Do you find yourself chasing emotionally unavailable people? Do you have a pattern of getting ensnared in a series of toxic relationships? You may have a toxic love addiction. It is empowering to know how our brains are affected by love – especially toxic love. Understanding these effects can help us to better distance ourselves from people who are detrimental to our self-care. If we are in an unhealthy love dynamic, we can then learn to substitute our unhealthy addiction with healthier outlets that feed into self-empowerment. We still have the agency to make better choices and to move forward in healing – the brain can always be ‘rewired’ to fixate on what helps us rather than what hurts us. Here are five ways your brain is affected by love, especially with a dangerous or toxic partner:
1. You feel overly pre-occupied with your love interests, especially when they are emotionally unavailable or toxic. Love lowers your serotonin levels to a similar level as people with Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. As a result, we become fixated on our partners to the level of obsession.
Psychiatrist Donatella Marazziti discovered that people in love have around the same levels of serotonin as those with Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder. Serotonin is known for its role in regulating mood (especially anxiety and depression) and people with OCD tend to have unusually low levels of this neurotransmitter which can cause obsessive thoughts. Knowing this, our uncontrollable thoughts about our lover make a whole lot more sense. Not only do serotonin levels decrease when we fall in love, levels of the stress hormone cortisol rise to help us prepare for ‘battle’ against this perceived ’emergency’ with a heightened sense of alarm.
This combination creates an intense preoccupation with our partner or love interest – our infatuation with them feels like a matter of life or death. It also explains why we tend to develop an extreme focus on our partner at the exclusion of all else and why we have an obsessive tendency to constantly think about our special someone, regardless of whether or not they’re good for us. This effect can be especially heightened when we are being love-bombed by a predatory partner.
2. You feel inextricably drawn to toxic people who repeat the patterns of your parents. You feel addicted to the highs and lows, and find yourself in relationship after relationship. In toxic love, our brains actually resemble those of drug addicts.
Love stimulates the reward and pleasure centers of our brain, creating a dopamine high like no other. Dopamine is the neurotransmitter associated with the pleasure center of the brain and it plays a powerful role in desire and addiction as well. When we are flooded with dopamine from our newfound love, we experience intense feelings of euphoria and are left hungry for more experiences with our lover. In fact, researcher Dr. Helen Fisher discovered that the brains of people in love resemble the brains of cocaine addicts. This is why you may experience a deep withdrawal effect when your significant other is not around or when they’ve withdrawn from you, even if they are toxic for you.
3. Your nervous system registers healthy, long-term love as “boring.” You feel subconsciously drawn to chaos and confusion, no matter how much you want a healthy love. Pleasure and pain make love a more intense and “rewarding” experience for the brain than consistent romance.
Strangely enough, the dopamine effect seems to be stronger in relationships with adversity. Dopamine flows more readily to the brain when there are intermittent periods of pleasure mixed in with pain, alerting the brain to ‘pay attention.’ So a relationship with hot-and-cold behavior, constant uncertainty, arguments, or even abuse, makes us work harder for the perceived rewards of the toxic relationship and create reward circuits in our brain stronger than a more stable, loving one.
That’s why when we’re continually thrust off the pedestal with a toxic partner, we work so hard to get back on because the effect of receiving their attention once more feels that much sweeter. This is why, toxic relationships, as counterintuitive as it may sound, seem to be so addictive. They alert us to the fact that this person appears important to our survival – even though we can certainly live without them.
4. You find yourself losing focus and overly focused on relationships, even fantasy relationships. When it comes to toxic love, parts of your brain literally “shut down.”
Well, kind of. Researchers Bartels and Zeki found that these parts of your brain ‘deactivate’ when you fall in love. Your amygdala, responsible for your fight or flight response, tends to become more dormant during this time. So does your ventromedial prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for critical thinking, decision-making, planning and judgment. This is especially dangerous if you’re in love with a toxic person because the natural signals that alert you to danger may be compromised, as is your ability to make rational decisions. No wonder you feel simultaneously tethered to your lover, unable to take ‘flight.’ And no wonder you engage in shady decisions against your better judgment in the pursuit of love – even unrequited love.
5. You regularly put your trust in toxic relationship partners– even if they’re not trustworthy.
Our brains have a tendency to blindly trust those we love – even those who’ve betrayed us. Studies show that the release of oxytocin, the aptly named ‘love’ or ‘cuddle’ hormone, can lead to increased trust – even after breaches of trust have occurred (such as infidelity or lying). Oxytocin bonding usually occurs during the physical experiences of a relationship – kissing, having sex, and cuddling. So if you’re in any way being physically intimate with the one you love or are crushing on, be aware that your assessment of his or her trustworthiness may be due to the strange, biased workings of your besotted brain – rather than the actual merits of this person’s character.
A version of this article was first published on Thought Catalog in January 2018.