The Addiction of Unrequited Love
If you've ever been in the throws of an unrequited love affair, you know that it can be — well — intense. You concoct cunning ways to cross paths. You spend many sleepless nights imagining the various situations that could finally bring you together. You have a mental catalog of each time your eyes have met, each smile you've shared, and each time your hands have brushed "accidentally." With unrequited love, you dive headfirst into an enchanting fantasy world, each interaction pulling you in deeper and deeper.
We've all been there — bemoaning our ill-fated lot while our clearsighted friends have looked on perplexed, wondering why we can't just "get over it already." But it can be tough to get out when you're in it. Even when you know it's unhealthy or even impossible, something keeps pulling you back.
We don't often think of it this way, but unrequited love can be surprisingly similar to an addiction. And perhaps, the best way to understand why we become trapped in these endless, painful affairs is by treating it as such.
Why are unrequited love affairs so intense?
Like any kind of love, unrequited love begins in the brain.
"Unrequited love is more closely related to infatuation than real love," says Tess Leigh-Phillips, a psychotherapist at The Mind Map. "However, the initial brain chemistry is similar."
When we begin to fall in love, the brain releases a potent cocktail of chemicals. "We produce noradrenaline and serotonin, the chemicals responsible for the euphoric and excited feelings you have in the early stages of meeting your special someone," she says. We also produce a significant amount of dopamine and oxytocin, also known as the attachment hormone. "Both these chemicals," Leigh-Phillips explains, "are addictive."
The more we experience the addictive quality of these chemicals, the more we become attached to the object of our affection — even if we know on an intellectual level that the attachment isn't good for us.
And just because unrequited love isn't reciprocated doesn't mean it can't feel just as real as a genuine relationship. "Anything we tell ourselves will in some way become part of reality," says relationship coach John Kenny. "Your brain cannot distinguish between imagination and fact, and if you keep thinking of yourself in a relationship with someone, you can trick yourself that this could be your reality." In other words, the attachment in an unrequited love affair has the tendency to get stronger with time.
Plus, the addictive quality of this type of infatuation means that we can trick ourselves into ignoring all of the signs that we are in an unhealthy situation.
"[The feeling you get from these chemicals] makes you see the person as something that fulfills you, someone that's different from everyone you meet, someone who's special, and everything of theirs is so," says dating and relationship expert Callisto Adams. "It makes you lack judgment towards them and their behavior."
As the saying goes, love is blind — and, it seems, it's also a little bit addictive. So, it can be hard to extract yourself from a love affair, even when it's ultimately one-sided.
Should we start treating unrequited love like an addiction?
You might know deep down that obsessing over someone who doesn't love you back is unhealthy — and yet, you still find yourself indulging in the fantasy, looking for one more dopamine and oxytocin hit.
So, what would happen if we thought of unrequited love as a kind of addiction and tried to "cure" ourselves of it in the same way?
Calling unrequited love an actual addiction isn't necessarily helpful, according to Kenny. "If someone carries on a relationship that is not a two-way street, then there will be some issues with self-belief and self-worth there," he says. "These emotions mixed with the hormonal release when connecting with someone can feel overpowering and uncontrollable, but definitely not addictive."
With addictions, our habits are out of our control. With unrequited love, our underlying issues"can be addressed and moved on from," he says.
On the other hand, Leigh-Phillips thinks there may be enough similarities between unrequited love and addiction to warrant more research. "Any form of 'love' or infatuation, which causes harm to self or others, and is pursued at all costs can be termed addictive," Leigh-Phillips says. "While science answers many of the questions such romantic obsession creates, much more empirical research into this area is needed."
Perhaps unrequited love is more similar to addiction than we realized — and perhaps, thinking of it in these terms could help us find new ways of ending the cycle of infatuation before it goes too far.