We all want love…or so we say. But, our choices in life and in love are driven not only by our wants, but also by our fears. This chilling truth hints at the seemingly odd connection between the words love and addiction.
While many addictions are now publicly exposed for their destructive potential, love addiction is not. In this way it is much like workaholism. There is so much potential for excitement and fulfillment in the realms of love and work, and they can be so satisfying, that both remain largely unrecognized as potential pitfalls as well.
What is the difference between ‘normal’ romantic love, with all of its highs and lows, and the unhealthy extremes of love addiction? To begin with, all addictions include obsessive thinking, compulsive behavior, and are an ‘organizing principle’ of one’s life. The term organizing principle means that a person’s life revolves around the addiction — it is the primary focus above all other concerns. For the love addict, instead of the “fix” being a drug or alcohol, or food, the fix is another person. But — doesn’t this sound just like the definition of falling in love? Yes it does. But the infatuation of falling in love — when it’s healthy — is a brief period at the beginning of a relationship. From there the relationship slowly develops into mature love and commitment. Not so with love addiction.
So what is ‘love addiction’ and how would you know if you fit the description? Briefly, and not completely, you are probably a love addict if:
- You see a pattern of relationships with people who are emotionally unavailable or abusive in some way. Examples of unavailability include: lack of capacity to express emotions or feel compassion; active in any form of addiction; involved with (or married to) someone else; or simply unwilling to commit to you.
- You immediately bond with new lovers emotionally and sexually, without really knowing them.
- You experience intense pain and anxiety if your lover distances even a little bit. You can be devastated by a breakup of even a very short relationship.
- You pursue compulsively when your lover pulls away from you.
- You obsess about the confusing and painful situations caused by the relationship.
- You are unhappy but can’t let go.
- You have spent very little time in your life without a relationship.
If you have identified with these characteristics, your next question might be: “Why am I a love addict?”
Addictions are said to be attempts to feel good, and to avoid pain. But the phrase “feel good and avoid pain” does not fully convey the profound nature of an addict’s inner world. The pain within is very deep, and the drive to escape is very intense.
Most people who become addicts did not receive enough consistent love, understanding, and security as children. Many home conditions can create this kind of deficit: alcoholism, abuse, illness, death, divorce, poverty, just to name a few. But even in so-called ‘normal families’ in which none of those extremes exist, parents can unintentionally neglect their child’s emotional needs. The result of this neglect is that the child grows up to be an adult plagued by feelings of self-doubt, anxiety, and insecurity in life…they wonder “Am I really loveable?” “Can anyone be trusted?”
Love addicts pursue love just like drug addicts pursue drugs. Attaching to another person ‘fixes’ the addict, allowing him or her to find happiness and security…temporarily. But soon, problems arise. Because the addict depends so completely upon the lover, even the slightest pullback on the part of the lover can cause the addict to have an ‘abandonment’ reaction so intense that it feels like a threat to survival. Loss of connection to a love-addict is like a loss of oxygen, and it feels like an unbearable loneliness. In order to maintain the connection and avoid ‘withdrawal’ from the addiction, the addict pursues the lover, trying to adapt to any situation no matter how intolerable.
What makes the cycle even more deadly is that since love addicts are so desperate for connection, they choose partners too quickly and randomly, and are drawn to people who make matters worse by not providing the security of commitment or consistent love. The love addict only gets fleeting fragments of attention — far less than what consistent love can provide. Sadly, the addict ‘settles for crumbs,’ and pays a very high price for them. But, if the addict is not getting real love, what is the hook? The term love addiction might in fact be a bit of a misnomer. The addiction is more about a search for the ideal of love and the pursuit of security and self-esteem that the addict believes resides with attachment to someone.
So, if you are a love addict, what are you to do? Is there any help for this predicament? The answer is Yes. The road to recovery, as with all addictions, includes therapy, learning, and the support of self-help groups. Through education you can begin to deconstruct the foundation of addiction, a foundation which has denial and rationalization as cornerstones. By undermining addiction’s foundation you thwart its power. Support groups reinforce your new knowledge, and help change old patterns of behavior into new ones. Groups also provide a connection to other people who truly can relate to your problem, and are headed in the same direction. These friendships can be a great source of comfort, and a lessening of the shame that accompanies addiction.
In therapy, the deep pain and fear you have lived with all of your life can be understood by your therapist, and he or she can help you to bring that pain to the surface to express it. Your therapist will help you to see your past more clearly, accept how it has driven your addiction, and begin to separate the past from the present. You will grow in strength and self-love. You will develop the ability to be independent, and to handle emotional reactions even when they are intense. The need for the compulsivity of addiction will melt away. Your newfound strength and independence will give you confidence and stability, and from there you can make good choices based upon wisdom instead of impulse.
My book, Someone to Talk To: Understanding How Therapy Heals, includes a chapter on how therapy works to transform an addictive lifestyle into a healthy one. Read more about it at www.someonetotalktobook.com.
All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .on and was last reviewed or updated by