In the Brain, Romantic Love Is Basically an Addiction

By Helen Fisher | February 13, 2015 11:43 am

brain hearts

“If at first the idea is not absurd, then there is no hope for it,” Albert Einstein reportedly said. I’d like to broaden the definition of addiction—and also retire the scientific idea that all addictions are pathological and harmful.

Since the beginning of formal diagnostics more than fifty years ago, the compulsive pursuit of gambling, food, and sex (known as non-substance rewards) have not been regarded as addictions. Only abuse of alcohol, opioids, cocaine, amphetamines, cannabis, heroin, and nicotine have been formally regarded as addictions. This categorization rests largely on the fact that substances activate basic “reward pathways” in the brain associated with craving and obsession and produce pathological behaviors. Psychiatrists work within this world of psychopathology—that which is abnormal and makes you ill.

Face It, You’re Addicted to Love

As an anthropologist, I think they’re limited by this view. Scientists have now shown that food, sex, and gambling compulsions employ many of the same brain pathways activated by substance abuse. Indeed, the 2013 edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (the DSM) has finally acknowledged that at least one form of non-substance abuse—gambling—can be regarded as an addiction. The abuse of sex and food have not yet been included. Neither has romantic love.

I shall propose that love addiction is just as real as any other addiction, in terms of its behavior patterns and brain mechanisms. Moreover, it’s often a positive addiction.

Scientists and laymen have long regarded romantic love as part of the supernatural, or as a social invention of the troubadours in 12th-century France. Evidence does not support these notions. Love songs, poems, stories, operas, ballets, novels, myths and legends, love magic, love charms, love suicides and homicides—evidence of romantic love has now been found in more than 200 societies ranging over thousands of years. Around the world, men and women pine for love, live for love, kill for love, and die for love. Human romantic love, also known as passionate love or “being in love,” is regularly regarded as a human universal.

Symptoms of Addiction

Moreover, love-besotted men and women show all the basic symptoms of addiction.

Foremost, the lover is stiletto-focused on his/her drug of choice, the love object. The lover thinks obsessively about him or her (intrusive thinking), and often compulsively calls, writes, or stays in touch. Paramount in this experience is intense motivation to win one’s sweetheart, not unlike the substance abuser fixated on the drug.

Impassioned lovers distort reality, change their priorities and daily habits to accommodate the beloved, experience personality changes (affect disturbance), and sometimes do inappropriate or risky things to impress this special other. Many are willing to sacrifice, even die for, “him” or “her.”


heart lock

The lover craves emotional and physical union with the beloved (dependence). And like addicts who suffer when they can’t get their drug, the lover suffers when apart from the beloved (separation anxiety). Adversity and social barriers even heighten this longing (frustration attraction).

In fact, besotted lovers express all four of the basic traits of addiction: craving, tolerance, withdrawal, and relapse. They feel a “rush” of exhilaration when they’re with their beloved (intoxication). As their tolerance builds, they seek to interact with the beloved more and more (intensification). If the love object breaks off the relationship, the lover experiences signs of drug withdrawal, including protest, crying spells, lethargy, anxiety, insomnia or hypersomnia, loss of appetite or binge eating, irritability, and loneliness.

Lovers, like addicts, also often go to extremes, sometimes doing degrading or physically dangerous things to win back the beloved. And lovers relapse the way drug addicts do. Long after the relationship is over, events, people, places, songs, or other external cues associated with their abandoning sweetheart can trigger memories and renewed craving.

Love on the Mind

Of the many indications that romantic love is an addiction, however, perhaps none is more convincing than the growing data from neuroscience. Using fMRI, several scientists have now shown that feelings of intense romantic love engage regions of the brain’s “reward system”: specifically, dopamine pathways associated with energy, focus, motivation, ecstasy, despair, and craving, including primary regions associated with substance (and non-substance) addictions.

