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Is It Love… Or Obsession?


There’s little difference in your brain chemistry between falling in love and addiction, according to experts. We’ll explain how to distinguish between healthy love and unhealthy obsession.

By Theo Pauline Nestor

ou can’t eat. You can’t sleep. You are the human embodiment of craving and desire. All you can think about is the woman in the next cubicle or the guy you met at a party last weekend. Are you falling in love… or are you obsessed, driven by a kind of
If you aren’t addicted to someone, you are probably not in love.
addiction? Both, according to Dr. Helen Fisher, author of Why Him? Why Her?: How to Find and Keep Lasting Love and Chief Scientific Advisor for Chemistry.com. Is that a problem? Maybe, maybe not.

“Love is an addiction,” Fisher contends. “If you aren’t addicted to someone, you are probably not in love. The brain region that lights up when you are in love is the reward system, the brain system associated with wanting, seeking, craving, elation, focused attention, obsession, motivation and possessiveness. These are the same brain pathways that become active when you feel the rush of cocaine.”

When we fall in love, a “tiny factory” at the base of the brain called the ventral tegmental area (or VTA) kicks in and begins to produce dopamine, a natural stimulant that gives you the feeling of motivation, craving, obsession and other feelings generally associated with addiction. “Suddenly, that person is the center of your life,” Fisher explains. “Everything about your beloved is special. This person’s car, the street he or she lives on — all of these take on a special quality. You feel intense energy, mood swings into despair when things are going poorly, elation when things are going well. You crave contact and are highly motivated to win this person over. You’ll distort reality. If he or she smiles at you, you decide that means this person likes you.”

None of this is inherently a problem. Falling in love is generally considered one of life’s most pleasant and exciting experiences. “Love addiction is a very natural state of being in love with someone,” says Fisher, who goes on to explain that there are three distinct and separate brain responses associated with relationships: lust, romantic love and attachment. While lust can be triggered by any number of stimuli — a book, a movie, a person — romantic love is focused on a particular person. According to Fisher, the experiences of lust, romantic love and attachment “very often go together, but they are distinctly different.”

But if love is “a very natural state,” how can we know if we’re on the right course or we’re getting ourselves into trouble, i.e., into the territory we normally associate with the troublesome idea of addiction? The answer lies in how this obsession plays itself out. “The point is,” says Fisher, “if someone loves you back, no problem. The two of you are off having the time of your lives. The addiction becomes unhealthy when the other person doesn’t love you back.”

Fisher points to other signs of unhealthy love, noting that people with a pattern of short-lived relationships may be experiencing the dark side of obsession rather than love. “The moment the intense romantic high
Because once that happens, you are off to the races.
wears off, they dump that person to go get that high with someone else, looking for that intense romantic experience. These people can’t be comfortable in the attachment stage of a relationship,” says Fisher. Or, at the other end of the spectrum, extreme possessiveness: “Once you’re stalking someone, the addiction’s gone over the edge,” warns Fisher.

Susan Cheever, author of Desire: Where Sex Meets Addiction, offers another clue about heading down the wrong path: broken promises. “One primary characteristic of addiction is always a broken promise, whether it’s a promise made to oneself or to another person. Addicts are people who promised not to do something again and again and inevitably find they have done it anyway. The most recognized symptom of addiction is that it causes us to do things we wish we didn’t do,” says Cheever.

Understanding how sex and love addicts define the problem themselves can help you distinguish a healthy love addiction from the not-so-healthy kind and identify the different types of love addicts. The Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous web site describes sex and love addiction as a “progressive illness, which may take several forms — including, but not limited to a compulsive need for sex, extreme dependency on one or many people, or a chronic preoccupation with romance, intrigue, or fantasy.”

LSAA literature generally categorizes love addicts into the following types:
  • Codependent Love Addicts — These are people attached to one particular partner and unwilling to let go, even when the relationship is destructive. Codependent love addicts’ behavior is often characterized by caretaking, enabling and rescuing.
  • Relationship Addicts — Those who are no longer in love with their partners but still refuse to let go.
  • Narcissistic Love Addicts — These people use dominance, seduction and withholding to control their partners. Often they appear aloof and uncaring until the other person threatens to leave.
  • Ambivalent Love Addicts — Those who desperately crave love but fear intimacy.
  • Torch Bearers — People who obsess about someone who is unavailable.
  • Saboteurs — Those who destroy relationships before they can reach the attachment phase.
  • Romance Addicts — People who tend to have a number of short-lived liaisons because they crave the excitement they feel during the initial courtship phase.
So, how could online daters use knowledge of love addiction to improve their experiences? When people post a dating profile, “they want to feel love, that craving,” explains Fisher. “To make sure they are falling for the right person, they should really try to get to know something about that individual before they trigger that romantic love brain system. Because once that happens, you are off to the races. So put yourself in the position of getting to know a great deal about the person before you fall madly in love.”


Theo Pauline Nestor is the author of How to Sleep Alone in a King-Size Bed: A Memoir of Starting Over (Crown) and a regular contributor to Happenmag.com.
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