How capitalism turns love into addiction

August 31, 2015
An employee walks through racks filled with wedding dresses at Filene's Basement before a "Running of the Brides" bridal dress sale in New York

An employee walks through racks of wedding dresses at Filene’s Basement before a “Running of the Brides” bridal dress sale in New York, February 5, 2010. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson

Can something as basic as love become an addiction? Artists have always said so. Now, scientific researchers find that intense preoccupation with a love object lights up the brain with chemicals in ways that can be as compelling as shooting up. But unlike the pipe, the blackjack table or the online escort service, intense romantic attachments are a culturally sanctioned mode of escape.

Members of Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous (there are 21 live meetings in New York City this week alone), celebrity confessors like Alanis Morissette and a growing number of researchers indicate that the pursuit of love has never been so agonizing. From the time we are small children, we are besieged with ecstatic images of romance in Hollywood movies, popular music, soap operas and literature. The fantasy of merging with a lover and transcending the restrictions of our lives is nurtured by advertising and the media. An endless parade of consumer products offers tantalizing visions of romantic adventure and bliss that exploit our insecurities.


Robert Pattison and Kirsten Stewart in a scene from ‘Twilight’ saga. Courtesy of Summit Entertainment.

Romance novels are soaring in sales. They hauled in an estimated $1.08 billion in 2013 and beat out religious and inspirational books, mystery novels, science fiction and classic literary fiction. The Fifty Shades trilogy, a romance with whips and chains, has sold more than 100 million copies worldwide. In the past decade, young adult novels have focused on epic romances — often set to vampire themes, as in the Twilight series — that emphasize their addictive qualities. Love is predicated on cycles of agony and rapture, uninhibited consumption and the ultimate transformation into something inhuman.

Psychologist Stanton Peele, in his seminal 1975 book Love and Addiction, describes the roots of addiction as disconnection, a feeling of being adrift and unable to control our environments. He notes that addicts desperately want human contact, often using alcohol or drugs to connect with others. They also seek external structure, something to give life shape and direction, no matter how destructive.

The love addict, Peele writes, “uses relationships to seal off his inner self from a frightening environment,” a process that only weakens the self and further constricts possibility. Social philosopher Erich Fromm observed that passionately attracted people mistake the intensity of infatuation as proof of love, when it is really just the gauge of their own loneliness.

Lana Del Ray performs at the Hackney Weekend festival at Hackney Marshes in east London

Lana Del Ray performs at the Hackney Weekend festival at Hackney Marshes in east London, June 24, 2012. REUTERS/Olivia Harris

A generation weary of financial, social and existential insecurity testifies to this insight. In the songs of indie pop star Lana Del Rey, addicted lovers find their completion in narcotic oblivion. Her recent release “Prisoner” begins with hope that love can assuage alienation:

You bring good to my lonely life, honestly
It’s hard for me to look into your eyes
When, I say that I would be nothing without your love
I feel the rush and it’s amazing

But in the chorus abandons such hope:

I’m a prisoner to my addiction
I’m addicted to a life that’s so empty and so cold.

Our Western fixation on romance goes back to the Middle Ages, when tales of courtly love featured erotic, often illicit desire in which emotional torment could lead to spiritual attainment. Idolization was the key to intensity. Tellingly, salvation came through the lover rather than the church — the first sign of a displacement that haunts romance to this day.

Then, as capitalism emerged, the focus of romantic narratives expanded from gallantry and vassalage to individualism and self-realization. A decline in the belief in immortality led to the emphasis that rapture must be found on earth. The unusual idea that marriage should be based on powerful romantic attraction began to take hold.

The Industrial Revolution of the 19th century locked people into repetitive, uninspiring jobs, which increased their desire for instant pleasures and consumption. As workers moved from country to city, people were less likely to marry according to custom or life-long acquaintance. Instead, they sought romantic attraction in strangers. Capitalism, as it progressed, directed attention to the new and original. The idea was that people could reinvent themselves through the ownership of external objects: a wardrobe, a house or even a person in the form of a love object. Possession of an attractive lover provided the possibility of transformation and escape from the lonely anonymity of the urban crowd.

