The way we now look at love addiction has changed. Two decades ago, our understanding of love addiction was evolving from what we knew about co-dependency. Back then the two were viewed synonymously. However we now understand that they are not one in the same. Let me further distinguish. “A co-dependent person is someone whose core identity is undeveloped or unknown, and who maintains a false identity built from dependent attachments to external sources, this could be a partner, spouse or child” (Kasl, 1989, p. 31). Addiction is toxic and runs deeper; it is a behavior that one feels unable to control and is used as a way to numb oneself and escape from the powerless feelings of codependency. A love addict has difficulty with symptoms of codependency, and then chooses addictive behaviors to compensate. Love addiction, similar to other addictions (i.e. alcohol, sex, gambling) involves a cycle of obsessive thoughts and compulsive actions used as a means to numb or medicate their present painful feelings and avoid their current reality. A love addict wants to fuse and cling on to the other person, often seeming desperate. The love addict has a fear of abandonment and a fear of healthy intimacy. When a codependent person changes their behavior and learns to individuate, they can manage their life. Yet with the love addict, the process is more arduous and comes with them experiencing severe withdrawal symptoms when not in a relationship.
Love addiction is when
someone has become addicted to the feeling of being in love in relationship to another. They idealize this other as having more value than themselves. Love addicts are more attracted to the intense experience of “falling in love” than they are to the peaceful intimacy of having healthy relationships. They engage in certain rituals (i.e. chasing, texting or calling excessively) from which they experience a “high”, spending much of their time hunting for “the perfect one”. When in these relationships, the love-addicted person is trying to satisfy their unmet emotional needs. The love addict becomes consumed with trying to make their lives about the other person and begins to neglect everything else such as time spent with friends or their work. In essence, their entire world revolves around this person. There is a strong sense of enmeshment towards that other person. Love addicts suffer from having very low self-esteem and can often feel empty at their core. The dependency to that other person allows the love addict to no longer feel empty but rather alive and worthy. The drawback is that the stronger the dependency, the more difficult it is for the love addict to let go of this relationship and individuate.
Love addicts have a central fantasy that this other person will complete them and make them whole. They are yearning for love and connection but at the same time they are fearful of intimacy. Their approach to the relationship works against them obtaining true intimacy because their obsessive behavior and poor boundaries pushes others away. Such poor boundaries can involve not respecting themselves and permitting inappropriate behavior from others, being overly clingy, demanding attention and reassurance at all times. Given that abandonment is their biggest fear, they will try to do anything to please their partners. Although I am providing examples for love addiction as it pertains to a romantic relationship, take note that love addiction does not only apply to romantic or sexual relationships. Someone can develop a love addiction towards their friends, children, mentor, a religious figure or any other external object (person).
A love addict expects that someone else can solve their problems, and provide validation and unconditional regard at all times. These fantasies and false expectations feed the addiction, leaving the person in a constant chase for that wish fulfillment. Unfortunately, the love addict unconsciously chooses an avoidant person (a person who is emotionally cut-off) and they are left feeling dissatisfied from these unfulfilling relationships. However painful and dissatisfying the relationship is, they refuse to let go. Their belief that they do not deserve better keeps them from growing as individuals. This belief is often learned in childhood and may come from the lack of praise and validation from caregivers. When not in a relationship their feelings of depression and worthlessness intensify and the love addict suffers from a decreased capacity to cope and function. Love addiction is an overall insidious experience. The lack of bonding or other attachment disruptions that the afflicted person possibly experienced with their primary caregivers may have affected them on many levels including their ability to connect, be intimate with another, give and receive affection; leaving them with difficulty regulating their emotions, problems exerting boundaries, and problems with control.
Who do love addicts form relationships with?
As mentioned earlier, love addicts choose avoidant and emotionally unavailable partners who’s biggest fear is feeling engulfed by their partner so they put up walls to emotionally distance themselves. Ironically, the more the avoidant distances, the more the love addict chases them, and because the love addicted person forms relationship with emotionally closed off people, forming healthy, intimate relationships within these dynamics is impossible. Why does the love-addicted person choose an avoidant partner who cannot fulfill their needs? Familiarity drives the love addicted person together with the avoidant person. They both are counter-dependent on each other, sharing similar traits that likely stem from childhood experiences of relating with their primary caregivers who were the models for what love and connection looks like. Regardless of how painful and unhealthy the relationship is, the love addicted person struggles to end it and detach because this is what they know, this is what feels comfortable to them in an unhealthy way. Having possibly experienced unhealthy bonding as children, this then distorts their beliefs of what a solid love relationship is, of what true intimacy and connection looks like. Sadly, their reality is damaged.
What causes love addiction?
