Posts Tagged ‘dopamine’
Perhaps, you’ve wondered if you were addicted to love. Admitting you have a problem is the first step, but don’t check yourself into rehab just yet. You may be a relationship junkie, but it is rather unlikely you are addicted to love.
We all want to be loved and appreciated by others. Love is as almost as vital to our existence as food & water. We crave affection, in the same way we crave certain foods–including some that aren’t good for us. Food is absolutely necessary for good health, but eating more food doesn’t make us more healthy, and eating the wrong foods can harm us. A doughnut is food, but it’s hardly the best thing for the body. Similarly, though love is vital to our emotional wellness, unhealthy relationships can leave us love-starved and stunted. What often passes for love, is no more substantial than a diet of doughnuts.
Seeking validation through serial relationships, can be addicting. Falling in love causes a rush similar to that experienced by users of drugs like cocaine or ecstasy. There is euphoria, energy, jitters, sleeplessness, rapid heartbeat, sweaty palms and of course impaired judgement, as the brain becomes awash in chemicals like dopamine, adrenaline and phenethylamine. In this state, it is easy to overlook warnings of a doomed relationship.
Alas, the last doughnut in the box,is never as good as the first. What starts out as delight, often ends in regret. The post-relationship hangover is inevitable, and to addicts, the cure of choice is more of the same. Relationship junkies quickly seek out another relationship, guaranteeing a repeat of “I’ll never do that again” history.
Love isn’t necessary to keep a couple together. Kids in common, codependency, or finances can do that, but they aren’t enough to keep both parties from becoming miserable. We want to believe love is always sweet and satisfying, but despite countless platitudes, poems and love songs to the contrary, it can be downright unpleasant.
Philosopher Buber said, “Love is not the enjoyment of a wonderful emotion, not even the ecstasy of a Tristan and Isolde, but the ‘responsibility of an I for a Thou.” Love means giving up what we wanted, saying we’re sorry and doing things we hadn’t planned on doing. It means letting go of what we’d imagined to accept reality. It can be exhausting and unsatisfying.
Love is hardly addicting. Those who have been challenged to love someone with an addiction, mental impairment, disease, or even just a disagreeable personality, are more likely to yearn for relief, than more of the same. Falling for someone who appears attractive is an easy, fleeting and addictive state of mind, but loving requires ongoing effort. It may be easier to develop an appetite for Krispy Kremes, than cauliflower, but those who embrace that which seems less satisfying, may ultimately find themselves more satisfied.
A duckling, newly emerged from the shell, immediately looks for something with which it will bond. In the absence of the mother duck, the hatchling forms an attachment to the closest moving thing, whether human, animal or even an inanimate object like a ball; in a process called imprinting. Our sexual response is often the result of our own imprinting. We may not even know why certain things turn us on and others don’t, but they are often the result of earlier experiences and the feelings we associate with them.
We are complicated creatures, but we are also amazingly simple. As researchers study human sexual response, there are new findings on why we like what we like, but some of it just seems obvious. For instance, a recent study showed a tendency for us to gravitate toward partners who bear certain similarities to our opposite sex parent. Freud would say it’s Oedipal, but it’s not that complex. We adapt to what is familiar. Americans eat fries with ketchup, but Europeans prefer them with mayonnaise. I don’t even like ketchup much, but because it’s what I’m used to, I like it better than mayo on my pomme frittes.
In the same way, our ideas of physical attractiveness are mostly the result of cultural conditioning. Across the globe, beauty ideals vary greatly. We may prefer smooth skin, beautiful teeth, or hard bodies, but there are places where scars, gold teeth and soft bodies define desirability. Our preferences may seem personal, but they are largely influenced by what we’ve become accustomed to.
Consider the colors you like. It is likely you have a favorite. Maybe you’ve assumed color trends are launched by hipsters or designers, or that your response to them is a matter or personal taste, but the reality is that they are largely shaped by teams of professionals in the color industry, who work to change your preferences, in an attempt to influence what you will buy. They begin by choosing palettes (also called color forecasts). These palettes are then used to to create the things you are likely to see in stores. What we may think of as color “trends” are actually an orchestrated effort to make you like what they’re selling. Their effort relies on exposing you to colors repeatedly, until you first become accustomed to them, then fonder of them as they become more familiar. (They are also counting on you to tire of those colors, in time for their next round of picks.)
Our brains are very malleable, quickly responding to things around us. Neurons and synapses are constantly readjusting according to exterior stimuli. Often called our largest sexual organ, it should come as no surprise that the chemical and electrical activity of the brain not only reacts to, but also alters our sexual response. The brain continually records and categorizes experiences, creating a mental database of positive and negative perceptions. Eventually, those associations trigger reactions ranging from arousal to repulsion. It is still not completely understood why some develop odd triggers or fetishes, but just as the deformed and putrid flesh of bound feet were once considered the height of erotica in China, our sexual response is largely the result of conditioning.
Because of the way our brains recall previous experiences, things we have found pleasant or arousing before, can become sexual triggers, but unpleasant experiences can also rework our sexual response. This is particularly true in cases of coerced sex, violent sex, or shame-inducing sex. An individual who has been raped or molested, may have trouble getting past the fear or anxiety associated with predatory sex. In fact, those who have suffered sex in a traumatic context may develop a negative reaction to what might be considered normal sex. (I’m not about to attempt to define “normal”, but for this example, let’s define “normal” as he kind of sex we can imagine Claire and Cliff Huxtable having.) A gay man I know, recounts being encouraged as a child, to have sex with a female cousin for the pleasure of voyeuristic adults. After which, the residual shame made it impossible to even think about sex with a female.
In theory, the chemicals (like oxytocin, vasopressin, and dopamine) released when we have physical contact with another, are supposed to help us bond to and enjoy a long relationship with a single person. However, in a culture where casual sex has become increasingly common, those same chemicals can fuel a kind of anti-monogamy addiction. Those who bounce from bed to bed, may not even realize they are reprogramming the brain to reject monogamy, as they become conditioned to the rush of new encounters, making longer relationships, less attractive and less sustainable.
Because healthy relationships require both an emotional and physical bond, relationships based primarily on sex tend to be short-lived. Casual sex may be satisfying in the short-term, but without the emotional validations we crave, sex isn’t enough to sustain a long-lasting relationship. It is an example of how what we want, may not be what we need. Even in arrangements like “friends with benefits”, the ongoing effort for both parties to balance the differences between their sexual and emotional needs, usually makes the arrangement temporary, at best. Unfortunately, without a significant emotional connection, sex for the sake of sex, becomes little more than a series of thrill rides. Even Cosmopolitan magazine, which has long advocated free sexual expression, recently cautioned men that excessive masturbation can diminish their ability to respond to sex with a partner.
What we want, isn’t always what we need. Sometimes getting what we want, prevents us from getting what we need. The reasons may be complicated, or simple, but like Pavlov’s dogs salivating for a bell, rats conditioned to endure electrical shocks in exchange for a few grains of food, or a baby duck waiting for a dog to teach him to swim or fly; we are all subject to imprinting.