Being without the one you love can be painful. If you are being pushed away or someone is distancing from you, you might feel distressed, even a bit desperate. You truly want them. But do you really like them?
Your brain’s reward system, and how it uses dopamine, can explain why you continue to pursue experiences that, when it comes right down to it, really are not pleasurable to you. And this pattern is particularly salient if you have a dismissing, fearful, or preoccupied attachment style. These insecure attachment styles sensitize the brain to stress responses and make you prone to seek out more pleasure in the form of dopamine.
Dopamine is a neurotransmitter in your brain that activates your pleasure centers. When you experience something pleasurable, such as eating delicious food, your brain releases a surge of dopamine into areas of your brain called the cingulate gyrus and prefrontal cortex. Your brain quickly learns to anticipate this dopamine reward; so much so that in a very short amount of time, the dopamine surge gets triggered at the first hint that a reward is coming—seeing the waiter coming out of the kitchen with your food, for example. You don’t even have to taste your food yet to get the dopamine surge because your brain is predicting the reward.
The problems start when your brain makes prediction errors. What if you have gotten so used to your favorite food that it starts to taste a bit bland? In that case, your brain will have predicted the reward (big dopamine surge in advance) but the actual amount of dopamine released when you taste your food is much smaller. You didn’t get the dopamine you expected. This is known as a “negative prediction error.”
In the case of food, you could simply start ordering something else to get your dopamine surge back. But if you are getting your dopamine from drugs and you experience a negative prediction error, you might use more and more of the substance to get the reward you were expecting. And the same often goes for sex and love.
Think about that initial romantic experience you had with your partner—that rush of excitement and the euphoric feeling that comes with dopamine flooding your system. Very quickly, you would start to anticipate that feeling, and get the related dopamine surge, just by seeing and touching this person, and then just by hearing their voice or getting a text. Your brain is anticipating the pleasure to come. It is making a prediction.
But then the actual experience of being with this person starts being not so pleasurable, and you experience a negative prediction error. You get the initial dopamine surge as usual (to the text or phone call) but the actual reward that you used to feel when you were with your person never comes. Perhaps your partner starts being really moody, or becomes cool and distant, or just doesn’t touch you in the same way. In this case, your dopamine neurons go into withdrawal. They actually start releasing less dopamine than they typically do. Now, you have a dopamine deficit. Needless to say, this will not feel good, and you will be disappointed. You want your expected dopamine back. So, you may start trying to be with this person more, or try harder to have your time together be more pleasurable, or just start acting crazy.
If your partner does not cooperate, however, your efforts may be in vain. You may find yourself wanting the person (i.e., wanting the dopamine) but not actually liking the experience of being with this person (dopamine deficit). People will keep trying for a long time to get the dopamine back. You just can’t seem to forget the initial dopamine surge that you felt earlier in the relationship, and the dopamine deficit and accompanying stress response feel awful.
It is at this point in a relationship when many people go and get a dopamine replacement—they cheat or find someone else. But, if you have been around long enough to establish mutual friendships and activities, share property, or even a dog or a kid or two, leaving might be hard to do.
So, if you want the person (dopamine prediction) and are going to stay around, you probably need a way to get the actual dopamine reward back (not just the prediction). Here are some things you can try:
- Be honest with your partner about your anticipation of good feelings when being with them, and about not actually feeling rewarded when it happens. You can do this without using the word “you” or blaming the other person. Just tell them how dopamine works and that you are having the anticipation of joy but are not feeling rewarded.
- Find other ways to stimulate dopamine release when you are with your person. Find things that are rewarding to you and do them with this person: watch your favorite show, eat your favorite food, or find new ways to have excitement together.
- Consciously try to lower your expectations and don’t let yourself get as excited at the initial text or phone call. In other words, use your thoughts to lower your initial dopamine surge so that you do not have the negative prediction error. In order to do this, you may need to stop yourself from ruminating or fantasizing about those wonderful first dates you had together.
As a final note, do not put all your dopamine eggs in one basket. It is always good to find multiple avenues to feel rewarded and get your dopamine on.
Schultz, W. (2016). Dopamine reward prediction error coding. Dialogues in Clinical Neuroscience, 18(1), 23–32.