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You are the Perfect Drug 

I recently read your article Oxytocin: The Hormone that Binds. This bonding molecule and its withdrawal effects can be so severe. Have there been any studies on how Oxytocin or withdrawal from it affects the levels of other similar hormones such as serotonin, epinephrine, etc? It seems like the detoxing process is just as bad if not worse than hardcore drugs such as Vicodin, cocaine, heroin, or morphine, at least from an emotional/ psychological perspective.

It's been almost 2 years since I came out of this very bad, painful "relationship" with a girl. I say "relationship" because it was strictly a sexual and logically I knew it was never going to lead to anything serious but my emotions said otherwise. After such a long time I feel like I am still in detox mode. I think about her, I have tendencies to want to go look for her but I catch myself and tell myself this is only a temporary feeling. Even though the answer to the one question I have for her is one I already know or have a hunch about and would probably be correct about it, I still feel as though hearing it from her is going to make things better somehow. I still feel as though I lost her when in fact I never had her. It doesn't help that this girl and I had history from high school and it had been 8 years since we had seen each other and then our sexual relationship started.

I have started dating and meeting other women but a part of me feels as though subconsciously I might just be wanting to fill a void. I feel like I can't really move on. I want to and am making attempts to meet other women but I don't feel a drive or motivation. I'm just going through the motions simply because I want somebody. What advice do you have?

Thank you for sharing your experience. A number of psychologists have described some forms of love just as you have: like an addiction; there is intense desire to spend time with the object of our affection, we experience intense cravings, emotional dependence, mood swings, and even loss of control and compulsive behaviors.1 In one study utilizing fMRI technology (brain imaging), subcortical reward systems in the brain were activated when adults viewed photographs of someone who had rejected their love;2 this part of the brain is the same area that lights up when people experience intense, romantic love3 and is rich in dopamine, which is a neurotransmitter associated with rewards like pleasure. People become addicted to the large amounts of dopamine caused by the love they are experiencing, so when the reward source is gone, they go into withdrawal. In addition, researchers have found that areas of the brain associated with drug cravings (e.g., cocaine) were also activated in participants after they viewed photographs of their lost loves. Sexual frequency has also been associated with the activation of areas of the brain associated with hunger and cravings.4 Because you describe your past relationship as primarily sexual, this might further explain some of these withdrawal symptoms that you are experiencing.  

Therefore, rejection and loss heightens people’s feelings of romantic love, and can help explain why people do all sorts of crazy things after a break up, such as stalking, suicide,2 and jumping right into another relationship in order to avoid experiencing continued withdrawal symptoms. These feelings are actually described by researchers not as emotions, but as motivators to get people to reconnect with their estranged love.3 So, one stop gap measure is to eat chocolate because it contains phenylethylamine, which is an endorphin released in the brain when we are in love (and presumably will take the edge off).5 Alternatively, you can just wait it out. It will get better. Decades of behavioral research shows that stopping reinforcements (rewards) will eventually make your feelings fade away.6

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1Griffen-Shelley, E. (1991). Sex and Love: Addiction, Treatment, and Recovery. Westport, CT: Praeger.  

2Fisher, H. E., Brown, L. L., Aron, A., Strong, G., & Mashek, D. (2010). Reward, addiction, and emotion regulation systems associated with rejection in love. Journal of Neurophysiology, 104, 51-60.

3Aron, A., Fisher, H., Mashek, D. J., Strong, G., Li, H., & Brown, L. L. (2005). Reward, motivation, and emotion systems associated with early-stage intense romantic love. Journal of Neurophysiology, 94, 327-337.

4Acevedo, B. P., Aron, A., Fisher, H. E., & Brown, L. (2012). Neural correlates of long-term intense romantic love. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, 7, 145-159.

5Benton, D (2004). The biology and psychology of chocolate craving. In A. Nehlig (Ed.), Coffee, Tea, Chocolate and the Brain, pp. 203-217. Boca Raton, FL: CRC Press LLC.

6Domjan, M. (Ed.) (2003). The Principles of Learning and Behavior, Fifth Edition, Belmont, CA: Thomson/Wadsworth.

Dr. Jennifer Harman - Adventures in Dating... | Science of Relationships articles | Website/CV
Dr.  Harman's research examines relationship behaviors that put people at-risk for physical and psychological health problems, such as how feelings and beliefs about risk (e.g., sexual risk taking) can be biased when in a relationship. She also studies the role of power on relationship commitment.

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