming that desire into love.
So what is the difference between healthy and addictive sexual/romantic attraction?
Frankly, not much.
As nearly everyone knows, even healthy relationships can appear enmeshed, obsessive, and addictive in the early stages of intense attraction. This is the time when the other person’s thoughts, feelings, desires, and actions seem like the most important thing ever. These intense feelings actually create a neurochemical high (by stimulating the striatum), which drives us toward the person we desire and makes us want to stay with that person long enough to develop the mature intimacy that characterizes longer-term, lasting love. And this early obsessive stage is perfectly normal!
The problem occurs when people get hooked on the high of initial sexual attraction and/or budding romance, seeking to repeat this neurochemically stimulating stage of relationships over and over, using the rush as a way to escape and dissociate from uncomfortable emotions, life stressors, and underlying psychological issues such as depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, attachment deficit disorders, unresolved childhood trauma, and the like. (These are the same reasons alcoholics drink and drug addicts take drugs.) Essentially, sex and love addicts repeat the early stages of sexual/romantic attraction over and over as a way to avoid living life, convincing themselves that the transitory intensity of their sexual and romantic activity is the real thing. What they fail to recognize is that this intoxicating period is only the first step toward finding and establishing real love. Repeatedly seeking this neurochemical high, even when the behavior is creating problems and the person wishes to stop, is the basis of both sex and love addiction.