Why “cocaine-rush phase” is more accurate than “honeymoon phase”
In the wake of news of Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt's divorce, I spoke on a CBC Radio One broadcast (the Canadian version of NPR) on whether marriage is a relationship killer. Later on, I reviewed the comments and tweets submitted during the program. One commenter questioned why I would call the first phase of a relationship the “cocaine-rush phase.” This individual did not like addiction language applied to love and suggested that we continue to stick with “the honeymoon phase” as the term of choice for this part of a relationship.
Shauna H Springer Ph.D.is a licensed psychologist with particular expertise in close relationships, stressor effects on marriage, trauma recovery, and Veteran's issues. She works as a front-line VA Psychologist, offering services to a very large and diverse panel of patients. Within the VA Healthcare System, she is also the lead clinician for the VA Northern California Relationship Seminar Series. Dr. Springer is also the owner of Hidden Ivy Psychology Consulting. Launched in 2015, Hidden Ivy Consulting is her private consulting platform for offering seminars, community based lectures, training events, public speaking engagements, and individual and group consultation related to her areas of expertise.
Editor: Nadeem Noor
Off-putting though it may be to some, here are 10 reasons why I will stick with the cocaine metaphor to describe the rush of new relationships:
1. Very real chemical changes occur when we perceive that we are falling in love. Massive amounts of dopamine and norepinephrine are released in the brain. The same brain pathways light up when we are falling in love as when we smoke crack cocaine. This effect has been well-established in research.*
2. The behavioral patterns of people in new relationships mimic those of individuals who are addicted to stimulants—in interesting and sometimes amusing ways. For example, “spending a great deal of time to obtain and use stimulants” brings to mind the way that people who have just met often spend hours a day texting each other. And “continued use despite interference with major obligations or social functioning” brings to mind the way that people’s lives become unbalanced when they meet a new person they are excited about.
3. The term "cocaine-rush phase" is helpful because it prompts us to use appropriate caution when making legally and emotionally binding decisions while our brains are altered by this pleasure-inducing chemical explosion.
4. Using an addiction analogy allows us to understand how the phase may extend well beyond two years. As I explain in Marriage, for Equals, if two years is used as a general upper limit for the cocaine-rush phase, there are certainly exceptions to the rule, and they can be understood by looking at dosage-effect patterns. If the dose of reality is not sufficient to move us into the “testing” phase of relationships—for example, in the case of long-distance relationships or military deployments—the cocaine-rush phase may well extend beyond two years.
5. The metaphor helps us understand that we can fall in love with people independent of our relationship status, whereas the term “honeymoon phase” is dependent upon being in a particular relationship. Old flames are particularly combustible. In the context of a committed monogamous relationship, to privately connect with an old flame and incite similar cocaine-rush feelings is to play with fire.
6. The cocaine formulation also helps us remember that new love’s euphoria has an end: We will eventually develop tolerance. This occurs when there is an adequate dose of reality and sufficient real information about the other person to knock each partner off their respective pedestal.
7. Stimulant addiction is also associated with withdrawal symptoms that occur after stopping or reducing use. If a relationship ends during the rush phase, you may experience similar physiological symptoms. Just as the explosion of chemicals is not the mark of true love in the first place, the withdrawal of this chemical explosion does not necessarily mean that you have lost something of great value. In fact, a good question to ask yourself during these times is whether you miss the person you were with in reality, or whether you miss your initial perception of who you thought they were.
8. In the short term, the rush of new love may treat symptoms of mood depression. However, when relationship excitement is used to mask depression or help us pave over grief or the loss of a different relationship (rebound relationship formation), the relief is only temporary. Like most addictive processes, long-term positive change as a result of substances (or new love’s euphoria) is usually a mirage in a desert of engulfing loss.
9. The cocaine-rush model explains why we should not compare the feelings we have about a long-term partner to that of a new attraction. It truly is apples and oranges, although each is sweet in its own way. A potential new partner is an idealized fantasy, which makes for a very unfair, and potentially destructive, comparison point.
10. Finally, as in the addictive model, the law of diminishing returns applies. Over time, we don’t get the same intensity of effortless pleasure from physical contact with our partner. The fuel for attraction must come from a different source as we transition into “the testing phase.” The law of diminishing returns can also apply on a meta-level: There can be a profoundly negative impact on us when we hear the words, “I love you and I’ll never leave you,” from different partners throughout a string of unsustainable relationships or multiple divorces.
People can become addicted to the feeling of falling in love, but over time, I have to wonder if the capacity for sustaining a successful long-term relationship is increasingly diminished.