Lost in love: why is it so painful when romance goes wrong?

Domenico Bruni

1 Mate choice from the perspective of biology

Mate choice is a very complicated matter. It is influenced by many factors: biology, environment, culture, and genetics. Mate choice is also the issue of a long and complex debate. In his seminal book, The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex (1871), Charles Darwin investigated the mechanism of sexual selection and argued for the idea that females, into the wild, are the most selective gender and that sexual choice is a female matter, because in the end females are the source of the parental care.

Darwin’s ideas are still surprisingly relevant for the contemporary study of sexual selection. Darwin’s mechanism of sexual selection includes two aspects: the competition between male individuals and the female - or sometimes male - choice of the best partner for mating. The term ‘competition’ suggests a lack of cooperation in what is called reproductive endeavour. It could be believed that everything that has to do with mating is cooperative and supportive. In reality, there are a lot of conflicts between males and females which are difficult to eliminate also after the cultural encoding happens. In the deep time, races and competitions for mating had profound effects on both animal physiology and behaviour. Evolutionary biologists have identified how sexual selection influences how occurs human individual preferences in choosing the partner (Bruni, 2010; Buss, 1994; Pilastro, 2007). It seems that males choose all those characters which can highlight female fecundity; on the other side, the choice of females seems more complex, because it is not simply oriented towards highly masculine phenotypes.

The choice of the best mate for reproduction is the basis of the evolution of secondary sexual characteristics in both sexes. The principles governing sexual selection, indeed, are the same in males and females. However, the action of sexual selection does not have the same consequences in the two sexes of the species. To understand sexual behaviour, it is necessary to start with the basic rules of genetics. The role within both sexes is played by different investing in gametes. There are two types of gametes which are produced in most animal species: sperm and egg cells. While the former is made of very small and mobile gametes, the latter are not so mobile, and they are large and rich in nutrients. From a metabolic point of view, in the production of gametes the female investment is greater than the male. For this reason, females have to accurately protect their investment and they will be more selective in the choice of partners. This happens mainly in mammals and birds, but not in fishes. In fish, it is the males who provide parental care. In monogamous species too, males are as selective as the females because they take care of the offspring.

Males, therefore, typically compete with each other for access to females, whereas females tend to be choosy and mate only with preferred males (Bateman, 1948). As already mentioned, Charles Darwin correctly realized that female choice was an important mechanism in sexual selection.

He also understood that sexual selection can sometimes act on both sexes or more strongly on women than on men. Darwin did not, however, clearly and unambiguously identify the evolutionary reasons for female choice. Rather, he tended to refer to the presence of an aesthetic sense in animals similar to the human one.

Many questions remained unanswered, but Darwin’s merit is that he offered a theoretical framework for later investigation. Overall, the study of sexual selection is a mechanism that is at the heart of contemporary studies in the field of evolutionary biology.

2 What is called 'love'

Love plays a central role in the experience and life of each of us. The romantic idea of sexuality and love includes a set of fundamental components, such as the sense of responsibility, commitment to the other, sacrifice, tenderness, and passion. It is a universal experience and as such it crosses time and cultures. Romantic love pervades many forms of our existence: poetry, music, literature, personal fantasies, and everyday life. But often the relationships, that characterize the human species, are characterized by many contradictions. Everybody can dedicate her life to finding a partner who will change, or destroy, her life because of a wrong choice.

The search for a partner with whom to build your life is a strong driving force that changes the minds and makes human behaviour unique. When a love affair ends, euphoria is replaced by depression and people may chase or persecute the lover so much that they make extreme gestures such as murder or suicide. We all talk about love all day and we all talk about it in terms of passion, pain, desire, affection, passion, and attraction. Love is declined in many ways and this makes it difficult to find a univocal and exhaustive definition. In The Instinctoid Nature of Basic Needs (1954), Abraham H. Maslow inserts love into the motivational system at the basis of human action in the category of the needs of social belonging.

Loving - and to be loved - is, therefore, part of the subjects’ need to have a rich relational and emotional life able to produce the feeling of being part of a social context.

In 1986, Robert J. Sternberg elaborated a model that includes different types of couple love that are the result of the presence, or absence, of three variables: intimacy (‘feelings of closeness, connectedness, and bondedness in loving relationships’); passion (‘the drives that lead to romance, physical attraction, sexual consummation, and related phenomena in loving relationship’); and decision/ commitment. In the short term, it refers to ‘the decision that one loves a certain other’, and in the long term, it refers to ‘one’s commitment to maintaining that love’. This model is known as the Triangular Theory of Love and provides seven ways in which love goes on.

