A wise sage named Ke$ha once infamously crooned that love itself can be a drug, capable of igniting addiction and a “sick obsession.” Scientists believe the same. In a recent review of studies on the neurochemical elements of love and addiction, University of Oxford researchers concluded that love can be diagnosed as an actual addiction. And one day, they wrote, it will be treated with science, just like every other substance humans crave.
“So numerous are the superficial similarities between addictive substance use and love and sex-based interpersonal attachments, from exhilaration, ecstasy, and craving, to irregular physiological responses and obsessive patterns of thought,” the researchers write in the journal Philosophy, Psychiatry, & Psychology, “that a number of scientific theorists have begun to argue that both sorts of phenomena may rely upon similar of even identical psychological, chemical, and neuroanatomical substrates.”
What scientists are still arguing about is whether all forms of romantic love can be addictive. While it’s known that the stages of being in love share the same biochemical reactions of other forms of addiction, there are two schools of thought about the addictive nature of love. People with the “narrow view” think that only the most extreme, harmful forms of love can be addictive. Those with the “broad view,” however, think addictions are basic appetites that need to be filled; in this way of thinking, someone can literally be addicted, in a neurochemical sense, to another person.
To have the “narrow view” is to think that people who are addicted to love must demonstrate abnormal sexual or attachment behaviors. A “love addict,” the researchers write, lets their addiction interfere with the ordinary functions of life, disables the person from experiencing a healthy relationship, and cause negative consequences both for the person and those around them. This sort of love threatens a person’s mental and physical health, and it’s thought that people who do this are trying to relieve obsessive thoughts.
“The narrow view of love addiction is narrow, then, in the sense that it sees only extreme, radical brain processes, attachment behaviors, or manifestations of love as being potentially indicative of addiction and hence is thought to be quite rare,” the researchers write.
In the “broad view”, on the other hand, love addiction is “underwritten by similar neurochemical processes” like conventional addictions, such as binge eating or alcoholism. In this view, both experiences are driven by dopamine and serotonin processing, which affects the regions associated with reward learning and addiction. In other words, a person on drugs and a person in love have more in common than just similar psychological profiles.
Some people argue that the experience of a relationship can even be more powerful than a drug. In O: the Intimate History of the Orgasm, writer Jonathan Margolis notes that “. . .through sex [with our partner], orgasm’s serotonin rush and momentary muscular relaxation comprise the most potent and popular drug we have.”
If we’re going to use biotechnology to “cure” love, the “narrow” and “broad” definitions of addiction will come in handy. While an anti-love drug seems like something out of science fiction, it very well could become a reality. Scientists have already discovered that androgen blockers, depressant medications, and oral naltrexone can be used to halt lust — the evolutionary component that leads to the development of romantic love. In this review, the authors acknowledge the recent surge of studies on the neurobiological roots of love addiction, saying they’re fueling the rush to create actual drug-based therapies for love.
The bigger question is: should people actually be allowed to use drugs to subdue love?
If you have the narrow view and think love can turn into a neurobiological disorder capable of ruining someone’s life, then yes, of course they should. But if you have the broader view, then the situation gets more complicated — some researchers, like women’s, gender, and sexuality studies professor Kristina Gupta of Wake Forest University, have argued against anti-love technology, saying it will be misused by people who believe that there’s only one right way to love someone. Regardless of who you side with, love addiction is far from hyperbole; it’s a biological fact.