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  • Writer's pictureRobin Koerner

Attachment and Addiction - Reasons of the Heart (2 of 3)

Love is addictive – neurochemically speaking.

So it makes sense that the loss of a love relationship can feel utterly unbearable – like coming off a hard drug. In fact, it is coming off a drug - albeit an internally generated one.

But what are we hurting about? What are we addicted to, exactly? Do those questions even make sense if love is a neurochemical dependency – and we pretty much know what chemicals are involved?

Whether they do make sense or not, it seems reasonable to ask what aspect of a romantic love relationship do we develop a dependency on? Put another way, what does a relationship have to have to make it addictive?

When we suffer lost love, the loss of what, exactly, is the source of the turmoil?

Do we hurt primarily because of the loss of all the future experiences we otherwise would have had?

If so, why does it still hurt so much when we know that the relationship was not happily sustainable, and the loss is good for us or for the person whom we’ve lost and still love (if we do), or both?

Or is it that love causes a personal attachment, and we rage against the loss of that to which we are attached? If so, what actually is “attachment”?

Or is the truth less edifying: a selfish reaction to a loss of pleasure that a romantic relationship provides? Or most basic of all, is it all just ego – and we are really raging against the pain of rejection?

If the latter, is “love” just something that we are evolved to believe in as a cover for our egotism at such times?

Why can it hurt just as much to lose someone when you were the one who chose to end the relationship? There’s an obvious answer to that question … but I think the real answer is hidden under the obvious one.

The obvious answer is something to do with the fact that when you are dumped, it is done to you. Like a death, you can only accept it. It is a fait a complis and has a finality. That finality has an emotional upside that the person who ends a relationship doesn’t benefit from, unless perhaps s/he is moving on immediately to the next one.

Even rats are better at breaking behavior patterns when the link between the drug and the fix is severed completely rather than partially. Completely break the connection between the lever and the delivery of an addictive substance and the rat will soon stop pushing the lever. Make the connection between the lever and the delivery of the substance random or occasional and the rat will work even harder to keep pushing that lever. The utter impossibility of the continuation of the former state of affairs is critical to rewiring the brain for the new state of affairs.

When you’re the one who leaves a relationship, that relationship remains, at least for a while, theoretically possible or available (what if you changed your mind and went back?) – making leaving by choice often harder than being left, at least inasmuch as the above holds.

At some point, the one left moves on and then the original leaver faces the removal of the possibility of continuation of the relationship as he watches her do so – and the pain of that is made all the worse by the additional knowledge that he was directly and fully responsible for its removal. It’s the loss combined with responsibility for the loss that is hardest of all – and it hits when the leaver is no longer wanted by the one who was left.

At the end of a relationship, everyone mourns what could have been. That’s often been said. But here’s another question: why do we mourn what could have been even when our reason (pace Pascal) tells us clearly that it actually could not have happily been.

The answer is may be that we doubt ourselves: we know that there is so much about our relationships and their future possibilities that we don’t know. There are so many variables that govern a relationship, so many things we might not have noticed but that perhaps we could – that we sometimes second-guess our decision and wonder if we had called it wrongly by leaving.

More interestingly, can anyone know their own experience of something – including a relationship or another person – except through feeling what it is like both to have them and not to have them? That goes to the truism that “you don’t know what you have until it’s gone”.

Undoubtedly, the pain of loss seems to tell us something about the value of what we had that we didn’t know when we had it. The pain of loss helps us determine the cost-benefit of not having a relationship, whereas when one is in it, one only knows (at best) the cost-benefit of having it.

After all, how can anyone know their own experience of something – a relationship or another person or anything else – except through feeling what it like to have them and then have no possibility of ever having them again.

That, I think, is one of the reasons why loss of intimacy with someone who is “a part of you” is so devastating.

It’s a very unusual thing to experience something deeply, happily, consistently etc… and then while knowing it that well, to know that one will never have it again – and can never have it again.

An economist might say that the disutility of elimination of the option of having X is greater than the utility of having X.

That’s interesting – and not superficially rational. But, pace Pascal again, it is rational depending on what having X does to your mental state (and therefore your utility function).

And we know that having X literally and dramatically rewires your brain when X is the experience of romantic love.

But if that’s the case – if the loss of love is so severe (and it is for some of us), shouldn’t we see more health-warnings on love in our culture?

It would be utterly reasonable to expect that falling in love and becoming attached are things spoken of much more warily and as much greater risks than they typically are, given all the pain they cause. Love is an addiction and generates a dependency like any hard drug. It’s positively dangerous. Why, then, don’t more people go out of their way to avoid it like most sensible people go out of their way to avoid the no-more-addictive hard drugs?

Perhaps the answer to that question is that (in the language of economics again) the utility of having X (being in love) and the disutility of not having X change with duration of exposure to X. That’s an interesting problem. What else in the world is like that? And what constraints on an unpredictably time-variant utility function would allow that function to be translated into a utility function in the present moment?

That’s homework for the economists or mathematicians among you.

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