New Research at Oxford Suggests Love can be Treated, Just Like an Addiction

Recent research poses that love could be “treated” like an addiction. Are we really going to medicalize l’amour?

Most of us know the pleasures of a bar of dark chocolate, the oldest aphrodisiac, while sip- ping an espresso at the end of a long day, releasing bursts of good feeling. But, nothing compares to abandoning yourself to the arms of a loved one, drifting away into bliss, wishing the moment would last forever. What could be better? Recent science suggests it is possible to have too much of a good thing, even love. And experts claim the line is very thin.

Your Brain on Love

Just like any pleasure-seeking behavior, love also has the potential to be. It’s not just sweaty palms and a blush on the cheek, but a blend of chemicals wiring magic in the brain, making the explosion all the more fiery. In a March 2017 paper entitled “Addicted to Love: What is love addiction and when should it be treated?” psychiatrists Brian D. Earp, Olga A. Wudarczyk, Bennett Foddy and Julian Savulescu at the University of Oxford to answer that question and pose the consideration of the “implications for the ethical use of anti-love biotechnology.”

Equating romantic love with addiction is a bold move, indeed, but not entirely unprecedented. “Studies suggest that the subjective state (or states) of “being in love” is intimately tied to characteristic biochemical reactions occurring within the brain.” In short, compounds such as dopamine, oxytocin, vasopressin and serotonin create a powerful mixture in developing centers for pleasure, reward and trust, which set the stage for love. This cocktail can make our heads spin, and, apparently, fill our hearts with longing.


Craving the Balance

As with addiction, distinct phases – such as craving, tolerance, withdrawal and relapse – are associated with different stages in romance’s course. When infatuated, lovers can’t hide their euphoria, and actively seek to spend every waking minute with their beloved. The attention becomes overwhelming. Often, the need only intensifies, as lovers become accustomed to their partner and build up “tolerance”. If the spell is broken, however, “withdrawal” can set in, with feelings of deep sorrow and loneliness so strong that it can take years to break free.

The Addicted to Love paper states if the behavior “threatens the individual’s (or another’s) safety, mental or physical health, or incurs serious social or legal costs, it may rise to the level of an addiction.”

Even though all addictions share the same necessity of assuaging a need, fundamental differences apply, and a lot depends on context. When one loves and is loved, and each is secure enough to stand alone, a balance is achieved, that leaves little room for addiction. When the need becomes obsessive out of insecurity or fear, the craving can intensify, causing pathological and compulsive behavior.

Passionate Chemistry

But calling a deep and mutual experience of love an “addiction” would be missing the point. We instinctively understand that there is something that deserves to be called “true love” and know from experience that this is not something gone wrong. The letters of Petrarch and Dante to their muses, the poetry of John Donne and Elizabeth Barrett Browning are a testimony to this. Yes, love may be irrational and even wayward, but also patient and selfless and a potent force for good. Still selfish motives, can eclipse the good. And it is when our deep and inbuilt longing for affection becomes perverted, that the medical model can help us understand a common source of lasting pain.

Dr. Helen Fisher, an anthropologist of Rutgers University in New Jersey, argues that love is essentially a drive, and thus often beyond our control. A drive is, by nature, instinctual and unreasoned, some- thing to which we generally surrender without much struggle. Notably, the need for love is written in our genes.

Deeply bound with procreation and survival of the species, it is a natural reward for choices that secure the future of the community. The others – artificially induced pleasures of drugs, alcohol, over eating or obsessive risk – are often the substitutes, forms of self-medication for loss or the absence of love. And rarely do these become addictions by choice.

Part of the confusion, according to the authors of Addicted to Love, is a question of language. The terminology referring to love is rife with language of addiction – we’re lovesick, dependent on the object of our affection, we can’t seem to quit him or her, we obsess over every little detail, totally consumed by their power over us. The negative connotations closely associated with addictions often get attributed to love.

Once Upon an Obsession

Similarly, both tradition and popular culture are filled with myths of love – “to live happily ever after” until “death do us apart” – that can distort our understanding of love. These beliefs often violate the autonomy necessary for relationships to thrive, experts say. Sharing everything, never being apart, can inspire addictive habits, and is rarely the path to a “marriage of true minds.”

Loving in spite of our differences may be more difficult, but is the nobler way and nearly always more successful. “Once the realization is accepted that even between the closest human beings infinite distances continue, a wonderful living side by side can grow,” wrote poet Rainer Maria Rilke in his treatise on individuality, “if they succeed in loving the distance between them, which makes it possible for each to see the other whole against the sky.” The foundation of mature love is freedom, not captivity.

So here we sit, brooding on the nature of love. What we do know is that to understand it, we must allow ourselves to love, as its meaning is contained in the act itself. And whether we can prove it or not, we know that it is far greater than a bundle of neurons ring or chemicals shooting o on cue. To reduce it to addiction would be to ignore this central experience of what it means to be human.

Love is a world in its own right, and, in the end, a medium that allows our existence to take shape. So let us marvel at where it comes from – while making sure we take care of all the obstacles that stand in its way.


Nejra Rizvanović
Bosnia bred, currently residing in Austria, Nejra studies Cognitive Science at the University of Vienna. In her free time, she enjoys good company, learning new languages and eating sushi.

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