Intense, Passionate, Romantic Love: A Natural Addiction?

Marnia's picture
Submitted by Marnia on
Printer-friendly version

Intense, Passionate, Romantic Love: A Natural Addiction? How the Fields That Investigate Romance and Substance Abuse Can Inform Each Other (Full study) The authors suggest ways of tapping this circuitry to help heal addiction. Excerpts:

We have proposed that romantic love is a natural (and often positive) addiction that evolved from mammalian antecedents by 4 million years ago as a survival mechanism to encourage hominin pair-bonding and reproduction, seen cross-culturally today in Homo sapiens. Brain scanning studies using functional magnetic resonance imaging support this view: feelings of intense romantic love engage regions of the brain’s “reward system,” specifically dopamine-rich regions, including the ventral tegmental area, also activated during drug and/or behavioral addiction. Thus, because the experience of romantic love shares reward pathways with a range of substance and behavioral addictions, it may influence the drug and/or behavioral addiction response. Indeed, a study of overnight abstinent smokers has shown that feelings of intense romantic love attenuate brain activity associated with cigarette cue-reactivity. Could socially rewarding experiences be therapeutic for drug and/or behavioral addictions?

Further, because feelings of romantic love can progress into feelings of calm attachment, and because attachment engages more plastic forebrain regions, there is a rationale for therapies that may help substance and/or behavioral addiction by promoting activation of these forebrain systems through long-term, calm, positive attachments to others, including group therapies.

But by embracing data on romantic love, it’s classification as an evolved, natural, often positive but also powerfully negative addiction, and its neural similarity to many substance and non-substance addictive states, clinicians may develop more effective therapeutic approaches to alleviate a range of the addictions, including heartbreak–an almost universal human experience that can trigger stalking, clinical depression, suicide, homicide, and other crimes of passion.

Romantic love may have evolved at the basal radiation of the hominin clade some 4.4 million years ago in conjunction with the evolution of serial social monogamy and clandestine adultery–hallmarks of the human reproductive strategy (Fisher, 1998, 2004, 2011, 2016). Its purpose may have been to motivate our forebears to focus their mating time and energy on a single partner at a time, thus initiating the formation of a pair-bond to rear their young together as a team (Fisher, 1992, 1998, 2004, 2011, 2016; Fisher et al., 2006; Fletcher et al., 2015). Thus, as products of human evolution, the neural systems for romantic love and mate attachment could be considered as survival systems among humans.

Theories of how humans evolved into pair-bonders:

Pair-bonding could have evolved at any point in hominin evolution; and with it, various love addictions (Fisher, 2016). However, two lines of data suggest that the neural circuitry for human pair-bonding may have evolved at the basal radiation of the hominin stock (Fisher, 1992, 2011, 2016), in tandem with the hominin adaptation to the woodland/savannah eco-niche some time prior to 4 million years B.P. Ardipithecus ramidus, currently dated at 4.4 million years B.P., displays several physical traits that have been linked with pair-bonding in many species (Lovejoy, 2009); so Lovejoy (2009) proposes that human monogamy had evolved by this time. Anthropologists have also re-measured Australopithecus afarensis fossils for skeletal variations; and they report that by 3.5 million years B.P. hominins exhibited roughly the same degree of sexual dimorphism in several physical traits that the sexes exhibit today. Thus, some have proposed that these hominins were “principally monogamous” (Reno et al., 2003).

The emergence of bipedalism may have been a primary factor in the evolution of the neural circuitry for hominin pair-bonding (Fisher, 1992, 2011, 2016) and the concomitant evolution of romantic love (and possibly attachment) addiction. While foraging and scavenging in the woodland/savannah eco-niche, bipedal Ardipithecine females were most likely obliged to carry infants in their arms instead of on their backs, thus needing the protection and provisioning of a mate while they transported nursing young. Meanwhile, Ardipithecine males may have had considerable difficulty protecting and providing for a harem of females in this open woodland/savannah eco-niche. But a male could defend and provision a single female with her infant as they walked near one another, within the vicinity of the larger community.

So the exigencies of bipedalism in conjunction with hominin expansion into the woodland/savannah eco-niche may have pushed Ardipithecines over the “monogamy threshold,” selecting for the neural system for attachment to a pair-bonded partner. And along with the evolution of pair-bonding and the neural system for attachment may have emerged the brain system for intense positive romantic addiction—serving to motivate males and females to focus their mating energy on a single partner and remain together long enough to trigger feelings of attachment necessary to initiate and complete their co-parenting duties of highly altricial young (Fisher, 1992, 2004, 2011, 2016).

Implications for Treatment of Romantic Rejection and Addiction

Clinicians have a host of strategies for helping lovers and drug addicts. However, when data on romantic love and substance abuse are considered together, some approaches have a particularly strong rationale.

Perhaps most important, like giving up a drug, rejected lovers should remove all reasonable evidence of their abandoning sweetheart, such as cards, letters, songs, photos, and memorabilia, as well as avoid contact with their rejecting partner, because reminders and partner contact can act as cues that induce craving and are likely to sustain the activity of brain circuits associated with romantic passion and thus interfere with the healing process. Self-expansion research also finds that positive outcomes such as personal growth and positive emotions are possible (even likely) following a break-up if the relationship had offered few self-expanding opportunities and if the newly single person engages in rediscovery of the self (Lewandowski and Bizzoco, 2007).

Close, positive contact with a friend or friends is rewarding and may also help to replace the craving for substances or a rejecting partner, because looking at a photo of a close friend activates the nucleus accumbens, associated with reward (Acevedo et al., 2011). Looking at a photo of a close friend also activates the periaqueductal gray, associated with oxytocin receptors and the calm of attachment. This suggests that group therapies, such as Alcoholics Anonymous and other 12 step programs, are successful because these group dynamics engage the brain’s reward and attachment systems. Participating in group programs may be important for rejected lovers as well as for those addicted to substances like alcohol or those with a behavioral addiction, such as gambling.

