It’s Not Your Fault: Why Emotionally Intense Relationships Have Addictive Qualities

Everyone’s heard stories of intense addictions or obsessions at some time or another. We’ve had a close friend that went to rehab to treat their anorexia, or a cousin that goes to AA. Even a friend who got so into a job or a hobby that it seemed to consume their sense of being. These are all addictions, and whether it’s minor or life threatening, addictions are medical conditions.

An addiction can be described as a “medical condition characterized by compulsive engagement in rewarding stimuli, despite adverse consequences.” While mental health related medical conditions are often viewed with a stigma or difficult for society to grasp scientifically, the brain is a more mechanical organ than some people realize — and psychology and trauma can cause biological “damage,” like a tumor or a broken arm.

Medical Explanation:
“Addiction affects neurotransmission and interactions within reward structures of the brain, including the nucleus accumbens, anterior cingulate cortex, basal forebrain, and amygdala, such that motivational hierarchies are altered and addictive behaviors, which may or may not include alcohol and other drug use, supplant healthy, self-care related behaviors. Addiction also affects neurotransmission and interactions between cortical and hippocampal circuits and brain reward structures, such that the memory of previous exposures to rewards (such as food, sex, alcohol and other drugs) leads to a biological and behavioral response to external cues, in turn triggering craving and/or engagement in addictive behaviors.”

In laymans terms, the triggering of certain neurotransmitters effects your brain’s “reward system,” which gives you a chemical desire to repeat the behavior to reactivate the reward system. This explains the addictive desire to continue, recreate, and revisit emotionally intense relationships. What’s seen as unhealthy from an outside perspective may be what the brain physically craves.

In other words, there is a science to what we emotionally perceive as love.

The same neurotransmitters that effect alcoholics, drug users, and other commonly recognized addictions are involved in the stage of love where a strong attraction develops — adrenaline, dopamine, and serotonin. Sound familiar? Low amounts of these transmitters are associated with depressive and anxiety disorders. No wonder breakups and loss of love makes people so physically upset.

That is also why it’s so difficult to fall out of a pattern of unhealthy relationships. Once your psyche is exposed to that level of emotional intensity, your brain craves that feeling and tries to recreate it.

This is especially common amongst people who experienced prolonged periods of stress as a child, especially when due to physical, sexual, and emotional abuse or neglect. A child’s relationship with a caregiver or parental figure often creates the backbone for their future relationships. So it makes sense that victims of childhood adversity are prone to abusive relationships and even certain personality disorders that effect the relationships they seek.

If you or someone you know is in an abusive or emotionally intense relationship but can’t seem to get out of it, it’s not because they’re weak willed or dumb or even blinded by love — it’s a physical addiction.

So does this mean that becoming accustom to emotional intensity makes you forever incapable of being happy in a healthy relationship? Absolutely not. Just like any other addiction, this is something you can recover from with hard work and mindfulness. Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy is an effective place to start. This approach helps patients recognize their unhealthy thought patterns and behaviors. Understanding how your thought process and personal experiences effect you can be a key element in reshaping your feelings, behavior, and relationships. After-all, how can one overcome an addiction if they don’t recognize that they have one?

Addictions such as alcoholism are widely recognized as a medical condition, and as the late Carrie Fischer described her alcoholism, it’s like being allergic to something. If you’ve found yourself in a pattern of emotional intensity, the causes are quite logical from a biological perspective. Treat it just like any other medical condition. Give your broken arm the right amount of rest, treatment, and attention and eventually you’ll be able to use it again.

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