While the term “love addiction” may be controversial among mental health professionals, having an overwhelming or obsessive compulsion toward love or a loved one is not uncommon. Love addictions are formed as a defense against psychological pain. Love addicts have a fantasy of being rescued by their loved one and often believe that this one person can somehow make them okay. They have too high an opinion of the object of their affection, and too low an opinion of themselves. Because of this, love addicts pour too much time and energy into their relationships, while neglecting their own well-being, family, friendships and even careers.
This article will answer the following questions:
- Is love addiction real?
- What are the characteristics of love addiction?
- Why do love addictions form?
- What types of partners do love addicts choose?
- What is the cycle of love addiction?
- How can someone recover from love addiction?
Are love addictions real?
It is important to note that “love addiction” has not been classified as an official diagnosis. Many mental health professionals take issue with attaching the designation of “addiction” to what is considered a passion-related behavior. However, the term “love addiction” can be very useful in understanding specific problematic relationship patterns and behaviors. It can also be helpful in shedding light on how to break a deeply rooted psychological compulsion.
Love addiction has similar characteristics and cycles to other addictions. Definitions of addiction range from narrow to broad. Addiction can be defined as
- a physical or psychological dependence on a mind-altering substance
- a brain disorder characterized by compulsive engagement in rewarding stimuli despite adverse consequences
- a dependence on or compulsion to any substance or behavior
Love addiction is are similar to other addictions in that it is formed as a defense against unresolved pain. Like other addictions, love addiction focuses increasingly on the object of the addiction at the detriment of the love addict. The typical love addict loses interests in activities outside of their addiction. Furthermore, the addiction causes problems with family and friends, even at work. When the addiction is interrupted, the addict will feel an intense, emotional withdrawal.
Anthropologist and TED speaker, Helen Fisher proposes “that love addiction is just as real as any other addiction, in terms of its behavior patterns and brain mechanisms.” According to Fisher, “Besotted lovers express all four of the basic traits of addiction: craving, tolerance, withdrawal, and relapse.”
What are the characteristics of a love addiction?
Love addiction is defined by a specific set of characteristics and behaviors. According to Pia Mellody, author of Facing Love Addiction, “Possibly the most significant characteristic of love addiction is that we assign too much time and value to another person.” Someone with a love addiction focuses almost entirely on the object of their desire. This, often obsessive, focus begins to have a negative effect on the rest of their life. According to Mellody, “Love Addicts neglect to care for or value themselves while they’re in the relationship.”
Love addictions involve a great deal of fantasy. As you’ll read later, love addictions form as a result of painful childhood experiences. Consequently, love addicts often have a fantasy of being rescued. It’s as if the person they are longing for is the only person in the entire universe who has the power to take away their pain, give them everything they longed for and never got as a child, and make them feel safe, valued, and worthy. This magical thinking leads love addicts to cling to the relationship, even when the relationship itself is flawed.
Often these relationships are deeply flawed. Love addicts tend to select partners who have a fear of intimacy and will neglect the relationship. Yet, the love addict maintains a fantasy that everything will get better, their partner will change, and they will finally receive the love and fulfilment they so desperately crave.
Love addicts overlook major red flags in their partners. They are often at odds with friends and family who continually encourage them to find someone better. Love addicts don’t want to find someone better; rather they want to uncover a better version of the person they are with. Additionally, love addicts tend to have low self-esteem and believe that if they only improve themselves (by losing weight, removing character flaws, etc.) their partner will suddenly offer them the relationship of their dreams. This fantasy becomes like a lifeline and it keeps the relationship going.
Pia Mellody writes that “Instead of developing mature intimacy, Love Addicts seek to enmesh, to merge, to get completely connected to their partners.” This type of enmeshed intimacy can be described as a “fantasy bond”—an illusion of connection and closeness between two people that is substituted for feelings of real love and intimacy.
Why do love addictions form?
The roots of love addiction extend back to early childhood. A history of abandonment, neglect, or inadequate or inconsistent nurturing can lead to love addiction. Like other addictions, love addiction is often the result of insecure attachment patterns.
Attachment patterns develop during the first 18 months of life as a result of how the primary caregiver (usually the mother) interacts with the infant. In order for the infant to develop secure attachment, the child must feel SAFE, SEEN, and SOOTHED. The way the caregiver relates to their child at times when the child is upset or in distress is of utmost importance.
A securely attached child will consistently turn to their parent for comfort and connection when they are upset, get soothed, calm down, and then go back to whatever they were doing before. Insecure attachment develops when a parent is unable to consistently sooth their child. In this scenario, the upset child turns to their parent for comfort and connection, but they get ignored, or their parent is too anxious or distracted to properly sooth them, or they are scolded or even abused for crying and having needs. How attuned the parent is to their child at times of distress over time forms an attachment pattern that follows the child into their adult relationships. You can learn more about various attachment patterns here.