Data suggest that rejected lovers should also stay busy to distract themselves (Thayer, 1996; Rosenthal, 2002). Physical exertion may be especially helpful as it elevates mood (Rosenthal, 2002), triggering dopamine activity in the nucleus accumbens to bestow pleasure (Kolata, 2002). Exercise also increases levels of β-Endorphin and endocannabinoids which reduces pain and increases feelings of calm and well-being (Goldfarb and Jamurtas, 1997; Dietrich and McDaniel, 2004). Also, engaging in a new form of exercise can be a self-expanding experience (see Xu et al., 2010). Because of these benefits of exercise, some psychiatrists believe that exercise (aerobic or anaerobic) can be as effective in healing depression as psychotherapy or antidepressant drugs (Rosenthal, 2002).

Self-expanding activities (e.g., hobbies, sports, spiritual experiences) can be helpful both in the context of addiction and heartbreak as they offer reward, benefits to the self-concept, and distraction. It is recommended that a person has more than one source of self-expansion in their life, thus should one no longer become available (e.g., a partner leaves), the other sources can help buffer the impact of that loss. It would also be helpful to have multiple and diverse sources of self-expansion in various domains of life (e.g., hobby, workplace, friends, family, volunteer organization, spiritual group, and academic interest etc.) and to have strong social networks to which one can turn for support in times of need (e.g., breakup, attempting to quit). It is important, however, to note that self-expansion should be pursued in a healthy manner with caution about potentially risky behaviors (e.g., seeking to fall in love with a new person immediately after the loss of a partner, picking up unhealthy habits or becoming an addict of another substance when quitting).

Similarly, it is important to remember that relationships and addictions can co-exist and influence each other and it may be especially difficult to have a strong and positive romantic relationship when issues of addiction need to be dealt with. As addiction often leads to less desire for and response to alternative rewards, it may be especially difficult for those dealing with addiction to engage in pro-relationship behaviors, and thus increase the risk of rejection. In addition, romantic rejection increases the risk of relapse, so close attention to romantic relationships during substance abuse withdrawal may be important.

Furthermore, smiling utilizes facial muscles that activate nerve pathways in the brain that can stimulate feelings of pleasure (Carter, 1998). Focusing on the positive may be effective too. A study by Lewandowski (2009) found that writing for 20 min on three consecutive days about a recent relationship break-up was beneficial when people wrote about positive feelings as opposed to when they wrote about negative feelings or wrote without expressing any feelings. Perhaps most important, time attenuates the attachment system. In our study of rejected men and women, the greater the number of days since rejection, the less the activity in a brain region (the ventral pallidum) associated with feelings of attachment (Fisher et al., 2010).

As disappointed lovers use strategies originally developed to quit a substance addiction, their love addiction is likely to eventually subside.


Researchers have long discussed whether the compulsive pursuit of non-substance rewards, such as uncontrolled gambling, eating, sex, exercise, Internet use, compulsive buying disorder and other obsessive behavioral syndromes can be classified as addictions (Frascella et al., 2010; Rosenberg and Feder, 2014). All can lead to salience, obsession, tolerance, emotional, and physical dependence, withdrawals, relapse and other traits common to substance abuse. Moreover, several of these non-substance rewards have been shown to produce specific activity in dopamine pathways of the reward system similar to drugs of abuse (see Frascella et al., 2010; see Rosenberg and Feder, 2014). This suggests that uncontrolled use of these non-substances can be considered addictions. Romantic love is likely to be a similar addiction, with one exception. Unlike other addictions (that afflict only a percentage of the population), some form of love addiction is likely to occur to almost every human being that lives now and in our human past; few avoid the pain of romantic rejection either.


Well Written

Thanks for sharing. It's pretty weird talking about people 4.4 million years ago.
" rejected lovers should remove all reasonable evidence of their abandoning sweetheart, such as cards, letters, songs, photos, and memorabilia, as well as avoid contact with their rejecting partner, because reminders and partner contact can act as cues that induce craving and are likely to sustain the activity of brain circuits associated with romantic passion and thus interfere with the healing process." damn! I'm married to her!
And "some form of love addiction is likely to occur to almost every human being that lives now and in our human past; few avoid the pain of romantic rejection either." no shit
I get it...we like dopamine. It's a good idea to develop wide variety of ways to get it!


I would like to introduce myself to the community...but I got kind of long winded. I wrote 3 pages. Is there a limit to how many pages you can write?

no limit

I don't think there is a limit, but you might consider using a different user name (not your own name), and then write a PM to Marnia asking to enable you to blog. Then you can post on your own blog page.

Thank You, Thank You Marnia

Each of your points move me to thankful tears: romantic love is an elemental human addition for survival of the species, clinical approaches for addition and romantic love are parallel (stay busy, avoid cues, lean into self-expalning activities, the addictive nature of the romantic loss will be there to work with long term.

The explains so very much about the loss of my 20+ year marriage and the process of leaning into the grieving. Addiction was not a label I had for the whole process but it is right on in each of the elements you point out Marnia. I was so very able meet the loss gracefully and feel it so deeply in order to move through without bitterness though I could never make sense of it. We seemed to love one another so deeply and mostly in an oxytocin-style path though the addictive, dopamine way seemed to show up for her strongly the year before she decided to leave.

For most of two decades there were long periods there were long periods of waking up each day so very thankful for her. Things shifted to a more sex-addictive way for her the last year and I tried to keep up and finally she left. As I mentioned I move through it at the heart but now Marnia your book and the summary here has helped so much to bring understanding and a framework to move forward with.

I am so thankful!