Why Love Is Therapeutic
Love is therapeutic to recovering addicts because love boosts dopamine.
I didn’t know love was the subject of scientific study until February 13, 2004, when I read a pre-Valentine’s Day book review of Why We Love, by Rutgers Anthropologist Dr. Helen Fisher. The reason it caught my eye was because the review mentioned the neurotransmitter I’d boosted entirely too much.
Dr. Fisher’s research indicates that the primary neurotransmitter involved in romantic love is dopamine.1 Brain scans of subjects who’d recently fallen “madly in love” revealed that their dopamine levels spiked when shown pictures of their romantic partner, just like they would in response to drugs.2
Those under the influence of romantic love overemphasize their partner’s positive qualities and “flagrantly disregard reality, exhibiting what psychologists call a ‘pink-lens effect,’ which may partially shut down the rational mind.”3 (Similarly, addicts in recovery refer to the wonder of new sobriety as a “pink cloud.”) Love is blind, at least at the beginning.
According to Dr. Fisher, new romance is also obsessive: “When you’re in the throes of this romantic love, it’s overwhelming, you’re out of control, you’re irrational, you’re going to the gym at 6 a.m. every day — why? Because she’s there. And when rejected, some people contemplate stalking, homicide, suicide. This drive for romantic love can be stronger than the will to live.”
Unrequited love and breaking up hurts so much, Dr. Fisher writes, because both depress levels of dopamine and serotonin simultaneously, the very thing drug detox causes.
Fisher concludes that romantic love is a motivational system, not just an emotion. In a motivational system, there is planning and pursuit of a specific want or need, in this case “to enable suitors to build and maintain an intimate relationship with a preferred partner.” Indeed, Dr. Fisher writes, love is a primary motivational system, perhaps the primary motivational system in humans.
As a primary motivational system, love can overpower other emotions: “…. this trellis of emotions and motivations is hierarchically ordered in the brain. Fear can overcome joy, for example. Jealousy can stifle tenderness. The juxtapositions are manifold. But in this pecking order of basic and complex emotions, background feelings and powerful drives, romantic love holds a special place: close to the zenith, the pinnacle, the top. Romantic love can dominate the drive to eat and sleep. It can stifle fear, anger, distrust. It can override one’s sense of duty to family and friends. It can even triumph over the will to live.”
Sounds like an addiction, doesn’t it?
Dr. Fisher leaves no doubt about her view. “Is romantic love an addiction? Yes; I think it is — a blissful dependency when one’s love is returned, a painful, sorrowful and often destructive craving when one’s love is spurned.”
Neuroscientists have also studied parental love. They report that both maternal and romantic love activate regions specific to each, but also stimulate overlapping regions triggered by both. Significantly, this overlap takes place in the brain’s Limbic “reward” system, the system hijacked by addictive drugs. Addiction experts also ascribe addictive qualities to parental love, explaining why parents are willing to sacrifice everything, even their lives, for their children. Dr. Jaak Panskepp, emeritus professor of psychology at Bowling Green State University in Ohio, says, “Think about it: The connection to a parent is such an important one, essential to survival. Wouldn’t it make sense that this social dependence is an addiction-type phenomenon?”4
It may well be that love’s dopamine boost fights addiction on the same emotional neural plane where addiction lives — the dopamine-based Limbic system — and is a stronger motivational system than addiction is. That was certainly my experience. My bottom, which made me surrender to my alcoholism, was triggered by the realization that I might lose my toddler son’s love. That was more terrifying than admitting to myself that I was addicted and more frightening than withdrawal and life without my essential coping tool. In that moment I surrendered.
And love is what one gets in chemical-dependency treatment facilities and 12-Step meeting rooms. In rehab, the staff was constantly telling me things like, “Let us love you until you can love yourself,” (which initially made me extremely uncomfortable). That’s exactly what they did. Their love, their caring, compassion, understanding, and support was a central factor in acceptance of my alcoholism. I found the same love, caring, compassion and support every time I went to my rehab’s Aftercare and Alumni meetings. And I found it in spades every time I went to AA meetings. It saved my life.
Research demonstrates that social support also increases dopamine. Thus, addicts in recovery get powerful emotional benefits from participation in 12-Step programs apart from the message of sobriety alone.
And, though it may be beyond the current state of research to ascribe a dopamine boost to experiencing God’s love (to my knowledge, neuroscientists haven’t demonstrated that), it’s a reasonable hypothesis. If one truly believes in an accessible, personal, loving Higher Power, that Power’s love may elevate dopamine levels beyond and separate from the love and social support of the fellowship. It’s also infinite and accessible at all times and in all places. If you pray or meditate, you might trigger a small boost of dopamine and feel better.
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1. Unless otherwise noted, all references in this article are to Why We Love, by Dr. Helen Fisher.
2. Molecules of Desire; Wall Street Journal, Feb. 13, 2004.
3. Is It Love or Mental Illness? They’re Closer Than You Think; Wall Street Journal, Feb. 13, 2007.
4. Addicted to Mother’s Love: It’s Biology, Stupid; New York Times, Jun. 29, 2004.