Most love addicts had a parent, or parents, that were not attuned to them as small children. They were unable to meet their child’s primary needs for love, connection, and validation. This lack of parental nurturance, or worse, parental rejection, is extremely painful to a child. So the child, and later the adult, takes refuge in a fantasy of love to avoid the pain. Therapist Caroline Becker explains, “Love addiction develops when reality is too painful for the conscious mind to manage and so a fantasy version of a loved one and of life with that person develops.”
According to Caroline Becker, “The love addict’s behavior comes from an unconscious place of pain due to trauma from abuse (emotional, physical, or sexual) and/or neglect that occurred early in life. By focusing on someone else, the pain of trauma and/or neglect is avoided, remaining unconscious.” This is why a love addict’s needs in adult relationships feel so enormous; it’s because they were not met when they were a child.
What types of partners do love addicts choose?
When it comes to love addiction, it takes two to tango. A love addict will (unconsciously) look for a partner who avoids intimacy. Pia Mellody refers to these partners as “Love Avoidants.” According to Mellody, “Love Avoidants consciously (and greatly) fear intimacy because they believe that they will be drained, engulfed, and controlled by it.” Often these people were drained, engulfed or controlled by the emotions and needs of others when they were small children.
Often avoidance does not show itself in the very beginning of a relationship. The “Love Avoidant” might be the one who initially comes on strong and does the wooing. However, as the relationship progresses, their fear of intimacy becomes heightened and they begin to push their partner away. In her book, Facing Love Addiction, Mellody outlines three ways that “Love Avoidants” typically avoid intimacy:
- Limiting intensity within the relationship by creating more intensity in activities (often addictions) beyond the relationship.
- Avoiding being truly known by their partner to protect themselves from being controlled or engulfed by the other person.
- Restricting intimate contact with their partner through a variety of distancing techniques.
Essentially, love addicts are attracted to people who are not able to meet their needs. Even though love addicts feel as though they want a close relationship more than anything in the world, they unconsciously choose partners that avoid closeness at all costs. This relationship dynamic creates a toxic cycle that (though very painful) distracts the love addict from focusing on the unresolved pain of their early childhood.
What is the cycle of love addictions?
Love addictions tend to follow a predicable cycle.
- In the initial stage of attraction, both partners are very drawn to one another.
- As they get involved, the love addict forms a fantasy of being rescued. At the same time, their partner begins to put up walls to avoid real intimacy.
- The love addict becomes enamored with a fantasy and is blind to real flaws in the relationship and their partner. The relationship becomes the center of their universe and they start to think about it incessantly. Meanwhile, the avoidant partner begins to pull away more and more. Sensing their partner’s neediness and insecurity leads them to resent the relationship. When the avoidant partner pulls away, the love addict’s fear of abandonment is triggered and they cling on more tightly.
- The love addict becomes frustrated and upset. No matter how much energy they pour into the relationship, they can’t seem to make it work. They try to fix themselves, still clinging to the fantasy that their partner is perfect or “going to change.” At this point, the avoidant partner may be distancing himself further from the relationship, potentially abusing alcohol or drugs or having an affair.
- Eventually the love addict starts to recognize their partner’s bad behavior. They may lash out with emotional outbursts. They might act compulsively.
- Feeling ashamed of their own bad behavior, the love addict apologizes and returns once again to the fantasy that things will all work out.
This cycle can repeat many times in the course of one relationship. If at any point, the love addicted partner ends the relationship, the avoidant partner may suddenly do a complete 180 and fight to get the relationship back. However, as soon as the relationship picks up again, the familiar dynamics take over.
How can someone recover from love addition?
The first step in recovering from love addiction is to recognize the problem. Like fighting any addiction, the process can be challenging. Feelings of withdrawal may arise. Recovering love addicts may have to face unresolved childhood pain. However, with help, people can break the pattern of love addiction and go on to form truly fulfilling and close intimate relationships.
Many people find help by entering a 12-step program for love addiction. Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous (S.L.A.A) offers meetings worldwide.
According to Pia Mellody, there are four phases of recovery from love addiction.
- The first step is to address any other addictive processes, such as alcoholism, eating disorder, etc.
- The second step is to “disengage from the addictive part of the relationship process.”
- The third step is to find a therapist, if necessary, to help deal with unresolved childhood pain. Mellody explains, “In my experience, most people who recover from toxic relationships as adults first need therapeutic help with their internal residue of unresolved and harmful feelings from childhood.”
- The fourth step is to work on the underlying co-dependent symptoms.
If a recovering love addict is not currently in a relationship, it is very important that they pay close attention to the type of partner they may be drawn to when entering a new relationship. Otherwise, they may repeat the same destructive relationship dynamics.
Pia Mellody offers some helpful journal exercises in her book Facing Love Addiction, which includes exercises on “Acknowledging Your Addiction,” “Facing Your Symptoms,” and “Recognizing Your Movement through the Emotional Cycle.”
The more that love addicts begin to recognize, articulate and understand their role in this addiction, the easier it is to break the cycle. By understanding their past and resolving traumas from childhood, they can develop more inner security. The eCourse Making Sense of Your Life can be a helpful tool in the process.