According to Harry G. Frankfurt, human nature has two characteristics: rationality and the ability to love (Frankfurt, 2006). Reason and love are normative authorities that guide in the choices to be made, motivate our action, and bind it. Reason gives us the tools to realize our desires but often too many alternatives lead to paralysis. Love is taking care of oneself. Love for oneself is nothing but the spring that pushes us to search for the meaning of our life.

Helen Fisher suggests a cognitive and evolutionary explanation of love. Her main question is the simplest: ‘What is love?’. According to Fisher, to answer that question we have to follow the course of our biological history. And, this latter is characterized by the development of three brain systems that make possible behaviours aimed at reproduction. The three brain systems are lust, romantic attraction, and attachment (Fisher, 1989, 1992, 1998, 1999, 2004). In particular, lust drives the subject to seek sexual intercourse with any partner. The romantic attraction directs and focuses this undifferentiated attention towards a particular individual. Subsequently, the man-woman attachment that has evolved to ensure protection, safety, and appropriate care for offspring comes into play. One of these three elements, i.e., romantic passion, influences libido (the desire for sexual fulfilment) and all the sensations that are connected to the long-term attachment (serenity, security, union). The stage of sexual attraction is associated with the production of large amounts of testosterone that drives the individual to mate. The increase in dopamine and norepinephrine would, on the other hand, be the main causes of love ecstasy together with an evident decrease in serotonin release in the brain. Affective attachment enables the formation of stable and lasting bonds between men and women. In men, the feelings of attachment are linked to the increased production of vasopressin; in women, on the other hand, it increases in oxytocin. Vasopressin and oxytocin are hormones produced by the hypothalamus, an area located in the lower part of the diencephalon.

The function exerted by the hypothalamus is twofold and is linked to survival and reproduction. The hypothalamus controls, in fact, the production of hormones and the expression of some elementary and innate behavioural patterns such as sleep-wake rhythms, nutrition, body temperature, aggression-defence mechanism, and sexual behaviour. Fisher’s studies on romantic love can be compared with other research based on the identification of brain areas involved in instinctual manifestations and sexual arousal (Tiihonen et al., 1994; Beauregard et al., 2001; Karama et al., 2002). The two drives are processed in different brain areas.

Evolutionary biologists have identified in animals a large number of traits that have evolved to attract conspecifics. The brain mechanisms underlying the preferences for these traits are largely unknown. The data, however, suggest that the attraction system is associated with the dopaminergic reward system. Fisher claim that romantic love is a developed form of this attraction system. To determine the neural mechanisms associated with romantic love, Helen Fisher used functional magnetic resonance imaging (/MRI) on 17 subjects who had declared that they were intensely “in love” (Aron et al., 2005). The results show activation of the right ventral tegmental area and right caudate nucleus, dopamine-rich areas associated with the reward and motivation system. The reward system is a group of neural structures responsible for motivation, associative learning, and positive emotions, especially those involving pleasure (euphoria, joy, ecstasy). Therefore, romantic love is not a single emotion, but a system of motivations. It’s an instinct that changes over time and it is different from the mere sexual impulse. This instinct likely evolved so that individuals would concentrate all their energy on the conspecifics to make it easier to choose the best mate for reproduction. In summary, at a functional level, we love romantically because romantic love is necessary both for reproduction and for the care of offspring, thus improving our evolutionary success. At a mechanistic level, love is obsessive, intense, and tends to impair free will. The romantic love, as described by Helen Fisher’s cognitive theory, is nothing but a biological need. We feel the impulse to love and to be loved, because this makes us happy and makes us feel better, fuller, and more motivated.

3 Lost in love: a possible connection between romantic love and love addiction

Thanks to the data from the /MRI techniques, it is now well known that we can experience romantic love because of the activity of the brain’s reward system. Lovers show all the typical symptoms underlying addictions (Acevedo et al., 2011; Aron et al., 2005; Bartels and Zeki, 2000, 2004; Fisher et al., 2003, 2005, 2010; Ortigue et al., 2007; Xu et al., 2011): persistent desire, ecstasy, salience, mood swings, emotional and physical addiction, distortion of reality, tolerance, anxiety, motivation, concentration, abstinence, craving, and fall.

By analysing the above aspects, it could be expected that romantic love is a good candidate to be considered as a typical addiction. The scientific community, however, does not agree on the unique definition of addiction, but on the fact that different behavioural traits and the complex universe of behaviours associated with the concept of addiction actually have a core of common elements and manifestations that can be legitimately brought back into this single theoretical class. Researchers are not yet ready to officially classify romantic love as an addiction insofar as they are not able to recognize its pathological and harmful aspect. Abusing substances, such as cannabis, alcohol, and tobacco, are protractedly active in the dopaminergic neurons of the ‘reward system’ (hyperactivation of the ventral tegmental area - VTA, ventral striatum, anterior cingulate cortex - ACC, orbito-frontal cortex - OFC, prefrontal cortex, and insula). The same happens to people in love and people rejected in love. It is this circumstance that led to the conclusion that romantic love can be treated as a kind of addiction. Addiction can be positive in the case of reciprocated love, healthy, satisfying, or negative in the case of unrequited or toxic love. Subjects who are in love or rejected in love show the same characteristics usually associated with addictions such as compulsive or craving desire and focused attention to the object they love.

