The Truth About Love

Have you ever wondered why breaking up can be so hard to do? Or why your friend can’t walk away from their partner even though they are being treated so badly? Have you ever wondered why, even though it’s been 1,000 years, that one person from way back when, still occupies your thoughts sometimes? Or why when you really like someone they can consume every waking moment of your mind? Having been blindsided by an experience of love and loss, I set forth to try and understand that which does not seem to be understandable. I needed to know the truth. How it is that the otherwise rational, wise, sensible, and sane person, that I know myself to be, could repeatedly become so utterly irrational, make such stupid decisions, and find myself behaving in insane ways when it comes to this one thing? And after much asking, I finally came to the answers I had been looking for.

For the last two years and two months I had labored to understand what was happening to me. As a truly logical person who loves science and deductive reasoning, this one area of my life, this one relationship, just did not make any sense! Not even in the deep hollows of my subconscious mind could I imagine emotion like this over another person, who was not an offspring, making sense. I spoke to fellow therapists and Yogi’s, researched ideas like past lives, ’twin flames’,  and ‘soul mates. I sought the help of astrologers, intimacy & relationship experts. I was even desperate enough to talk to a psychic! Anyone I could think of to explain to me why it was I felt so totally out of control! Let me be really clear. This was not that kind of ‘happily ever after’ love affair where eventually you ride off into the sunset with the credits rolling. Oh no! This was that other kind. You know that ‘rip your heart out and leave you bleeding to death on the side of the road’ kind. Heart wrenching! Three days of paradise in a French hotel, followed by a lifetime of agony! The kind where nobody wins, and the pain just drags on forever.

As this on and off nightmare ensued I simply could not understand it! One moment I would be happily going about my life and the next on my knees, hysterical crying, hiding in the bathroom stall between clients, gasping for breaths in between sobs. All over something like an out of the blue text message or an Instagram notification. None of it made any sense! I am, by any measure,  a pretty tough chic, and this was not me!  As time went on, the situation only got worse. I was at the mercy of what felt like an obsession. One that I could not stop!

“ As it turns out it would be researchers from Harvard Medical School, Richard Schwartz and Jacqueline Olds, who all along had the answers I had so desperately been looking for.  Among the world’s most knowledgeable on the topic of romantic love, these couples therapists have perfectly explained away precisely what I have felt for the past 2 years and 2 months.

Love is An Addiction 

One could easily guess that love produces feel good neurotransmitters in the brain, and having studied addiction for years, I already knew “love” acts like an addictive drug, working in precisely the same areas of the brain as cocaine. Love can be equally as addictive as drugs, and for some who may be ‘in love’ with unsavory characters, equally as dangerous. “When we are falling in love, chemicals associated with our reward circuitry flood the brain, producing a variety of physical and emotional responses—racing hearts, sweaty palms, flushed cheeks, feelings of passion and anxiety” explains Richard Schwartz. Having first hand experience with drugs and addiction, however this just didn’t seem like a thorough enough explanation for how I was feeling. As it turns out that was for good reason. It was not yet the whole story.

Love is Hard To Forget 

Once a pickle, always a pickle”, a saying often heard in the world of addiction recovery that references one’s inability to erase their addiction from their experience. Basically it means that even if it’s been two decades since your last drink or drug, the body hasn’t forgotten it and will in no time, return to an addictive relationship with this substance if you should go back to it. As it turns out love is quite similar. The stress and emotional intensity of the experience of being ‘in love’ is what makes the person you are ‘in love’ with a lot harder to forget about. As is the case with most things in the human realm it comes back to survival. We are hard wired to recall these experiences (this person) because of the intensity of emotion associated with them. In other words, the body thinks this must be important. Remember the brain is flying blind. It can’t tell the difference between a stressful “good” experience, and a stressful “bad” experience. In the same way that you don’t have to learn not to touch a hot stove twice, the body registers the intensity of the experience and files it away as ‘never to forget’. This also means that years later, if you happen to start thinking about this person again, or run into them on the street, it’ll reactivate the system and be all too easy for those old feelings and thoughts to come right back! No matter how much time has gone by. 

Love Causes Infatuation & Obsessive Thinking

This flooding of feel good neurotransmitters also has a secondary impact on the system. Love causes an increase in stress hormones depleting the body of neurotransmitters, much in the same way as a cocaine fueled night out. This is what further feeds the obsessive, uncontrollable, illogical thoughts that make you feel like a crazy person! Schwartz explains “Levels of the stress hormone cortisol increase during the initial phase of romantic love, corralling our bodies to cope with the “crisis” at hand. As cortisol levels rise, levels of the neurotransmitter serotonin become depleted. Low levels of serotonin precipitate what Schwartz described as the “intrusive, maddeningly preoccupying thoughts, hopes, terrors of early love”—the obsessive-compulsive behaviors associated with infatuation”.

Love Truly Is Blind

Finally, the part of the equation that made it all make sense! It turns out there is a real neurological reason why when we love someone it takes an awful lot of “bad” experiences to let them go. Our feelings for them shield us, literally, from being able to see the truth. Researcher Richard Schwartz explains…“ love also deactivates the neural pathways responsible for negative emotions, such as fear and social judgment. These positive and negative feelings involve two neurological pathways. The one linked with positive emotions connects the prefrontal cortex to the nucleus accumbens, while the other, which is linked with negative emotions connects the nucleus accumbens to the amygdala. When we are engaged in romantic love, the neural machinery responsible for making critical assessments of other people, including assessments of those with whom we are romantically involved, shuts down. “That’s the neural basis for the ancient wisdom ‘love is blind’,” said Schwartz.

That about sums it up! Don’t you think?

About the Author

Samantha Benigno is the CEO of MYND MVMT, a program that offers an alternative approach to mental health & addiction treatment. MYND MVMT uses an integrated, health & wellness model where mindfulness, nutrition, fitness, and long term goal attainment are built into the rehabilitation process. Mind Mvmt specializes in the treatment & recovery of depression, anxiety, substance use & abuse, behavioral addictions, and working with those who struggle to feel fulfilled in their lives. Samantha is a career mental health professional, educator, and consultant.

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