Alaina Netto looks into a mirror while trying on a bridal gown  during the "Running of the Brides" sale of bridal gowns at Filene's Basement in New York

Alaina Netto looks into a mirror while trying on a bridal gown during the “Running of the Brides” sale of bridal gowns at Filene’s Basement in New York, February 29, 2008. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson

During the 20th century, other realms of connection — churches, civic groups, extended families and nature — began to fade from people’s lives. In the postwar nuclear family, an isolated circle had to meet needs once satisfied through a broad range of engagements. Its stifling quality made the lure of escape through passionate encounters all the more powerful, for both stressed parents and their bored adolescent children.

In recent decades, changes in the economy and the social contract have heightened our sense of insecurity and disconnection. Repeat financial crises and fewer social protections highlight the sense that impersonal forces control our destinies.

The illusion of consumer choices offers the fantasy of control even in our romantic lives. We compulsively search the Internet for a better product on Tinder, or eHarmony. Even those driven by the ego boost of multiple conquests are so invested in the romance narrative that they will profess to be “in love” with several partners, consecutively or simultaneously. A sex partner is a “lover.”

Even after getting married and publicly announcing their true love, many people continue to indulge in secret, addictive sexual encounters still regularly described as “love affairs.” The cynical owners of Ashley Madison, the adultery hook-up website, turned desperation into a valuable commodity. The site lured mostly male customers to a digital netherworld populated by fembots and sad seekers of intrigue and excitement.

A market-driven society built on self-interest fosters an exploitative urge and constantly reinforces the illusory promises of what we can obtain. Like the gambler who imagines that she is just a play away from riches and will beat the house despite the odds, the love addict dreams of complete security and ever-lasting euphoria. When the lie is exposed, the addict goes frantically running after the next object, who is always just a computer click or text message away.


The Little White Wedding Chapel in Las Vegas, Nevada, January 3, 2004. REUTERS/Steve Marcus

Romantic love, in its compulsive form, is a magical solution to problems that exist on both an individual and social level. For married couples, the options of either eternal pairing or illicit passions are often equally unworkable. If connections cannot be integrated into our normal, public lives, we will engage in activities whose furtive, shameful qualities make them all the more addictive.

We need more ways to connect in our atomized society, and arrangements that better take into account both the value of long-term commitment and the recognition that one person cannot fulfill every need at every period of our adult lives. Nuclear-family models do not provide us with enough opportunity to interact with others and learn different modes of loving. Helicopter parenting cultivates dependency and cuts children off from competency, which sets the conditions for addiction.

We have constructed a society in which daily life for too many has become unbearable. Our current version of unbridled capitalism restricts the choices of the many while providing unlimited possibilities only to the few.

The more we feel insecurity in meeting our most basic needs, the more we will look to compensate in our love lives.  If we do not have hopes for satisfaction in what is, we will become increasingly obsessed with fantasy objects, already manifesting in robot form.

The future will invite us to sink not into the vampire’s kiss, but into the computer-coded embrace of mass-produced mechanical arms. A world inhuman.

Is that what we want?


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Please submit the non-capitalist solution. Perhaps a provided/mandated drug or provided/mandated genetic alteration that obliterates both the sex drive and the mating drive, both the result of evolution and intrinsic to life itself.

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Posted by operaguy1 | Report as abusive

Developing a culture where people are “embodied” (living in the body, not just watching life from the mind), will lead us to develop, once again, organically such that new modes of interacting socially and emotionally, and sexually, will arise as needed. The further we are from our bodies, the more likely we are to find our hearts buried and lost in heaps of unprocessed emotion and pain. This is what drives people toward the addiction you describe. Our culture is obsessed with the mental image of the body, and ignores our actual bodies. When we begin to teach our children about their bodies without forcing shame on them, that is the day our culture starts to turn the corner towards a brighter future…

Posted by CanyonLiveOak | Report as abusive

Anyone who think the complex system of regulatory statism currently prevailing in the USA is “unbridled capitalism” is not to be taken seriously.

Posted by evilhippo | Report as abusive

Anyone who thinks the complex system of regulatory statism currently prevailing in the USA was not bought and paid-for by the corporations is not to be taken seriously.

Posted by moebadderman | Report as abusive

It’s consumer capitalism that Lynn is speaing of. apitalism

Posted by Laster | Report as abusive

Wonderful read. Cogently argued and well-written.

Posted by Arun_Koyyur | Report as abusive