Addiction is a word that gets tossed around a lot, accepted on a conversational basis even when it may not apply in the clinical sense. After all, are die-hard fans of The Walking Dead truly addicted to a television series? No. Nor does your desire to check your Twitter feed or to share an article on Facebook necessarily reveal a clinical addiction to social media.
But in relationships, addiction is more than just hyperbole. Extensive research shows that when we yearn to rekindle the intimacy of a romance gone wrong, we’re acting on a true addiction to “pair up,” one that traces back to when our early ancestors were evolving to walk on two legs.
Hard-wired for love
As outlined in the Avvo Brief, “Dating your ex? How to protect yourself this time around,” our brains are wired to rekindle a romance, especially if it developed when we were young. It’s not unlike the attachment a baby forms with its mother.
Sounds creepy, right? But it’s just science. “The underlying drive is that humans crave social interaction, particularly in the form of close relationships, and particularly in the form of romantic and sexual partners,” says Justin Garcia, associate director for research and education at the Kinsey Institute at Indiana University.
Garcia, who focuses on romantic and sexual relationships and the tension between social monogamy and sexual monogamy, adds, “Cross-culturally, when someone is single, regardless of whether they were previously married, there’s still a drive for social connection, including intimacy.” Garcia says when we yearn for our ex, that’s a natural part of biology, too.
Rewards and pleasure
In research conducted by Garcia’s Kinsey colleague Helen Fisher, brain scans revealed feelings of intense romantic love engage the brain’s reward systems, specifically those areas rich in dopamine, the neurotransmitter that helps control the brain’s pleasure centers. Dopamine-triggered romantic love shares the reward pathways associated with substance and behavioral addiction to alcohol, opioids, cocaine, amphetamines, cannabis, and tobacco.
Fisher’s research, notes Garcia, “Helps us understand why there are such highs, why there are such lows, and why we do extreme things for love.”
Generally, attachment begins to kick in after eight months of being together. And, as studies show, it’s the combination of the intense romantic phase with the onset of attachment that likely leads to the biological foundation of human pair bonding, and, subsequently, love addiction. So, assuming you were romantically attracted to your ex and you stayed together for at least eight months, you likely forged a pair bond and a love addiction that can reassert itself.
Remarriage on the upswing
Four out of ten marriages in 2013 involved remarriage on the part of one of the partners. In fact, the number of remarried adults in the U.S. has tripled since 1960, from 14 million to 42 million, according to a Pew Research Center analysis of U.S. Census Bureau data.
While the data are not specific to people remarrying each other—that percentage is not readily tracked—the numbers hearken back to the Kinsey research and our need and want for companionship. And when 18 percent of married Americans admit to considering divorce, as they did in a recent relationship study by Avvo, there’s the potential for a lot of decoupling and recoupling of romantic pairs out there.
The way we were
Regarding the tendency to remarry, Garcia notes, “The legal process of divorce does not necessarily dissolve the bonds of love.” But, he adds, “When people do remarry each other there’s often all sorts of things going on: children, finances, social networks, career paths.”
And if you have reconnected with your ex, maybe property, too, is part of that complex financial picture. Was it part of the divorce settlement? Do you both have property? And if you had children, was custody a complicated arrangement? How do the kids feel about the reunion?
Since reuniting can get complicated, it may be best to consult a family law attorney and get advice together with your partner, so you both have a chance to address complications that could undermine a reunion you both want and need.
You are still in control
If you couldn’t live with them and now find you can’t live without them, you can take some solace in knowing that the attraction—the craving to reconnect—is in the wiring in your brain. Just remember to use another part of your brain, the part in control of executive functions, to make some good decisions.
At the end of the day, as Garcia notes, “Marriage is a type of cultural contract that sits on top of the biology of pair bonding.” And if a proper contract in the form of a prenup, or postnup, seals the deal, so be it.