Any addiction (alcohol, drug, food, sex, or gambling) involves the hijacking of the brain’s natural orientation to relationships as its source for optimal health. The brain “is wired” for healthy relationships. An addiction “short-circuits” the healthy brain creating disorder and disaster.
The brain is a very complex network of neural pathways that link together in response to one’s behavior. Thousands of years of human development have oriented the brain to certain ways of organizing itself.
“The goal” of natural selection has always been the survival of the species and the optimization of individual experience. When an individual behaves in a way that allows the next generation to come into being and to flourish, that pattern of behavior tends to be passed on to the next generation, while behaviors that are less successful tend to die off.
In recent years researchers have been uncovering the neurobiology of the brain. They are understanding in increasing detail how the brain works at a cellular and even molecular level.
One thing they have found is that relationships, and even more specifically that state of “being in love” can be mapped by certain biochemical reactions that happen in the brain. Chemical neurotransmitters such as dopamine, oxytocin, vasopressin, and serotonin play a role in the development of trust, the creation of feelings of pleasure, and the signaling of reward. When a relationship works, it feels good.
Some researchers even argue that the neuro-relational mechanism in the brain is the very thing that makes addiction possible. It is as if an addiction is a misapplication of the brain’s natural adaptation to a healthy relationship as the means toward health and a long, happy life.
Rather than finding deep satisfaction in nurturing a healthy relationship, a person trapped in an addiction has a brain that has been trained to look for momentary satisfaction through alcohol, drugs, food, sex, or gambling and any other behavior that has the means to hijack the brain’s motivation and reward system.
Two researchers James Burkett and Larry Young highlight the way “falling in love” seems similar to the addictive use of a substance.
At first, each encounter was accompanied by a rush of euphoria—new experiences, new pleasures, each more exciting than the last. Every detail became associated with those intense feelings: places, times, objects, faces. Other interests suddenly became less important as more time was spent pursuing the next joyful encounter. Gradually, the euphoria during these encounters waned, replaced imperceptibly by feelings of contentment, calm, and happiness. The moments between encounters seemed to grow longer, even as they stayed the same, and separation came to be filled with painful longing and desire. When everything was brought to an abrupt end, desperation and grief followed, leading slowly into depression,
Burkett and Young argue that at the level of brain function, falling in love, nurturing a healthy relationship, and developing a stable secure attachment is indistinguishable from what happens with the addictive use of a substance or behavior addictions like that to food, sex, or gambling.
A person who struggles with sexual addiction has had their brains natural orientation to healthy relationship highjacked by sexual behaviors that release the same neurochemicals associated with motivation and reward. The problem is that sexual addiction (as with all addictions) provides only short-term satisfaction rather than the lifelong, enriching experience of sharing life with another person.
This is why a healthy relationship is the antidote to addiction. Treatment involves de-orienting the addicted brain from one set of behaviors that result in limited pleasure and the destruction of self, family, and friends, (pornography, hooking up, sexting, etc.) to another set of behaviors that lead to the ultimate pleasure and satisfaction associated with healthy intimacy. This includes the sharing of mutual respect, support, and the heightened sexual experience that comes without secrecy or shame.
Image by Naveen Kadam