In fact, I and my colleagues Lucy Brown, Art Aron, and Bianca Acevedo have found activity in the nucleus accumbens—the core brain factory associated with all addictions—in rejected lovers. Moreover, some of our newest results suggest correlations between activities of the nucleus accumbens and feelings of romantic passion among lovers who are wildly, happily in love.

Nobel laureate Eric Kandel has noted that brain studies “will give us new insights into who we are as human beings.” Knowing what we now know about the brain, my brain-scanning partner Lucy Brown has suggested that romantic love is a natural addiction, and I’ve maintained that this natural addiction evolved from mammalian antecedents some 4.4 million years ago among our first hominid ancestors, in conjunction with the evolution of (serial, social) monogamy—a hallmark of humankind. Its purpose: to motivate our forebears to focus their mating time and metabolic energy on a single partner at a time, thus initiating the formation of a pair-bond to rear their young (at least through infancy) together as a team.

The sooner we embrace what brain science is telling us—and use this information to upgrade the concept of addiction—the better we’ll understand ourselves and the billions of others on this planet who revel in the ecstasy and struggle with the sorrow of this profoundly powerful, natural, often positive addiction: romantic love.


edge book  Excerpted from This Idea Must Die, edited by John Brockman. Used with permission.






Top image: Kamikam/ Shutterstock;

Middle image: Denniro/Shutterstock

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Mind & Brain, Top Posts
  • Susan Arden

    Explains why we’re in love with love and why romance as a genre is popular, giving readers a ‘teasing sample’ in our quest for a love fix.

  • GuestWhom

    People can show addiction towards many things and often it comes with obsession…learning, reading, friends, internet, games, smart phones or other tech devices, or even religion.

    • Maia

      If anything can be addicting, and I agree it can, but not everyone
      is addicted to them, then there must be a lot more to the story than dopamine pathways, etc.

      • joesantus

        …and the “lot more” likely involves significant variations in the specific “brain wiring” and biochemistries among people, and therefore the way dopamine, testosterone, and so on affect a particular person and in particular circumstances.

  • Jane Steranko

    As usual Helen Fisher nails it.

  • Overburdened_Planet

    If love is the answer, could you rephrase the question?
    — Lilly Tomlin

    Everyone admits that love is wonderful and necessary, yet no one agrees on just what it is.
    — Diane Ackerman

    The fate of love is that it always seems too little or too much.
    — Anonymous

    We always believe our first love is our last, and our last love our first.
    — Anonymous

    It is with true love as it is with ghosts; everyone talks about it, but few have seen it.
    — François de La Rouchefoucauld

    There is only one kind of love, but there are a thousand imitations.
    — François de La Rouchefoucauld

    All women like to be loved, and all men love to be liked.

    Love makes the time pass. Time makes love pass.
    — French Proverb

    Immature love says: I love you because I need you.
    Mature love says: I need you because I love you.
    — Erich Fromm

    Love is what happens to men and women who don’t know each other.
    — W. Somerset Maugham

    Love is the delusion that one man or woman differs from another.
    — H. L. Mencken

    Love is the triumph of imagination over intelligence.
    — H. L. Mencken

    Love is an emotion experienced by the many and enjoyed by the few.
    — George Jean Nathan

    Love is a gross exaggeration of the difference between one person and everybody else.
    — George Bernard Shaw

    Is it better for a woman to marry a man who loves her than a man she loves?
    — Anonymous

    Love is blind — marriage is the eye-opener.
    — Pauline Thomason

    Marriage is the one subject on which all women agree and all men disagree.
    — Oscar Wilde

    Men marry because they are tired, women because they are curious; both are disappointed.
    — Oscar Wilde

    The only thing worse than a man you can’t control is a man you can.
    — Margo Kaufman

    I think, therefore I’m single.
    — Female philosopher

    When men and women agree, it is only in their conclusions; their reasons are always different.
    — George Santayana

