Relationships

Love Is a Healthy Addiction Needed for Long Relationships

The same brain areas involved in cocaine addiction are activated when in love.

Posted Apr 24, 2019

Why does love cause so much happiness? Why does love cause so much pain? Why is rejection by a loved one so scarring?

A study conducted at the University of California, San Francisco showed that males who were sexually rejected drank four times as much alcohol as those who were not (1). The males in this study were not even human beings; they were fruit flies, but even flies cannot handle rejection! The need to be loved is encoded in our DNA and conserved across many organisms.

It is not debatable that children need focused, one-on-one, unconditional love. But what has become clear from the research is that this need does not go away: Adults continue to desperately long for being embedded in dyadic relationships because belonging is so essential for survival.

This is a bit strange because there is a high cost for being in long-term relationships such as marriages, not the least of which is that the married person has to share resources with a stranger. To overcome this cost, the brain has built an entire biochemical system to embellish the rewards of being in a marriage for a long time, or even forever. The only thing that comes close is perhaps being addicted to a drug, like cocaine. But that is kind of what happens when we love our spouses, we become addicted to them.

A study conducted at Stony Brook University in New York examined the brains of couples who had been married for a long time—an average of 21 years (2). And interesting brain areas showed activations. In order to make sure that the activations were unique to long-term intense romantic love and not long-term relationships such as friendships, participants viewed facial images of their spouse, a close friend, a highly-familiar acquaintance, and a low-familiar person while in MRI. So, is being in a long-term marriage equivalent to friendship on steroids? In other words, do the same brain areas light up when viewing pictures of a spouse and a friend, just more forcefully? The findings suggest a resounding "No": Spouses activate our brains in a qualitatively different way than friends and acquaintances.

One of the brain areas that showed activation in couples who are still in love after many years of marriage was the ventral tegmental area (VTA), which is rich in dopamine. This region (the VTA) is heavily involved in processing reward. It is the region associated with the resistant cocaine addiction.  

But is the cute puppy love at the beginning of a relationship the same as the love that keeps a marriage going for over two decades? A research team collected brain scans of college students in love and compared brain activations when students viewed pictures of someone they romantically loved and pictures of acquaintances (3). The same dopamine-rich area was among the areas that showed significant activation. The congruent results across studies strongly suggest that love is love.

It is perhaps the excessive release of dopamine in romantic marriages that make the relationship too enjoyable to abandon even when there is a cost for remaining monogamous for decades. It is not only dopamine that compels us to stay in romantic marriages but other chemicals such as oxytocin and vasopressin. These hormones have roles in maternal behaviors including mother-infant attachment. Oxytocin solidifies the bond between mother and infant, but also between couples. Vasopressin extends beyond maternal behaviors to supporting monogamous love relationships.

Romantic love is a key ingredient in healthy marriages. When it is achieved, it creates an addictive need that functions to sustain the marriage for decades. The brain is equipped with the necessary machinery and chemical lubricants to support such a sturdy bond. Research should focus on identifying the elements of healthy marriages and antidotes to their loss. Also, clinicians should focus on how to use love to heal pain (4).

References

(1) Shohar-Ophir, G., Kaun, K. R., Azanchi, R., Mohammed, H. and Jeber;eom, U. (2012). Sexual Depreviation Increases Ethanol Intake in Drosophila. Science, 16, 1351-1355.

(2) Acevedo, B., Aron, A., Fisher, H., and Brown, L. (2011). Neural correlates of long-term intense romantic love. Soc. Cogn. Affect. Neurosci. 7, 145–159.

(3) Aron, A., Fisher, H. E., Mashek, D. J., Strong, G., Li, H. F., and Brown, L. L. (2005). Reward, motivation, and emotion systems associated with early-stage intense romantic love: an fMRI study. J. Neurophysiol. 94, 327–337.

(4) Tamam, S., & Ahmad, A. H. (2017). Love as a Modulator of Pain. The Malaysian journal of medical sciences : MJMS, 24(3), 5–14.