Fatal Attraction: What is Sex and Love Addiction?
Have you ever been in love? Has it made you do crazy things? Whether it was sending your lover bundles of flowers, stalking their social media (or stalking them in person), or boiling a rabbit in a pot of water, we’ve all been there. We know that love is enthralling. It is potent enough in some individuals to actually be considered an addiction, even though it is not recognized as such yet. However, this condition is known as sex and love addiction (SLA), and the critically acclaimed film Fatal Attraction (4) is just one example of media portraying SLA.
Set in New York City, the plot of Fatal Attraction (4) begins when lawyer Daniel “Dan” Gallagher (played by Michael Douglas) decides to have an affair with an editor Alexandra “Alex” Forrest (played by Glenn Close) one weekend. However, in Alex’s mind, the relationship doesn’t end after that weekend. Things take a turn for the worst when Dan tries to distance himself from Alex. Even though Dan is married and does not want anything to do with Alex anymore, she persists in harassing him so he’ll pay attention to her: she calls him incessantly, stalks him when he moves towns, boils his daughter’s pet rabbit in a pot of water on his stove, and tries to kill his wife (among other things).
The problem is, her perspective of love is skewed, and she has become addicted to it. Because SLA is not yet classified as a mental illness in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th edition (DSM-5)–which is an official listing of all currently recognized mental disorders–many people are skeptical of the notion of actually being addicted to love. However, recent neuroscientific research shows that there are similarities in brain activity between sex and love addicts and those with substance addictions (addictions to recreational drugs, like cocaine, opioids, etc) seen under functional MRI (fMRI) scans (1). Therefore, it begs the question: should it be?
Sex and Love Addiction: What it is
What is sex and love addiction? Contrary to its name, SLA is not actually the addiction to sex or love. Rather, it is the addiction to the intense euphoria that comes with sex or falling in love. Kerry Cohen, author of “Crazy for You: Breaking the Spell of Sex and Love Addiction,” defines SLA as a spectrum, rather than a singular disorder, because those with this addiction can present in many different ways (5). As well, they do not need to be addicted to both sex and love. One can be addicted to love but not sex, or vice versa.
The two opposites of this spectrum, love avoidant and love addict, are portrayed in Fatal Attraction: Dan is the love avoidant, and Alex is the love addict. Cohen (5) defines a love addict as someone with an anxious-preoccupied attachment style, or someone who fears abandonment and “[has] a constant need for reassurance.” On the other hand, the love-avoidant has a dismissive attachment style, or fears intimacy and “feels suffocated by too much closeness”. They are drawn to each other because each party has an underlying fear of what the other individual expresses outwardly; the love avoidant also has a fear of abandonment, just as the love addict fears intimacy deep down. An addictive relationship is formed by the compulsion to “the possibility of healing those wounds”.
This is how it plays out in Fatal Attraction: Dan seduces Alex and gives her attention, and that draws her in and makes her cling. Dan is also married but engages in this affair because it lets him escape the intimacy of his marriage. However, when his affair with Alex also begins to become intimate, Dan pushes Alex away. It has triggered his fear. On the flip side, Alex craves the attention and euphoria she gets when with Dan, and tries to pursue this further. When Dan pushes her away, Alex pursues harder because she fears abandonment and craves the intense passion of the intimate moment they shared. However, she is not drawn to the stable, calm emotions of love that make up a long-term relationship, because she does not get that same euphoric feeling.
SLA does not always appear as extreme as it does in Fatal Attraction, however (see this NeuWrite Article for other media misrepresentations of mental illness and its effects). But the principle behind the addiction remains the same: the love addict seeks out what they believe is love–that is, the euphoria of falling in love–because it provides them with the high they have become addicted to. Much like other addictions, love addicts are beholden to the reward system in their brains. Dopamine is the culprit here.
The love addiction equation: dopamine and oxytocin
Dopamine is the feel-good hormone that keeps us doing things we like, and it plays an important role in the brain’s reward system. The neural pathway that is important for experiencing reward and pleasure is known as the mesolimbic pathway, and it is full of dopamine-rich structures. This pathway, shown to the left, is composed of two major structures: the Ventral Tegmental Area (VTA) (blue dot) and the Nucleus Accumbens (red dot). But is dopamine the only hormone that makes us feel good?
