Helen Fisher, PhD

The Tyranny of Love: Love Addiction—an Anthropologist’s View

Fisher, HE (2014) The Tyranny of love: Love addiction—­­an anthropologist’s
view. In Laura Curtiss Feder and Ken Rosenberg, Eds. Behavioral
addictions: criteria, evidence and treatment
. Elsevier Press

Love addiction—­­an anthropologist’s view

“When we want to read of the deeds of love,
whither do we turn? To the murder column.”

George Bernard Shaw

Download the PDF

Laymen and scientists have long regarded romantic love as part of the supernatural, or as an invention of the Troubadours in 12th century France, or as the result of cultural tradition. However, current data collected using brain scanning (functional magnetic resonance imaging or fMRI) indicate that feelings of intense romantic love engage regions of the brain’s “reward system,” specifically dopamine pathways associated with energy, focus, motivation, ecstasy and craving, including primary regions associated with addiction (Bartels and Zeki 2000; Fisher et al 2003; Bartels and Zeki 2004; Aron et al 2005; Fisher et al 2005; Ortigue et al 2007; Fisher et al 2010a; Acevedo et al., 2011, Xu et al 2011). Moreover, men and women who are passionately in love show all of the basic symptoms of addiction, including craving, tolerance, emotional and physical dependence, withdrawal and relapse (see Fisher 2004).

Because romantic love is regularly associated with a suite of traits linked with all addictions, several psychologists have come to believe that romantic love can potentially become an addiction (Peele 1975; Halpern 1982; Tennov 1979; Hunter et al 1981; Mellody et al 1992; Griffin­Shelley 1991; Schaef 1989). However, many define addiction as a pathological, problematic disorder (Reynaud et al 2010); and because romantic love is a positive experience under many circumstances (i.e. not harmful), researchers remain largely unwilling to officially categorize romantic love as an addiction.

But even when romantic love can’t be regarded as harmful, it is associated with intense craving and anxiety and can impel the lover to believe, say and do dangerous and inappropriate things. Moreover, all forms of substance abuse, including alcohol, opioids, cocaine, amphetamines, cannabis, and tobacco activate reward pathways (Volkow et al., 2007; Diana 2013; Koob and Volkow 2010; Melis et al., 2005; Frascella et al., 2010; Breiter et al 1997), and several of these same reward pathways are also found to be activated among men and women who are happily in love, as well as those rejected in love (Bartels and Zeki 2000; Fisher et al 2003; Bartels and Zeki 2004; Aron et al 2005; Fisher et al 2005; Ortigue et al 2007; Fisher et al 2010; Acevedo et al., 2011, Xu et al 2011). So regardless of its official diagnostic classification, I believe romantic love should be treated as an addiction (Fisher 2004): a positive addiction when one’s love is reciprocated, non­toxic and appropriate (i.e. neither partner is married to someone else or has other inappropriate lifestyle issues); and a negative addiction when one’s feelings of romantic love are inappropriate, toxic, not reciprocated and/or formally rejected (Fisher 2004).

This chapter maintains that romantic love is a natural addiction (Brown, in Frascella et al., 2010) that evolved from mammalian antecedents at the basal radiation of the hominid clade some 4.4 million years ago in conjunction with the evolution of serial social monogamy and clandestine adultery­­hallmarks of the human reproductive strategy (Fisher 1998; Fisher 2004; Fisher 2011). Its purpose was to motivate our forebears to focus their mating time and energy on a single partner at a time, thus initiating the formation of a pair­bond to rear their young together as a team (Fisher 1992; Fisher 1998; Fisher et al., 2006, Fisher 2011). The chapter discusses the traits associated with both positive and negative love addiction; it traces the evolution of love addictions to their likely origins; it proposes a theory for the biopsychological foundations of different types of love addiction; and it offers some scientifically­based suggestions for treatment of individuals suffering from rejection addiction.


Human romantic love, also known as passionate love, obsessive love, and “being in love,” is a cross­cultural phenomenon. In a survey of 166 societies, Jankowiak and Fischer (1992) found evidence of romantic love in 147 of them. No negative evidence was found; in the 19 remaining cultures, anthropologists had failed to ask the appropriate questions. Jankowiak and Fischer concluded that romantic love constitutes a human universal, or near universal phenomenon (Jankowiak and Fischer 1992).
Romantic attraction is associated with a suite of psychological, behavioral and physiological traits (Liebowitz 1983; Fisher 1998; Hatfield et al. 1988; Hatfield and Sprecher 1986; Harris 1995; Tennov 1979). This passion begins as the lover starts to regard the beloved as special and unique; the beloved takes on “special meaning.” The lover focuses his/her attention on the beloved (saliency), as well as aggrandizes the beloved’s better traits while overlooking or minimizing their flaws. The lover expresses increased energy (hypomania), as well as ecstasy when the love affair is going well, mood swings into despair (and anhedonia) when problems in the relationship arise, and often general anxiety about their role, how to please and how to achieve their goal: union with the beloved. Adversity and social barriers heighten romantic passion and craving (frustration attraction). The lover suffers when apart from the beloved (separation anxiety), as well as expressing one or more sympathetic nervous system reactions when with the beloved, including sweating, stammering, butterflies in the stomach, a pounding heart and/or difficulty eating or sleeping: the lover is emotionally and physically dependent. They also distort reality, change their priorities and daily habits to accommodate the beloved, experience personality changes (affect disturbance) and sometimes do inappropriate or dangerous things to remain in contact with or impress this special other.