    A man can be happy with any woman as long as he doesn’t love her.
    — Oscar Wilde

    I don’t need a man to rectify my existence. The most profound relationship we’ll ever have is the one with ourselves.
    — Shirley Maclaine

    Women in general want to be loved for what they are and men for what they accomplish.
    — Theodor Reik

    Part of the reason that men seem so much less loving than women is that men’s behavior is measured with a feminine ruler.
    — Francesca M. Cancian

    You [men] are not our protectors…. If you were, who would there be to protect us from?
    — Mary Edwards Walker

    When women hold off from marrying men, we call it independence. When men hold off from marrying women, we call it fear of commitment.
    — Warren Farrell

    There is no reciprocity. Men love women, women love children, children love hamsters.

  • Dan Goldstein

    This is a helpful perspective to me. I once heard from a Rabbi that our entire life revolves around our control or lack of control over addictive tendencies. Religion offers a management model. For artists, achieving productivity in creative life essentially addresses the issue of addiction management.

  • TheBlueTurtle

    Maybe the point of this article should be: If you’re looking for a long-term, committed relationship, then don’t base it on feelings of “romantic love”. Author of “Getting Love Right: Learning the Choices of Healthy Intimacy”, Terrence Gorski, makes a simple point: Most relationships fail due to SELECTION ERRORS! In other words, we are not well equipped in this society to know what to pay attention to when it comes to selecting a partner for a long-term relationship. Sure, “romantic love” feels Amazing, but it is not going to take out the trash, or pay the bills, or get along with your mother/father or even meet your most basic human love needs – In the Long Run. Furthermore, as Brené Brown makes clear in “Daring Greatly” – Trust is not a grand gesture…it’s a process of growing your marble collection. Most addictive behaviors are futile attempts to satisfy our “irreducible needs for love and belonging” and satisfying those needs requires us to make very conscious decisions about the people we choose to be with; i.e. being with people who have earned our trust over time, with whom we feel genuinely safe to feel vulnerable, and with whom we can, ultmately, live Wholeheartedly. None of that has anything to do with “getting high”!

    • joesantus

      I’m a 59-year-old agnostic/nontheist, once-married, still-married-after-35 years, with several now-all-adult children…

      Beyond the dopamine/testosterone component apparently fundamental to igniting and fueling that “all-caution-and-reason-be-damned” high we’ve termed romance/limerance, there is also apparently another chemical motivator involved in successful long-term relationships, being oxytocin/vasopressin. Our oxytocin/vasopressin hormonal component seemingly looms primary in long-term bonding, and, while inducing a calm, serene state much more conducive to the rational, practical thinking and behaving needful for the mundanes of daily-by-weekly life, is probably no less addictive in its own way.

      My point being, I don’t conclude that “addictive” necessarily indicates “negative”, but can technically indicate a state which the human organism desires to repeat, regardless of its consequent effects.

      But, I do agree that current Western and Westernized criteria for selecting long-term partners is idyllic if not delusional, wishful Disney-and-HarlequinNovel-like denials rather than rational life-is-this-way-whether-we-like-it-or-not realities. Romantic love as the basis for forming a long-term relationship is a relatively new concept, and, that humanity historically formed long-term partnerships based differently evidences that humanity recognized the error of making romance the primary basis.

      Much would be encompassed in any exhaustive consideration of, “long-term relationship and 2015 C.E. humanity”. I see no easy nor clear solutions for many if not most of the questions raised within that consideration.

      Human behaviors and attitudes are so sensitive to our bioelectrochemical nature that (until some far future when humanity is safely able to literally re-wire our biologies to effect substantial change in our present intra-conflicting set of mammalian instincts and self-awareness/conscious rationalities) unless most individuals are somehow, directly or indirectly, forced to select other than upon romance/limerance, most will default to romance/limerance for mate selection.