In case you are wondering how one develops a love addiction, there can be multiple causes at play such as biological and environmental components. Love addicts may have likely experienced a history of neglect, abandonment, and invalidation from their primary caregivers. As children their basic needs to be seen, loved, and recognized as meaningful individuals most likely were not met leaving them to feel unlovable, unworthy, lonely, and disconnected. Because healthy bonding with primary caregivers may have been lacking, the consequent experience can be a sense of abandonment and internalized messages such as: “You are worthless and unlovable and I will not take care of you or protect you.” Neglect in early childhood affects their self-esteem as adults. It also results in an underlying subconscious fear of intimacy and not knowing how to connect. As children they developed fantasies in order to feel safe and alive. A common fantasy is that someone will come and rescue them, protect them, and make them complete. Another fantasy is that this person will fall in love with them and offer them reassurance, validation and praise always. To a love addict, intensity (or the “high”) such as chaos, abuse or drama in a relationship is often mistaken for intimacy.
Like with any other addiction, recovery from love addiction is a long process of connecting with the self and discovering who one truly is. This process can take many years. It requires breaking down the walls of denial and recognizing that you have an addiction; acknowledging the harmful consequences of the addiction; and intervening with help to stop the addictive cycle from occurring. For this to happen, the love addicted person must want to change. This takes a lot of courage as it can mean having to end the unhealthy relationship followed by a very painful withdrawal process.
According to Schaeffer, a certified sexual addiction specialist and author of “Is It Love or Is It Addiction?”, when a relationship ends, not only do you have to struggle with the person’s absence from your life, there is a concomitant chemical withdrawal”. She explains that there is a physiological mechanism that gets triggered in the brain that is responsible for the euphoric feelings of arousal when we fall in love making it increasingly difficult for addicts to break the addiction because they have become dependent upon this physical and psychological arousal.
A crucial piece in treatment involves working with the client to discover and address the underlying causes and psychological beliefs that support their compulsive and obsessive behavior. The person must grieve past childhood wounds and address the underlying emotional pain that is at the core of the addiction. This process is rather difficult and painful but not impossible. When treating a person suffering from love addiction, I tend to use an integrative, tailored approach. Usually, this can be accomplished by working psychodynamically and incorporating cognitive behavioral therapy techniques.
Psychodynamically, one would explore the client’s past history in order to look for themes, traumatic events, attachment disruptions present in childhood that are consistent with their distorted core-beliefs and shame-based identifications. For instance, if the love addict’s core-belief is at they are unlovable, they may develop feelings of shame and rejection in order to protect and block the pain, they may then act in ways that will provide illusionary escapes from the dreaded feelings associated with core beliefs. This is done by adding a conditional clause that provides a course of action. For example, they may say to themselves, “I am lovable but only when someone flirts with me, buys me a gift, or has sex with me.” Using CBT techniques, the work would involve helping clients identify their distorted beliefs and acknowledge the negative impact these beliefs have had in their life, disproving these false beliefs, and teaching them to form healthier beliefs.
In working with love addicts, it is important to help them change their unrealistic expectations about their beliefs on love and about themselves. Changing the false or distorted beliefs that they have internalized since childhood and used as defenses to protect themselves from feeling painful feelings is important because these beliefs no longer serve them as adults and are resulting in harmful often self-destructive consequences. The new belief can be recognizing that they are worth more and deserve better than being stuck in the present situation. If the person can commit to doing the work and finally get to a place where they believe at their core that they are valuable beings then they can begin to take actions to back up that belief. Believing that they deserve better does not mean they will be free from pain; we are all humans and not immune from feeling painful emotions. Nonetheless, eliciting this belief in themselves, their self-worth, and self-validation is a huge determining factor that places them on a different path than someone who lacks self-validation and does not believe in their own worth and abilities.
Direct behavioral interventions are necessary in helping the client break old patterns such as getting involved in relationships too quickly before assessing their needs and setting boundaries, falling in love immediately, ignoring certain red flags such as your partner’s abusive behavior, or putting their needs last. Through this process, there will be an emphasis on differentiation work with the client, meaning having the client work on maintaining their sense of self and autonomy while in relationship and connection with others. The work will also involve the client focusing on their needs instead of those of others, and breaking co-dependency patterns so they can learn to be interdependent individuals when in relationships. In addition, other areas of treatment often include teaching the client how to self-regulate utilizing mindfulness and DBT techniques and addressing and building core aspects of their self-esteem. Lastly, it may be recommended that love addicts attend 12 step meetings such as Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous (SLAA). Attendance to these meetings can allow for the recovery process to deepen, and love addicts can have the opportunity to share their story and relate to others dealing with the same addiction under safe parameters.
I am passionate about empowering those dealing with this toxic addiction. I want to help them create a new identity, a new story for their lives, one where they begin to truly live, feel, and love themselves for their authentic selves. Through this work they can discover their resiliency and capacity for change. Learning to think differently and changing old belief systems and defenses that no longer work as adults is priceless. We all deserve to love and value ourselves and the best part is that we can create that value from within. In closing, stay aware that healthy love exists. Learn how to recognize it and allow for the painful yet empowering process of letting go of a relationship that is unhealthy.
Kasl, C.D. (1989). A Search for Love and Power: Women, Sex, and Addiction. New York, NY : Harper & Row Publishers.
Schaeffer, B. (1990). Is it Love or Is It Addiction. Center City, MN: Hazelden Information & Educational Services.