In her practice, Dr. Danielle Forshee, a psychologist and social worker who specializes in relationship and marriage counseling, sees a lot of patients who are struggling with "love addiction." It's a term that gets tossed around in TV shows and movies, and although it's not exactly something you'll find in medical textbooks, it's a real feeling of withdrawal that some people feel more acutely when they don't have a romantic relationship in their life. In her own words, Forshee explained what love addiction is, how it works, and how people who are able to overcome it feel when they beat the reward and withdrawal cycle.
We know that the part of the brain that has to do with craving sex and love is the similar reward part of the brain that has to do with drug addiction and obsessive compulsive disorder. So love addiction can feel like you're constantly obsessing in your mind about this person. Some people struggle more than others, but every single person experiences these types of feelings.
When we find someone attractive or that has traits or qualities that we like, our brain starts secreting the neurotransmitter called dopamine. Dopamine is part of the same brain-reward circuit that causes us to crave pleasure—like food, sex and drugs. So when we think of somebody we're attracted to, or when we go online and look at their social media, it triggers our brain to release dopamine, which triggers the reward system. You start to feel excited. It also helps deactivate a certain part of the brain called the frontal cortex, and that part of the brain is responsible for making us have good judgment.
So when the dopamine floods our brain, it can cause us to feel infatuated with somebody because we can't focus on anything else besides the good traits of that person—even if they're bad for us—because it makes us feel continually pleasurable and almost obsessed.
Our brain also releases a stress hormone called cortisol when we are in love with or like somebody. This is what makes us have sweaty hands and get physiologically aroused—we get sweaty, butterflies in the stomach, stuff like. And that actually forces your brain to drive down levels of another neurotransmitter called serotonin, and serotonin is responsible for staying happy and feeling good.
So when the love is taken away, you essentially feel depressed. You can feel withdrawal symptoms. People feel sad, they could feel anxious, feel empty, feel lonely. They could also feel a bit obsessive and infatuated, like things are out of their control and they're yearning for something to grasp onto. It's a feeling similar to feeling rejected. They feel sad and lonely, and try to find something else to fill that void.
Lots of people have plan B relationships—something to fall back on, someone they keep in the wings for the rainy day.
Usually someone they have a history of dating or having some kind of sexual relationship with or attachment to. People they never break up with completely and talk to intermittently, despite the fact that they may have someone else in their life that they love and are infatuated with. But once the person they're infatuated with, once that love ends, they fall back immediately into that plan B person in the background. It gives them a sense of fulfilling that withdrawal from losing the love or attention. It helps ease the withdrawal symptoms of sadness, loneliness, and rejection. It puts a boost back on the dopamine release, so they feel somewhat back to what is 'normal' for them.
How this works is that our brain remembers which people or experiences allow us to have that trigger of pleasure. That's what I mean when I say it's easy to fall back on the plan B person because it's someone we knew in the past, someone our brain remembers and knows can give us that fix to get out of the love withdrawal.
This withdrawal period can also render people vulnerable to making impulsive decisions so that, in the moment, you can have that short-term, feel-good boost. Or if someone has a biological predisposition to a psychiatric illness like anxiety, depression, panic disorder, any kind of problem—this could be a stressor for them. They may have sleeping problems, a loss of appetite, problems focusing, problems with decision making. All these are symptoms of someone whose brain is not getting what it needs to function at a pleasurable level.
Your brain is searching for the pleasurable reward. It's so used to having it when you're in a romantic relationship, then all of a sudden when it doesn't have that, you don't feel so great.
I see this a lot, especially with social media. When people are experiencing these withdrawal symptoms, they have these inclinations to go back and rekindle things with exes, or look at their Instagram and Facebook to see what they're doing. They may even reach out, anticipating and hoping they won't be rejected. But if it doesn't work out they feel worse, and if it does, it's only a short-term bandaid for a long-term problem.
In treatment for love addiction, I have people do cognitive behavioral therapy. I work with them to create an understanding of what their triggers are. Is there a certain song, place, person, or website they go onto that triggers this? After they understand what the triggers are that make them vulnerable, then we try to understand how those thoughts influence their actions. Really, it's first training people to understand how their thoughts influence their feelings and how their feelings influence their behavior, and then choosing a better substitution instead of reaching out to your plan B.
I think pretty much everybody could have a love addiction, it's just on a spectrum of severe to mild. Everyone experiences those obsessions, those feelings of withdrawal, those feelings of pleasure. It's just a matter of how happy we are with ourselves, how happy we are with the support system, how happy we are with our career, and how happy we are with ourselves in general. All of these things are factors into why one person may have more of an obsession that interferes with their life, versus someone else who has an obsession that doesn't significantly interfere with their life. Some people struggle more than others, but every single person experiences these types of feelings.
We're always going to crave that feel-good boost—it's a matter of whether or not we can control ourselves to get that boost from somewhere that is more beneficial to our lives longterm.
All humans have a need to have meaningful relationships and connections. That's the other complicating part of this. We are biologically hardwired to need meaningful, emotional relationships with others, especially when you're in your twenties and thirties. People need those types of things.
People who are able to work through this feel like they get ahold of themselves and get a grip. Once they realize they can be happy with just themselves and don't have to depend on a romantic relationship to feel good, they're the happiest they've ever been.
Interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
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This article originally appeared on Cosmopolitan.com. Minor edits have been made by the Cosmo.ph editors.