Saturday, July 10, 2004

Itís official, love is dangerous

Palpitations, sleeplessness, loss of appetite... weíve all known it for years, but scientists have now recognised love as an addiction. Kate Spicer reveals why she canít get enough of that loving feeling.

IT cannot be denied that falling in love is a top buzz. The doctors of pop music have long recognised that love is a drug, and you can get addicted to the stuff. Itís just taken the medical fraternity a while to catch up.

And now they have. The effects of love have joined heroin, sex and booze as the cause of psychological and physical dependency. Love is, officially, a dangerous substance. Love is the latest prefix to Anonymous. And if there arenít any Sex & Love Addicts Anonymous meetings near you yet, you can still attend SLAA meetings online.

It may first be worth establishing what kind of love you can get addicted to. We are not talking about religious love, or even the sort of committed love that keeps a couple together for a lifetime. We are talking about the loopy lou honeymoon phase, the bit where you fall in love. The bit where you stop eating, sleeping and thinking about anything but the object of love. The mad bit.

When Dr John Marsden, senior lecturer in addictive behaviour at the National Addiction Centre and Institute of Psychiatry in the US, likens its effects to that of a drug, he isnít using hyperbole. "The brain has internal drug factories," he explains. "Physical attraction causes chemical cocktails to be released that activate dopamine, which makes us ecstatically happy when we are with [the] person [we are falling in love with]." The pleasure receptor, which ignites the falling-in-love sensations, works on the same neural pathways as cocaine, ecstasy and psycho-stimulants. Love junkies crave this sensation. But unfortunately the falling-in-love sequence, when the brain floods itself with a cocktail of nice feelings, doesnít last.

"The chemicals are turned off over time," says Marsden. "Oxytocin, a bonding chemical that makes us enjoy sex, is designed to keep people together for as long as it takes to have loads of sex, a baby, and to raise it to safe levels." How long do nature and oxytocin give you, I wonder. "About two years," Marsden says, which, oddly enough, is about how long all of my serious relationships have lasted.

I fall in love a lot ó more than anyone I know ó and I fall hard. Iím officially a love junkie, in the new, scientifically identified sense of the term. Am I and all the other crazy love addicts out there merely governed by oxytocin and its ilk?

The love-addict phenomenon is clearly driven as much by society as by science. Itís a luxury. Less of an addiction, more of a lifestyle choice. Living in a free and wealthy culture (some might say profligate; I say fun) with women less dependent on men, we are freer to follow instinctive urges and, yes, make a lot less effort when a relationship gets tough. Itís not impractical to be a silly romantic any more. In fact, a Cambridge philosopher who has spent four years researching whether the seven deadly sins are really so sinful concluded that lust (which is a fierce part of being in love) just doesnít cut it, that bodily appetites arenít actually bad.

We are constantly fed glossy sexual imagery, we have short attention spans and want everything at the touch of a button. Settling down needs a good PR job. ó The Guardian