Editor’s note: Tammy Nelson, PhD, is the author of The New Monogamy and Getting the Sex You Want. Her continuing education presentation for GoodTherapy.org, titled Couples in Recovery After Infidelity: Creating a New Monogamy, is scheduled for 9 a.m. PDT on September 6. The event is good for 1.5 CE credits and is available at no cost to GoodTherapy.org members. For details, or to register, please click here.
“Lovesickness” means you have fallen hard. Or perhaps you love someone you can’t have. Or, worse, you have lost someone you desperately want back.
Being lovesick hurts and feels awesome at the same time. It is a romantic stage of love, a feeling so familiar because we see it in seemingly every movie, hear it in seemingly every song, and read it in seemingly every poem. Lovesickness is common in every culture in the world. In almost every story ever told, in every Disney movie, and in every vampire novel, there is an undercurrent of love or loss of love. Our longing for love and the “sickness” that comes from falling in and out of it are what make up our idea of romance.
Longing—the desire for another—and the terrible and obsessive feelings it brings are what we learn from an early age to expect when we fall in love. Wanting or longing is our cultural imperative. I want what I cannot have, either because you are from the wrong side of the tracks, the wrong family, I am alive and you are dead, or some variation on the theme. In the end, we find each other somehow. Love always prevails, and we are happy, even for a moment. When love is lost, we cry and the world cries with us. The loss of love is a universal pain, as is the joy of finding it.
New love can feel like addiction. If you put someone in an MRI machine when they are newly infatuated and look at his or her brain scan, the same portions of the brain light up as those that are triggered when high on cocaine. When in romantic love, or the limerence phase, the brain is overloaded with dopamine and norepinephrine production, which creates symptoms similar to obsessive compulsion. They include sleeplessness, restlessness, and obsession. Impulsive behaviors such as driving by the lover’s house, or sleeping with the phone waiting for a call, seem illogical. Longing to be with that person all the time, regardless of other responsibilities, precludes all logical thoughts. People with lovesickness often experience intense sexual feelings for that person and can feel desperate to see the person and to touch him/her constantly.
We may feel intense grief, frustration, and sadness when we can’t be with the person. When we get scared and worry we are losing our love interest, we might actually become physically ill. Depression can increase, and cravings for things such as ice cream or chocolate are common due to the serotonin levels changing in the brain. When our brain chemicals are disrupted, if our love object breaks up with us or if we are separated during this falling-in-love phase, we might become more obsessive and do things we never dreamed of, including parking in their neighborhood or outside their homes. At this point, those who are more unstable might even turn dangerous, breaking into homes, stealing belongings, or checking computers and phones. Jealousy, intense suspicion, and even violence can increase in people who have these tendencies.
If the relationship continues in a normal, happy way and real love kicks in, the relationship moves into the attachment phase. Dopamine levels in the brain begin to level off. Both people start to relax as levels of oxytocin and vasopressin increase. These chemicals make us want to bond, to cuddle, and to stay home. We stop wanting to see friends or even leave the house. Sex wins out over socializing, and if we’re not careful, we might get married and begin procreating.
Being lovesick can cause great surges of creativity. Some of the greatest songs in history are written at times like these. Creative urges are strong at times of real lovesickness; poets, writers, and artists have known this for ages. Sublimation means turning intense emotions into something else. If you are lovesick, now is the time to write, sculpt, sing, or even start a new workout routine. This will help you take all of the intense energy in your heart (and brain) and channel it into something that will benefit you. Start a journal and write about your feelings. Two years from now, you might read it and think, “Ugh … what was I thinking?” Or you may find you have a wonderful new romantic novel or beautiful new love song.
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