What is it that can turn rational, well-adjusted individuals into raving lunatics after just a hook up or two? Anthropologists, psychologists, and biologists call it the addiction of romantic love, and I’m here to break it down.
Maybe you met him in the basement of AEPi and took a break from rubbing your ass up and down his body to drunkenly punch your number into his phone. Or maybe the cutie in your stats lecture—the only thing that gets you up at 8 a.m.—finally asked if you wanted to get breakfast after class. Whatever the beginnings, there’s nothing quite like having a new boy on your radar. And when you finally hook up with him, and he follows up with an emoticon-laden text after walking you home the next morning—bam! You’ve found the one. Never mind if he has a girlfriend or an affinity for intravenous drugs. Who cares if he misspelled your name in his text or if his closest celebrity doppelganger is Shrek? The point is that you’re in love.
Cue obsessive-compulsive behavior. You agonize over when to friend him on Facebook, you jump every time your phone buzzes, you find reasons to drive by his house daily. When you notice that a girl in your econ class is among your mutual Facebook friends, you plan a Tisch date to desperately beg for her password so that you can stalk him. You plan your outfits for dates number one, two, and three and email pictures of his ex-girlfriend to your guy friends and insist they reassure you that you are hotter. You’re gripped, fanatical, fixated, and zealous. You convince yourself that you’ve finally found love.
What causes this drastic change in behavior and loss of rationality? Our first culprit is the hormone oxytocin. It is often referred to as the cuddle hormone, but in fact, it’s involved in all feelings of love. Oxytocin surges when loved ones reunite, and it establishes the bond between infants and parents. If you could distill human love down to one chemical, this would be it. What makes casual sex almost impossible is that your body releases this hormone during sex, which leads you to experience strong feelings of attachment, the very reason why girls always want to cuddle afterwards. And although levels of the hormone don’t rise as much for men as they do for women, an increase is observable in both genders following intercourse. This is why neither men nor women should have sex with somebody before they know them well; it can lead us to become attached to somebody we wouldn’t otherwise be interested in.
And thus, the addiction begins. After oxytocin makes us wholly smitten with someone and an obsessive infatuation develops, our brains begin to make large quantities of dopamine and norepinephrine, neurotransmitters involved with our brains’ reward pathways. Incidentally, these are the same neurotransmitters that are affected when you do cocaine, but instead of creating them, cocaine disables the brain’s ability to dissolve them (it’s a reuptake-inhibitor) so that their effects are felt in the brain for much longer than they normally would. Drugs like Adderall, Ritalin, and some antidepressants also affect the levels of dopamine and norepinephrine in your brain. The point is that an increase in these neurotransmitters makes you feel good, and drugs that augment their effects are both pleasurable and highly addictive. An increase in dopamine and norepinephrine makes infatuated girls behave as irrationally as crack addicts looking for their next fix—they’ll do anything and everything to get more attention from their boy. Being “in lust” is an addictive high.
Serotonin is another neurotransmitter that is affected by our lust-fueled brains. The serotonin levels in besotted individuals drop when they’re away from their lover and resemble those found in people with obsessive-compulsive disorders. So, not only does our brain chemistry turn us into craving coke addicts, it also galvanizes obsessive behavior, which leads us to ruminate, fantasize, and stalk our new hottie.
What happens if our perfect man is scared away by our psychotic, frenzied behavior and dumps us? The drop in the dopamine and norepinephrine levels makes us experience the same withdrawal symptoms as recovering cocaine addicts: agitation and restless behavior, persistent depressed and melancholy moods, fatigue, a slowing of activity, and an increase in appetite.
Aside from eating chocolate, which will help bring serotonin levels back up, there’s not much we can do to mend broken hearts. Alas, there is no rehab center for recovering dumpees. The only real cure in the long run is quitting cold turkey and indulging in self-pity until our brain chemistry returns to normal. But the fact remains that we really like our dopamine and norepinephrine, which means that even the strongest among us will succumb to the occasional ex-boyfriend “relapses” or get a cheap fix of oxytocin from our stand-by DU brother—that is, until our next Mr. Perfect comes along.