Love becomes pathological when intense desire turns into necessity and pleasure into pain and suffering. Although the subjects are aware of the many negative consequences, they could persevere in the reconquest of the partner. Control systems are compromised in the same way as substance addictions. It is possible, therefore, to assume that love addiction is caused by a stiffening of the typical and natural characteristics of romantic love. Obviously, as is the case with all phenomena, romantic love needs to be placed within a much broader framework that includes other factors such as biological factors, the individual vulnerability that has been maintained throughout evolution, contextual factors (e.g., ontogenetic, historical, individual contexts), and subjective experiences. The phenomenon we are examining cannot be explained only by using the definition of‘addiction’ or ‘maladaptive evolution’. However, this way of investigating the phenomenon of love could offer good behavioural strategies useful to those on the borderline between attachment and dependence (see Section 5).

4 But I love you more than ever

Romantic rejection is a very common experience in everyone’s life. After rejection and after the breaking of a love affair, we feel desperate, empty, stressed, angry, and scared. What is the reason for this suffering? Why can’t we manage the pain and get through it in a short time? Love seems to have a dark side that can be explained by evolutionary reasons. Scientific investigations have not offered a conclusive answer to this question, but the mainstreaming hypothesis is that lovers continue to love their partners also after being rejected or after the end of a romantic relationship. A piece of evidence for this is the intense activity of the ventral tegmental area (VTA), an area involved in the brain’s reward system, both physiologically and under drug stimuli (Clark, 2012; Fisher, 2004).

Love rejection could be an evolutionary response endowed with a specific function. Many psychiatrists have identified two phases of rejection: protest and despair/ rejection. Each phase has specific characteristics. During the ‘protest’phase, subjects are obsessed with a single idea, that is, regaining the lost object. In this phase, the greater the obstacles, the greater the love passion. Helen Fisher uses the expression “frustration-attraction” to describe this state of the mind (Fisher, 2014: 16). Let’s try to analyse the two phases in greater detail. Thomas Lewis et al. (2000) believe that protest is a response present in all mammals after the breaking of social ties.

The levels of dopamine and norepinephrine in the blood increase and the animal tends to obsessively search for those who have abandoned it (usually the mother). High levels of dopamine in the blood are present also in the initial phase of romantic attraction, and this would explain why those who are left are overwhelmed by love passion despite the rejection. In addition to activating the mechanism known as “frustration-attraction”, the stress system that activates dopamine production and inhibits the release of serotonin is also activated.

While individuals we love are going away from us, our brain and chemicals networks continue to create increasing intense feelings of love. There is something ironic about this feeling or, better, an incredibly powerfi.il natural mechanism. The mechanism known as “frustration-attraction” is also triggered by other brain activities. I refer to the central components of the brain’s reward system which are associated with focused attention and motivation: when an expected reward (in our case, love) is delayed, the group of neurons known as the dopaminergic— mesolimbic pathway, connecting the tegmental ventral zone (VTA) to the nucleus accumbens (NAcc), together with the GABAergic DI neurons, extend their activity. The protest phase can also be characterized by the intense activity of the brain panic system (Panksepp, 1998), which generates concern, alarm, and separation anxiety as a behavioural response (in a similar way to what happens with newborns when the mother moves away). In addition to these continuous and intense activities, there is also the anger, which typically produces heartbeat (abandonment anger [Meloy, 1998]; hate—love [Fisher, 20041).

Love and anger are intimately connected in our brain:

Romantic passion and abandonment rage have much in common. Both are associated with bodily and mental arousal; both produce obsessive thinking, focused attention, motivation and goal-directed behaviors; and both cause intense yearning - either for union with or fury at the beloved (Fisher, 2004; Meloy and Fisher, 2005). Moreover, love and rage can act in tandem. In a study of 124 dating couples, Ellis and Malamuth (2000) reported that romantic love and ‘anger/upset’ react to different kinds of information. The lover’s level of anger/upset oscillates in response to events that undermine the lover’s goals, such as a mate’s infidelity, lack of emotional commitment, and/or rejection. The lover’s feelings of romantic love fluctuate, instead, in response to events that advance the lover’s goals, such as a partner’s visible social support during outings with relatives and friends or direct declaration of love and fidelity. Thus, romantic love and anger/upset can operate concurrently, adding complexity and intensity to the expression of rejection addiction.