As it turns out, dopamine is not our only feel-good hormone. Oxytocin is another hormone that brings us pleasure. Oxytocin is considered the “love hormone”, and is important for social connection, pair bonding, and reproduction. Interestingly enough, part of the pathway that oxytocin takes in the brain (shown to the right) also involves the Nucleus Accumbens and the VTA: the reward pathway. When looking at the anatomy of the mesolimbic pathway, neuroscientists found that the VTA not only has a large number of receptors for dopamine, the addictive feel-good hormone, but also a collection of oxytocin receptors. Thus, as a consequence, it feels good to engage in social connection and reproduction–facilitated by oxytocin–because we feel rewarded–facilitated by dopamine.
Addiction: A need for what we want, or for what we don’t have?
The downside to this, however, is that the reward system did not evolve to reward only good behaviors; addictive substances (cocaine, opiates, nicotine, etc.) also cause a release of dopamine in the reward system of the brain, and some of them in large amounts. This reinforces drug use behaviors as well; as we all know, these addictions are detrimental to our health. After becoming addicted, the reward system is hijacked, and addicts have a compulsion to seek out their drug of choice, even if it means neglecting “family, the normal activities of life, employment, and at times even basic survival” (2). The reward system is altered when an individual becomes addicted. Rather than feeling rewarded and good when taking a drug, the addict is compelled to seek the drug out so that they don’t feel horrible, because their reward system produces less dopamine at baseline. It is a compulsion for what they don’t have, not a compulsion for what they want.
There is also a downside to oxytocin and dopamine being so closely linked: love addiction is made possible. There are a number of factors in the love-addicted equation that we can use to understand how it is actually an addiction, much like substance addictions. Most importantly, research shows how the mesolimbic pathway is also activated in love addicts when they crave their drug (the euphoria of falling in love), much like substance addicts. For instance, in one study, researchers studied individuals who had recently fallen intensely in love. When shown a picture of the person whom they were in love with, the participants had activation in those same critical reward pathway areas as substance addicts (including the VTA) (1). However, does this mean SLA is an addiction to one particular person, or is it a much larger issue?
Those with SLA are compelled to seek out love, sex, and/or a relationship solely to have a relationship. It is not the person that they become addicted to, but rather experiencing the intense emotions of falling in love or having sex, which is the rush of dopamine they crave. As the high of a new relationship wears off, they are compelled to seek out new excitement, and can feel like their relationship is stale or boring. They are not drawn to experience the feelings of a stable, long-term relationship.
In addition to the compulsion to seek these intense emotions, love addicts also experience withdrawal if trying to kick the habit of SLA. Their withdrawals can be just as intense, both psychologically and physiologically, as substance addicts (3). Withdrawal from SLA causes a major imbalance in our hormonal systems, and thus states such as mood, concentration, and appetite can be affected in the absence of the sex and love they crave. Other symptoms of SLA withdrawal are physical like those substance addicts go through. Examples of such symptoms include “increased or decreased heart rate, nausea, vomiting, or muscle cramping”. Love addiction, and its withdrawal, are both made possible because of its wide-ranging impact on our hormonal systems, such as dopamine and oxytocin, and this makes love addiction just as real as substance addictions.
The consequences of love addiction can be dire for the parties involved, as we see in Fatal Attraction (4). As cold weather brings people closer and makes you want to cuddle (cuffing season, some may say), keep in mind how your brain may be playing a trick on you. As neuroscience has found through numerous studies, the brain in intense love is very similar to the brain of those addicted to substances of abuse. Left unchecked, this can result in a sex and love addiction; your brain fills you with a passion that, for some, becomes addictive. We all want to have fun and feel loved, but your brain may trick you about what love is; therefore, please, please do not boil rabbits in pots of water or try to kill anyone’s spouse, no matter how intense the passion is.
- Lyne, A. (Director). (1987) Fatal Attraction [Film].
- Cohen, K. (2021). Crazy for You: Breaking the Spell of Sex and Love Addiction. Hachette Books.