      • TheBlueTurtle

        I appreciate your feedback, Joe, and your point is well-taken. I acknowledge the power of “patterns-patterning”, whether those patterns are for the biochemistry of “romantic love” or the biochemistry of “long-term attachment.” I have seen the different “types of love” being described as “lust,” which involves estrogen and testosterone; “romantic love,” which involves adrenaline, serotonin, and dopamine; and “long-term attachment,” which involves oxytocin and vasopressin (as you have described above). I have also come to understand that having multiple avenues to induce coupling and reproduction is part of our biological “survival strategy”. Given the fact that humans have been quite successful at populating the planet is a testament to the power of this approach.

        However…we are not just individual biological organisms that, meet reproduce and then go our separate ways. We are also highly Social Organisms, and as I have pointed out, our societies have become quite complex, we are living longer in them, and furthermore, most people want something more from their relationships than just to reproduce. I guess part of my point is that we’re being a bit “insane” by “doing the same wrong thing over and over again and expecting different results”; i.e. by selecting based on feelings of “romantic love” and attaching a lot more Meaning to them, rather than paying more attention to the calm and comfortable feelings generated with oxytocin/vasopressin and long-term association/attachment.

        Also, as you have indicated, our media makes its money selling “drama”, and “romantic love” is simply more Dramatic than long-term attachment, and it is much easier to develop a romantic story-line from beginning to end in Two Hours then it is to show a friendship that grows over many years. You need a longer television series to do that, and, granted, there are a few that are showing that more functionally these days.

        As a social scientist, I’m inclined to think in terms of “bell curves” and, I’m afraid, more truly functional relating is still situated towards the narrow end of the distribution (i.e. where it is Possible if not necessarily Probable). Nevertheless, I have faith in our abilities to adapt, in spite of all of the inertia of our “patterns-patterning”, and I acknowledge the power of the internet to accelerate the transmission of new ideas, new developments in neuroscience, and New Stories that more and more people can learn from and seek to emulate. And although I appreciate the challenges, I, for one, will also continue to do whatever I can to help “shift the curve” in a more ultimately satisfying and socially/culturally supportive direction. (If you’d like to see more of my efforts in this area, search for “The Blue Moon Turtle Blog”.)

    • Brandy Mundy

      Totally agree. I believe when you see commonalities of character, and not physicality it makes selection better. Most people love based off their ideal look. Few really look at character

  • TheBlueTurtle

    On a fundamental level, I have a problem with Helen Fisher regarding the idea of “romantic love addiction” being “positive”. That raises a red flag in my mind that says, “She’s still an addict, herself, and cannot bear the thought of actually seeing all of the Negative consequences associated with her addiction and Getting Over It!” Although I respect some of the potentially adaptive qualities of early “pair bonding” behaviors in primitive humans, our societies have become far too complex, we are living so much longer, etc., that it is a Really Faulty System to continue using to choose our mates. And the sooner we start considering more truly functional and satisfying alternatives, the better. As for now, perpetuating the “Myths of Romantic Love” and anything “positive” about “romantic love” is only going to perpetuate all of the negative consequences for so many ultimately unhappy, divorced, disenfranchised, and dissatisfied spouses and parents, and especially the negative consequences for the children born to those families.

    • carol kelly

      TheBlueTurtle.. although I find your argument credible.. I wonder if you have ever been in romantic love. Anyone who has felt it would not dismiss it as being only chemical. I agree though that when choosing a partner, if the love interest does not make you feel need to look for 5’s..not 10’s. But I kind of feel sad for you in a weird way.

      • TheBlueTurtle

        Carol…I’m 52 years old now. And yes, I have been “in love” – deeply…when I was much, much, younger, multiple times, and enjoyed the highs and suffered the lows no doubt due in part to an overabundance of estrogen! So it’s not like I “never let myself fall in love”. I wish I’d had a better understanding then as I do now, but now that I do have a better understanding, I’ve found post-menopause and equanimity to be far more satisfying!


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