(Fisher, 2014: 258)

When the protest phase ends, individuals who have been abandoned move on to the second phase: the despair/reassignment. I would mention just an experiment among many. Jack Mearns (1991) evaluated 114 abandoned people in love. The results are as follows: 40% of the subjects who were tested were clinically depressed;

12% suffered from moderate to severe depression. Some of them committed suicide and others died by heartbreak or stroke. The phase of resignation/despair is present also in other mammal species among which the presence of what psychologists call the ‘response to despair’ has been identified. If the reward is late in coming or never comes, it decreases the level of dopamine in the blood causing lethargy, depression, and discouragement (Najib et al., 2004; Panksepp, 1998).

Depression has high metabolic and social costs. However, it also has some positive aspects, being a physical reaction that has evolved over millions of years. Many hypotheses describe the benefits of depression. Paul Watson, Paul Andrews, and Edward Hagen include depression in the list of honest signals (Hagen, 2011; Watson and Andrews, 2002). What, then, would be credible in the eyes of others? The answer, perhaps, includes the supposition that you are dealing with something deeply wrong and, therefore, you need to ask for help and be consoled. Subsequently, the subject will be able to go in search of a new partner and start again. Moreover, the kind of depression known as ‘failure of denial’ allows us to honestly evaluate ourselves and others, allows us to face painful truths and to implement decision-making strategies which are useful for reproductive success and survival. According to the evolutionary point of view, if we investigate the brain of people which are rejected in love, one typical feature emerges: romantic love is a powerful motivational mechanism that allows us to focus attention on a specific partner saving energy and time for mating and reproduction.

When we fail in love, we can suffer deeply and terribly for good evolutionary reasons. We feel loss (anger, fury, jealousy, panic, and stress) and we do everything we can to win back the individual we love. But, in the end, we give up completely who we love to start again the search and risk everything again to win the biggest prize in life: the partner.

5 Strategies for helping lovers: S.L.A.A., drugs, and talk therapy

Finding useful strategies to survive love suffering is not easy. However, the aforementioned studies coming from neuroscience, biology, and cognitive anthropolog)' give us not only the vision of the brain organization of love addiction, but also some hypotheses on the strategies to be adopted to free oneself from suffering. Data from brain research suggest that rejected lovers should immediately eliminate anything that reminds them of the lost partner (photos, letters, cards, gifts, etc.). Staying tied to the past, indeed, increases the activity of dopaminergic systems linked to intense passion, thus delaying the release from pain.

Rejected lovers could also follow the twelfth steps program, a set of guiding principles that outlines a course of action for recovery from addiction, compulsion, or other behavioural problems. Specifically, they could become members of a supporting organization like ‘Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous’ (S.L.A.A.). S.L.A.A. is a not-for-profit organization, a voluntary support group therapy association that uses the ‘twelfth steps program’ to recover from sex and love addiction. S.L.A.A.

was founded in 1976 in Boston and is promoted by some members of Alcoholics Anonymous who believed that sex, emotional affairs, and love addiction were conditioning their lives just like substance addiction. According to the promoters of the association, the compulsion to sexual promiscuity or persistence in destructive relationships cannot be controlled by the force of will alone. Among the strategies to be adopted, there is also the use of some drugs: norepinephrine, prolactin, and oxytocin agonists. These drugs tend to decrease both obsessive thoughts and physical pain. Moreover, they recover the damage caused to the body by protracted stress. However, it should be taken into account that these medications cause side effects that could affect the possibility of building a new, stable, and fulfilling relationship.

Many drugs, indeed, produce addiction, apathy, weight gain, sleep disorders, or have negative effects on the emotional system and sexuality. Usually, these effects disappear after you stop taking the medicine. Therefore, it would be better for antidepressant drugs to be used for short-term therapy. Another strategy to help lovers is, of course, psychotherapy. Talk therapies can cause many changes in brain function just like the use of antidepressant drugs (Brody et al., 2001; Rosenthal, 2002). Some studies show that in those who have undergone psychotherapy, there has been new and intense activity in the insula regions that can inhibit feelings of depression. In the end, the most effective method to overcome love addiction seems to be talk therapies combined with short-term drug therapy.

It is clear that ‘recovery’ from love suffering takes time. As the number of days after rejection increases, the brain activity that causes the feeling of strong attachment to the loved individual decreases proportionally. It is necessary not to have more contact with those who rejected us, to build new habits in our daily life; often it is necessary to adopt a short-term pharmacological therapy and to receive a talk therapy too, if love addiction is toxic and it risks destroying our existence. According to Helen Fisher, “the brain is built to heal itself, most likely a trait that initially evolved so that our forebears could resume their search for an appropriate breeding and parenting partner” (Fisher, 2014: 274).


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