Is Love An Addiction? Can We Love Too Much?
“Romantic love is an addiction.” Helen Fisher
Romantic love has often been considered a type of addiction or sickness; a less extreme view is that in certain cases, people simply love “too much.” There is no doubt that love involves a persistent preoccupation with the beloved; such preoccupation is often part of addiction and excessive behavior in general. But is the persistent preoccupation that characterizes some loving relationships always detrimental? Should love be regarded as a type of addiction? And can we love too much?
“Love is like a drug and we don’t care about the long term side effects; we just care about how high we can get” —Unknown
The identification of love and addiction can be found in literature, philosophy, psychology, psychiatry, and brain studies and it remains common today. “Love addiction” and “Sex addiction” are, however, disputed terms. They are not mentioned in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), published by the American Psychiatric Association; in fact, DSM-5, published in 2013, refers to these phenomena as “hypersexuality.” And the World Health Organization’s recent version of its International Classification of Diseases, ICD-10, refers to these phenomena as “excessive sexual drive.”
These disputes are not arbitrary; they express the complexity of the issue. I believe that profound romantic love is not an addiction, although some features of addiction, such as preoccupation, are indeed to be found in profound love. However, lust, or intense sexual desire, can become addictive. Moreover, not all types of preoccupations are harmful; when the preoccupation is constitutive of flourishing life, it is beneficial and cannot be regarded as addiction.
Is the wish to be with the beloved an addictive obsession?
“Too much of a good thing is wonderful”? Mae West
An obsession, which is considered the primary symptom of any addiction, is defined as “a persistent disturbing preoccupation with an often unreasonable idea or feeling” (Merriam-Webster). The terms “disturbing” and “unreasonable” are crucial here. Persistent preoccupation with an idea or a person is not harmful in itself as long as it does not harm the agent’s flourishing. To clarify this, we need to discuss the notions of “repetition” and “loving too much.”
Repetition is an action or event that reoccurs regularly or intermittently. In human behavior, repetition is often treated in a negative manner, especially when no added value is gained in saying or doing the same thing again and again. Indeed, repetition generates boredom and de-activates human capacity. Why should we waste mental resources on something repetitive? Accordingly, emotions are generated by the perception of a significant change in our situation, rather than by repetition of the same event.
Can we speak about valuable repetition, that is, repetitive activities that have an added value to the initial activity? Many human capacities, such as playing the piano, dancing, and swimming, are maintained, and even enhanced, only by repeatedly utilizing them. In these cases, the repeated activity is valuable as without it, the capacity will deteriorate or fail to develop—hence the saying “Use it or lose it.” A repeated activity can be harmful when it is used excessively or it damages other major flourishing activities. Since profound love involves a positive preoccupation that enhances one’s personal flourishing, it cannot be regarded as an obsession, which is by its very definition a negative experience.
When a repeated activity does not contribute to the agent’s development and flourishing, it is likely to become addictive. One such example is sex. Thus, unlike profound love, which develops with time and enhances the agent’s flourishing, sexual activities are often repetitive and almost identical at all points of time; hence, excessive sex is more likely to become addictive. The same goes to excessively watching television, gossiping, or playing computer games.
Can we love too much?
• “I love you much too much, I’ve known it from the start, but yet my love is such, I can’t control my heart” Dean Martin
• ”I love my house too much to leave my husband.” A married woman explaining why she does not get divorced
Love is morally desirable as it entails profound care for another person. It is hard to see how such positive care can be criticized. Nevertheless, people do criticize lovers and especially those whose love appears to be excessive. Can one tell one’s beloved that he loves her too much? The question of whether love is an addiction also depends on whether love can be excessive—that is, whether we can love too much, and whether such love is harmful.
A useful distinction in this regard is that between romantic intensity, which expresses the momentary value of acute emotions, and in particular the intensity of the sexual aspect, and romantic profundity, which embodies frequent acute occurrences of intense love over long periods of time, along with life and romantic experiences that promote the individual’s flourishing. As profound love is an engine of human flourishing, its benefits run deep. Just as we would not fault an author for writing a book that is too profound, we cannot criticize a lover for loving too profoundly. Like other flourishing experiences, profound love is also valuable since it resonates with the lover’s character and unique circumstances. Hence, the issue of harmful addiction does not arise at all.