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The adverse psychological effects of love

On Valentine’s day, people around the world dwell on the positive and beautiful aspects of romantic love, They celebrate the value that this unique feeling brings to human existence and the central role it plays in our search for happiness.

Furthermore, science shows that the neurophysiological benefits of being in love are numerous. A few years ago, we wrote a Spotlight feature on the positive health effects that being in a relationship brings.

From relieving pain, lowering blood pressure, easing stress, and generally improving one’s cardiovascular health, love and being in a relationship have associations with a wide range of health benefits.

But if love was nothing more than positive feelings, warming sensations, and feel-good chemicals, we probably would not apply words such as “smitten” or “lovesick” to describe the intense effects of this emotion.

On this Valentine’s day, we decided to focus our attention on some of the less exhilarating — and sometimes even debilitating — psychological effects of romantic love.

In her book, Love and Limerence: The Experience of Being in Love, she defines limerence as an involuntary, enormously intense, and overwhelmingly passionate state in which the “limerent” person can feel obsessed with and emotionally dependent on the object of their limerence.

“To be in the state of limerence is to feel what is usually termed ‘being in love,'” the author writes. However, her nuanced account of the feeling distinguishes between limerence, love, and sex. “[L]ove and sex can coexist without limerence, in fact […] any of the three may exist without the others,” she writes.

Tennov lists several components, or signs, of limerence. These include:

  • “intrusive thinking about the object of your passionate desire”
  • “acute longing for reciprocation”
  • dependence on the actions of the object of your limerence, or rather, on the possibility that they might reciprocate your feelings
  • an inability to have limerent feelings towards more than one person at a time
  • an intense fear of rejection
  • “sometimes incapacitating but always unsettling shyness” in the presence of your limerent object
  • “intensification through adversity,” meaning that the more difficult it is to consume the feeling, the more intense it becomes
  • “an aching of the ‘heart’ (a region in the center front of the chest) when uncertainty is strong”
  • “buoyancy (a feeling of walking on air) when reciprocation seems evident”
  • an intensity of the feeling and narrow focus on the limerent object that makes other concerns and activities pale by comparison
  • “a remarkable ability to emphasize what is truly admirable in [the limerent object] and to avoid dwelling on the negative”

So, is limerence healthful? In Tennov’s account, the many negative aspects of limerence have not received the attention they deserve.

Limerence has associations with many “tragic situations,” she says, including intended “‘accidents’ (much fantasy involves situations in which the limerent gets an injury and [the limerent object] is “sorry”), outright suicide (often with note left behind to [the limerent object]), divorce, homicide, and a host of ‘minor’ side effects” that she documents in her book.

Furthermore, in retrospect, people who have experienced limerence report feelings of self-hatred and tend to berate themselves for not having been able to shake off the uncontrollable feeling.

Tennov’s book is filled with many strategies that limerents have tried — more or less successfully — to rid themselves of the feeling, including journaling, focusing on the limerent object’s flaws, or seeing a therapist.

For example, it’s a known fact that love triggers the release of dopamine, a neurotransmitter that was nicknamed “the sex, drugs, and rock’n’roll” hormone because the body releases it when a person engages in pleasurable activities.

Overall, from a neurological point of view, love activates the same brain circuitry and reward mechanisms that are involved in addiction. Helen Fisher, Ph.D., a biological anthropologist and a research fellow at the Kinsey Institute, University of Indiana, led a now-famous experiment that illustrated this.

In the study, researchers asked 15 participants who reported feeling intensely in love to look at images of their lovers who had rejected them. As they did so, the scientists scanned the participants’ brains in a functional MRI machine.

The study found high brain activity in areas associated with cocaine addiction, “gains and losses,” craving, motivation, and emotion regulation. These brain regions included the ventral tegmental area, the ventral striatum, the medial and lateral orbitofrontal/prefrontal cortex, and the cingulate gyrus.

“Activation of areas involved in cocaine addiction may help explain the obsessive behaviors associated with rejection in love,” write Fisher and colleagues. Some of these behaviors include “mood swings, craving, obsession, compulsion, distortion of reality, emotional dependence, personality changes, risk-taking, and loss of self-control.”

Such traits have prompted some researchers to consider including love addiction in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), together with other behavioral addictions, such as “gambling disorder, sex-addiction, compulsive buying,” as well as addiction to exercise, work, or technology.

Other scientists, by contrast, have taken a more temperate attitude to the issue of the addictive nature of love.

In an article entitled Addicted to love: What is love addiction and when should it be treated?, Brian Earp and his colleagues from the Oxford Centre for Neuroethics, at the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom, write: “[E]veryone who loves is on a spectrum of addictive conditions.”

“[B]eing addicted to another person is not an illness but simply the result of a fundamental human capacity that can sometimes be exercised to excess.”

However, when a person does exercise it to excess, love should be “treated” in the same way as any other addiction. While an often exhilarating feeling, it is worth being wary of love’s adverse effects.

As Earp and colleagues conclude, “There is now abundant behavioral, neurochemical, and neuroimaging evidence to support the claim that love is (or at least that it can be) an addiction, in much the same way that chronic drug-seeking behavior can be termed an addiction.” They continue,

[N]o matter how we interpret this evidence, we should conclude that people whose lives are negatively impacted by love ought to be offered support and treatment opportunities analogous to those that we extend to substance abusers.”

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