Some Tough Love for the Love Addict in Each of Us

This guest blog entry is by Victoria Costello, is a writer of Child & Adolescent Psychology |Alpha/Penguin, Jul 2011 and A Lethal Inheritance | Prometheus Books, Jan 2012. For more information, please visit

Please note that the opinions presented in the article are that of the author and not necessarily the opinions of RHN. RHN chooses to publish articles and share individual sites to evoke discussion and show all options, ideas and beliefs.

Please allow me to gently introduce you to this least favorite part of ourselves…It’s not that we don’t like romance. We just hate the person we become when we start dating someone new; when we transform from a self-sufficient, emotionally stable person with a full life into an obsessive, insecure basket case.

If this is you in your worst dating nightmare, it may be time to demystify and get some control over your love chemistry, meaning the neurotransmitters and hormones that kick into gear whenever someone new “sweeps you off your feet.” If you’re willing to give up some of the much vaunted mystery of romance in favor of just a little basic brain science, you might stave off your next dating disaster. You may even give your next love the chance to be something more than a tear stained page in your journal.

But wait, you don’t think something as sublime as love should be reduced to a mundane chemical equation? Consider this: The brain scan of someone high on cocaine is virtually identical to the scan of someone who describes himself as “passionately in love” as he looks at a photo of his beloved. Whether in the lab or real life, it takes a sterling cast of neurochemical characters to ignite such fireworks. The main stage for this drama is deep in our reptilian brains where we house the reward system that motivates all of our short term pleasures. That means the biochemical system that you use to identify and hook your “one true love” is the same system that can hook you on cocaine, heroin, alcohol, chocolate, Internet porn, gambling or whatever else constitutes your reward of choice. Another tricky thing about the brain’s reward system is the way it puts as much or more focus on the anticipation of pleasure than on the experience itself. It encourages us to pay total and constant attention to the source of our rewards. That’s great if we’re talking about a nursing infant staying close to his mother’s breast. But, if you’re a love addict hooked on the sound of your boyfriend’s voice on the answering machine, well, obviously, that’s not nearly as nice. Nor is it, as the evolutionary psychologists say, very “adaptive.”

Did anyone say “love at first sight?”

There’s one mother of a love chemical that deserves prominent inclusion in this basic chemistry lesson and that’s oxytocin. The body’s most versatile chemical player, oxytocin begins as a lust facilitator, sending out the warm fuzzy feelings that allow testosterone to persuade two would-be lovers to move past their instinctual human fear of strangers and give lust a chance. It’s what primes him to respond positively to her light touch on his forearm. And it’s what makes her defenses melt at the scent of his musky cologne or his sweet cajoling voice stored in her phone messages.

Here’s how it works. With any new enticing stimulus–your smell, his voice–a blast of dopamine-fueled desire kick-starts our reward seeking behavior by enhancing the release of testosterone. Once a reward is experienced, meaning we “taste” the euphoric effect of dopamine, the system only wants more. That’s when the brain debuts its supporting cast: The neurotransmitters PEA and norepinephrine. Together they produce the focused attention, with all five senses on high alert, to herald the arrival of “the ONE” so there’s no chance you’ll miss him or her the next time you’re in the same vicinity.

So what can you do to get ahead of this volatile chemistry?

You knew this was coming. For one thing, you can wait a while after you start dating before having sexual intercourse. What’s a while? Anywhere from three to six months is a great, common sense strategy. This doesn’t mean you don’t kiss, touch and do a number of other things. You just don’t go all the way.

I can speak with some personal experience on this waiting strategy. In my current relationship, now going on three years, we waited four months. This idea came as a result of both of our unlucky (read generally disastrous) past experiences after jumping into sex too soon.

To be honest, I would have caved in to the chemistry of lust much sooner if my partner hadn’t been so committed to “our” plan. As a child of the sixties I had never tried it this way before. And I admit it did feel weird to me at times, especially when I would go “off the rails” and imagine his reticence meant he didn’t find me attractive. My girlfriends didn’t help much either; especially when they concluded my sweetheart’s ability to wait meant there was undoubtedly something “wrong” with him. As it turned out, they were the ones who were wrong. When sex did come into our relationship, we knew each other much better. Perhaps most helpful, we’d gained the ability to laugh at our respective foibles, which seemed to free us from the fear of rejection that new relationships can so easily conjure.

I suppose the most important strategy I can impart is to use what you know about how your body chemistry responds to a new romantic attraction combined with your own personal history to spend more time thinking through your choices at the beginning of a new romance. The brain’s reward system has its counterbalance in the frontal cortex, where our “executive functions” reside. These are the parts of the brain that can help us monitor and moderate our emotions and physical drives; that is, if we decide that we want them to.

For people like me (and perhaps you if you’re still reading) who’ve been unlucky in love or have other trust issues in new relationships, any romantic attraction can be stressful. Blood tests done in the initial stage of romance show that such people have higher levels of oxytocin in our systems, presumably to counteract this high anxiety. If any of this sounds familiar, here’s my favorite tip: find other ways to increase the level of oxytocin in your bloodstream: cuddle a furry cat, or go get yourself a massage.

As you’re well aware, your important relationship is with yourself. And so begin your next date night in the peace and quiet of your own body and mind. Then, if you wish, invite him or her to join you. For more insights into how your biochemistry shapes your relationships and emotions, everything from love and hate to competition and awe, check out my primer on the neuroscience of relationship, coauthored with evolutionary psychologist Maryanne Fisher, Ph.D.

The Complete Idiot’s Guide to the Chemistry of Love.

Then read my latest blog on Psychology Today… “The Everyman and Woman’s Guide to Great Sex” at:


Elana Clark-Faler
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