The Neuroscience of Love and Love Addiction

Limerence vs. Love

Limerence is the initial stage of a romantic relationship, when romantic intensity and infatuation rule the day. This is when the heart races while you’re together and aches when you’re separated, and literally everything about the other person seems fascinating and exciting – even the stuff that will eventually become annoying (humming while eating, spontaneously rearranging your knickknacks, feeding your well-trained dog table scraps when you’re not looking, etc.) During the limerence stage of a relationship, potential problems are easily overridden by the excitement and the intensity of meeting someone new and attractive and funny and interesting who just might be “the one.”

Despite its tendency to mask potential problems, limerence is not a bad thing. In fact, it’s a good thing, as it keeps couples together long enough to find out if there might be something beyond just an initial attraction, allowing the pair to slowly yet steadily bond in longer-term and more meaningful ways if they so choose. As such, limerence is actually an evolutionary imperative, serving as the glue that keeps new couples together until the desire to build a life together kicks in. (Admittedly, the evolutionary value of “teaming up” is not always relevant in today’s world, but limerence remains in play – the inexorable result of thousands of years of human development.)

This begs the question: Are limerence and love the same thing?

The Neuroscience of Love and Love AddictionIf countless poems and songs are to be believed, they are. If modern brain-imaging studies are to be believed, they most definitely are not. Of course, it’s not just poets and songwriters who confuse the two. Love addicts in particular are notorious for mistaking the first blush of romance with actual love. In fact, this is the crux of their disorder. They repeatedly chase the “high” they get when they meet someone new, discarding many perfectly good potential long-term partners along the way simply because the intensity of limerence has waned.

Scientifically Speaking…

Using fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) technology, researchers can measure brain activity in response to various stimuli. Essentially, when one portion of the brain is activated – by a thought, an emotion, a movement or anything else – blood flow to and within that area increases, and fMRI scans clearly depict this. Thus, using fMRI scans, researchers can track which parts of the brain are activated when a person is exposed to a particular stimulus and to what degree. This means that tracking what happens in the brain when an individual experiences things like physical attraction, sexual arousal and long-term love is a fairly straightforward task.

One rather extensive study analyzed the results of 20 separate fMRI trials looking at brain reactivity in response to physical attraction, sexual arousal and long-term love.[i] After pooling this extensive data, scientists were able to “map” the ways in which physical attraction/sexual desire and long-term love stimulate the brain. And the two main findings were startlingly clear.

  1. Physical attraction, sexual desire and long-term love all stimulate the striatum – an area of the brain that includes the nucleus accumbens, which is colloquially referred to as the brain’s “pleasure center” or “rewards center.” This means that both sexual attraction and lasting love create an experience of pleasure.
  2. Long-term love (but not physical attraction or sexual desire) also stimulates the insula, an area of the brain associated with motivation. In short, the insula “gives value” to pleasurable and/or life-sustaining activities (to make sure we continue to engage in them). This means that lasting love has “value” that transitory attraction does not.

In short, the striatum (home of the pleasure center) is responsible for initial attraction and sexual desire – i.e., limerence – while the insula is responsible for transforming that desire into long-term love.

Interestingly, the striatum (in particular the pleasure center) is the area of the brain most closely associated with the formation of addiction. In fact, addictive substances and activities all rather thoroughly stimulate this segment of the brain. As such, it is hardly surprising that some people might get hooked on the limerence stage of relationships. After all, limerence produces the same basic high (the same basic neurological stimulation) as cocaine, heroin, sexual activity, gambling and other addictive substances and behaviors.

From Limerence to Love

One very interesting facet of the above findings is that the striatum – the portion of the brain most closely associated with all forms of addiction – must be stimulated if a person wishes to build and maintain long-term love. In fact, this neurobiological rush is what pushes couples toward the slow and steady development of mature intimacy and longer-term relationships. This means that limerence, the addiction-like stage of a romantic relationship, is a necessary step on the road to long-term love. As such, even healthy relationships can look a lot like love addiction in the early stages.

The difference between love addicts and healthy people is that love addicts never make it past limerence; they never “assign value” to anything beyond the initial intensity they experience. Instead, they seek to continually stimulate their brain’s pleasure center with one new relationship after another, just as alcoholics stimulate their brains with one drink after another. Essentially, these unfortunate individuals become hooked on the neurochemical high of budding romance – abusing the natural and perfectly appropriate intensity and excitement of limerence as a way to self-soothe stress and emotional discomfort. They choose to repeat ad nauseam the early stages of romantic attraction, often thinking this intensity is the real thing rather than a transitory stage in the progressive development of healthy long-term romantic attachment. And when a person seeks this experientially-based neurochemical high over and over — even when doing so creates negative life consequences — that person’s behavior qualifies as love addiction.

 

Robert Weiss LCSW, CSAT-S is Senior Vice President of Clinical Development with Elements Behavioral Health. A licensed UCLA MSW graduate and personal trainee of Dr. Patrick Carnes, he founded The Sexual Recovery Institute in Los Angeles in 1995. He is author of Cruise Control: Understanding Sex Addiction in Gay Men and Sex Addiction 101: A Basic Guide to Healing from Sex, Porn, and Love Addiction, and co-author with Dr. Jennifer Schneider of both Closer Together, Further Apart: The Effect of Technology and the Internet on Parenting,Work, and Relationships and Always Turned On: Sex Addiction in the Digital Age. He has developed clinical programs for The Ranch in Nunnelly, Tennessee, Promises Treatment Centers in Malibu, and the aforementioned Sexual Recovery Institute in Los Angeles. He has also provided clinical multi-addiction training and behavioral health program development for the US military and numerous other treatment centers throughout the United States, Europe and Asia. For more information you can visit his website, www.robertweissmsw.com.

[i] Cacioppo, S., Bianchi-Demicheli, F., Frum, C., Pfaus, J., & Lewis, J. (2012). The common neural bases between sexual desire and love: A multilevel kernel density fMRI analysis. Journal of Sexual Medicine 9(4):1048-1054.

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