Pick your pleasure, friends! We all get addicted to the feel-good high of certain habits and hobbies. What if your drug of choice is (eeek!) relationships?
Everyone has something—something that helps the not-so-good times feel just a little bit better, including you.
Maybe it’s a bowl of rocky road ice cream or a glass of red wine after a challenging day at work. Some seek exhilarating, semi-dangerous experiences to get the juices flowing and feel the thrill of tempting fate. Others dabble in recreational drugs to temporarily escape the harshities of life.
Or maybe it’s the rush of pushing your physical limits on a strenuous hike or workout. And let’s face it, some prefer the euphoric rush of buying that new pair of shoes or latest electronic gadget.
The common denominator of these tiny escapes are they all are intended—at least in the described method of use—to alter your mood or experience of life, some slightly, and some in more profound (sometimes permanent) ways.
So what about relationships? Can connection to others provide the same level of check-out and shifts in the way you feel?
You’re darn right they can. And I am betting some of you have never considered or taken a close look at how relationships function just like the rest of them—like a drug.
The Neurobiology of Relationships
Similar to other mood-altering substances and experiences, people—or rather attraction or attachment to people—have the power to impact your neurochemical functioning in some pretty powerful ways. For some, this relationship begins in early relationships and becomes engrained as a subconscious pull during times of distress or anxiety.
To give you an idea of the neurochemical mechanisms, surges of chemicals are released subconsciously and result in feelings of excitement, attentiveness, sexual desire, interest, and anxious energy (aka “the butterflies”). To put the effects of infatuation into prospective, the release of these chemicals during attraction mimics the effects of the brain on drugs such as cocaine—yes, it’s that powerful.
The primitive brain, the part of the brain responsible for basic survival, releases testosterone, estrogen, dopamine, noradrenaline, serotonin, and vasopressin during the phases of love—lust, attraction, and attachment (Tatkin, 2016). Fisher and her colleagues’s (2002) research indicated that there are actually different neural systems and chemical responses associated with the these three phases.
- Attraction – Dopamine, Noradrenaline, and Serotonin
- Lust – Estrogen and Testosterone
- Attachment – Oxytocin and Vasopressin
With the release of all of these exciting, intoxicating, and connecting chemicals, are you starting to understand how some people can become addicted to relationships?
How Do Relationships Become Your “Drug” of Choice?
It’s sort of like a good thing gone bad.
Relationships are essentially good for you. They can allow you to feel seen and understood, increase your sense of confidence, help you feel desired and care for, have health benefits, reassure you when you feel worried, and reduce stress after a hard day, among other things.
Relationships can go wrong when you are not able to feel good about yourself or like yourself, unless you are in connection with a love interest. When this happens, you may feel a sense of craving or desire to seek connection with someone (e.g., texting, app swiping, and bar prowling) and the neurochemical rush (and subsequent fall) that follows.
Your friends may say you are always on the lookout for someone new, and that you frequently feel unhappy when alone. You may find yourself reaching out to an ex or settling for less than you know is right for you (hint: the clearly unavailable person you got matched with online). Love interests may experience you as hot and cold—needing a fix, then needing to withdraw to find your own space.
As a psychologist who helps individuals transform their dating relationships and recover from traumatic relationships, the most common time for this to occur is during times of being single or recovering from a break-up or divorce. The loneliness, confusion, longing, and heartache can feel suffocating, making you particularly susceptible to the fog of infatuation and the neurochemical forces of attraction and lust.
The thing is, that emotional and neurochemical rush can become reinforcing because you feel good when you experience it and worse when without.
How Can You Kick It For Good?
Similar to other mood-altering experiences, it’s important to take a closer look at your specific coping methods and evaluate whether they have a positive or negative affect on your life overall. For example, if you have been leaning on nightly Ben and Jerry’s indulgences and have gained 5 lbs in the last month, it may be time to evaluate the usefulness of this coping strategy.
Evaluate: Do you have a tendency to lean on or search for love interests to feel better, more like yourself, or feel happier during the lulls of life?
Withdraw: Similar to breaking an addiction to any other source, to improve your coping strategies, you have to withdraw from the unhealthy ones. This is not an easy process at first and may involve several “relapses” before you feel okay without your “drug of choice.” Keep strong and keep with it, you will get there.
Replace: Withdrawing without replacing will likely lead to relapsing into the same old neurochemical lust cycle. Find a healthier replacement to help you cope. Consider going for a run, yoga, meditation, a support group, therapy, connecting with friends, painting—basically any other healthy method to help you cope with the feelings that come up.
Realizing your go-to feel-better strategy isn’t all that good for you is never easy. Falling into a new someone’s arms feels a lot better, especially when you are struggling with finding your footing in life. However, there are healthier ways and working on your relationship to lust and attraction will dramatically improve the health of future relationships.
- Fisher, H.E., A. Aron, D. Mashek, H. Li, and L.L. Brown. 2002. “Definiding the Brain Systems of Lust, Romantic Attraction and Attachment.” Archives of Sexual Behavior 31(5):413-9.
- Tatkin, S, (2016). Wired for dating: How understanding neurobiology and attachment style can help you find your ideal mate. Oakland: New Harbinger Publications, Inc.