The expanding body of research into brain-based responses to different types of stimuli has provided greater insight into how humans become addicted. In fact, there is actually a pleasure center in the brain, which is the nucleus accumbens. This is part of the brain that responds to specific triggers, including romance and sexual desire, and releases two chemicals. These two chemicals are dopamine and serotonin, which produce the intense feelings of pleasure throughout the body.
At the same time another area of the brain, the insula, is stimulated by romantic interludes. When this part of the brain is activated, it assigns a positive value that is paired with the release of the dopamine and serotonin and the associated responses. The result is a positive association between feelings of romance and sexual desire and feelings of pleasure the body and the brain craves.
This is identical to the types of responses that researchers find in the brain when an individual uses addictive types of drugs. Heroin, cocaine, methamphetamines, crack, and opioids all stimulate the same regions of the brain, creating that same highly positive sensation. Not surprisingly, when people with love addiction experience the breakup of a relationship, they have the same physical and brain response patterns as a person withdrawing from addictive drugs.
The Transfer of Addictions
I have written several articles on the issue of the transfer of addictions, and I cover it in my book, “The Marriage and Relationship Junkie.” In thinking of the discussion above, it is easy to see how a person using addictive substances, which may also include alcohol, has primed those areas of the brain to seek high levels of rewards and pleasure.
Combining this with a background of trauma, loss, and dysfunction in the family creates the perfect storm for feeling that pleasurable rush of emotions and physical sensations at the beginning of a relationship and immediately becoming hooked on the sensations.
This drives the relationship and marriage addiction to continue to try to recapture that feeling, just as using drugs again and again in larger quantities or with a higher frequency is an attempt to create the first high experience.
Other Factors to Consider
It is critical to consider the issues that may have been driving the initial addiction. As mentioned above, it is highly likely that relationship and marriage addictions start with neglect, loss, dysfunctional parenting, family abuse and trauma and even abandonment at a very young age.
These situations in life create a void in the individual. This void creates a greater risk for anxiety, depression and further trauma, which in turn creates profound challenges for remaining mentally healthy.
Self-medication through the use and abuse of alcohol and drugs becomes a way to deal with these feelings of being anxious, depressed, alone, isolated and unhappy at a deeply personal level. Without addressing these issues, self-medication can quickly become substance addiction, and substance addiction can prime the conditions for developing a relationship and marriage addiction. Addressing the root causes through therapy, counseling, and learning to be happy and content as a single person are the first steps required on a path to recovery.
Sherry Gaba, LCSW is a Certified Transformation and Recovery Coach and the leading Psychotherapist on VH1’s Celebrity Rehab and Sex Addiction. She is also the author of Marriage Junkie: Kicking your Obsession on Amazon. Take her quiz to find out if you are a love addict or sign up for a 30-minute strategy session. Sherry maintains a private practice in Westlake Village, CA as well as facilitating skype and phone appointments. For more information visit www.sherrygaba.com.