In Defense of Toxic Love
Love isn’t just niceties and good feelings; it’s time somebody stood up for the darker side of love.
As a society we seem to be in agreement that things like co-dependency, or the anxious attachment that underlies it, and vicious arguments, infidelity, and jealousy are all inherently bad. However, love itself heightens the sensitivity of all the emotions, not just the happy ones. Just as a person can be filled with joy by their beloved; they can just easily be made terrified, despondent, or angry by them. All we’re ever told of the negative emotions is that they’re something we should avoid, at least in prose. Our songs and poems are filled with odes to this pain.
The argument against “toxic relationships” is fundamentally an argument in favor of mental health. Toxicity riles up all those unhappy emotions, namely sadness, fear, and anger. The argument seems prima facie; the value of mental health is self-evident. Yet, throughout life, there is a constant trade-off between risk and reward, specifically risking health for something enjoyable. For example, sweets, alcohol, drugs, smoking, extreme sports, or overexertion (in any domain), should all be avoided for the sake of health, but most of us take part in at least a few of these because they’re pleasurable or result in things we value.
Love is another example of such a trade-off. The story of love in the brain is only slightly less romantic than in the novels: When you look into the eyes of the person that sends your heart racing, your brain is being pumped full of oxytocin that encodes social information and acts as a neuromodulator.  In other words, that oxytocin starts tinkering with all sorts of things in your head. It primes your dopaminergic system to be reactive to this person: to initiate arousal, approach/wanting behaviors, and even makes you happy when you’re around them. It’s also doing something else: It’s releasing a flood of the stress hormone, corticotropin-releasing factor (CRF), into your brain. The oxytocin blunts the stress hormone, so you don’t feel it, but you’ve been primed so if that oxytocin feed ever stops — for example, after a breakup — you’re in for a world of emotional pain. As one scientist described it, “I compare it to a rifle. As…