Love addiction might sound like an alluring phenomenon, and definitely doesn’t immediately imply something concerning. However, while true love addiction is not readily talked about or as widely understood or discussed like other addictions, love addiction is a very real disorder that affects approximately 3% of US adults.
Love as an Addiction
Individuals who are addicted to love are both similar to and different from those who are addicted to a substance. Substance addiction involves ingesting a substance (such as drugs or alcohol); whereas, love addict’s “drug of choice” is not a substance, but rather a process involving love and/or a relationship to a person (also called a love object). Other process addictions include sex, internet, pornography, work, exercise, compulsive spending, and gambling (Griffiths, 2005).
Similar to those addicted to a substance, individuals addicted to love experience similar “mood-altering” effects when in the presence or absence of their “drug of choice” - love and relationships in the love addict’s case (Robinson & Berridge, 2000). For example, they may feel euphoric when in the presence of or receive attention from their object of desire and feel depleted, anxious, or sad when not in the presence of or connected to them. Love addicts are also preoccupied with gaining proximity to the love object and experience symptoms of tolerance (i.e., needing more intense or frequent of contact with the love object), and withdrawal when separated from or rejected by the love object (Young, 1999).
In a nutshell, a person who is addicted to relationships demonstrates a compulsive, chronic craving for romantic - as opposed to authentic - love, which is tied to a sense of self-worth and desire for validation. Love addicts significantly fear being alone or rejected, and this emotional desperation results in an obsession to find one’s soulmate, or someone to fill the void inside. Addicted to the rush of romance and new love, love addicts crave this elevated state and have a difficult time existing in long-term relationships that lack the initial endorphin rush of new love.
For this kind of addict, love is their drug of choice and the feeling of falling in love is the emotional high that keeps them looking for repeat experiences. Often, they move from relationship to relationship seeking the intoxicating feeling of “falling in love”. While something about love addiction might sound fairy-tale like, such patterning is emotionally destructive to the addict and their partner.
Understanding a Love Addict
The love-addicted are really not seeking what we view as “love” at all. Instead, they avoid intimacy and vulnerability and seek only the “high” of infatuation and the excitement of a new relationship.
Like other addictions, the process of developing an addiction to love or relationships is a complicated one. Love addiction most often stems from unmet needs during childhood, ranging from experiences of trauma, neglect, and/or abandonment to caregivers who were emotionally, physically, or psychologically absent or misattuned to their child’s needs. As a result, they grow up having low self-esteem, feel unworthy of protection or validation, and fear rejection, abandonment, and/or closeness. These experiences lead to avoidance of true intimacy as an adult and an unconscious desire to repeat similar relationship dynamics (e.g., through seeking unavailable partners).
In Pia Mellody’s ground-breaking book, Facing Love Addiction (2003), she describes how in order for a love addict to gain a sense of security, worthiness, and validation, needs which were unmet in childhood, they objectivify love. These resulting behaviors are due to their lacking an accurate, healthy understanding of what a loving relationship looks and feels like. Furthermore, the love-addicted experience a less-developed sense of self or a deep incompleteness, and do not know how to make themselves whole outside of a relationship. They obsessively look to “love” to cure their emotional void and make them feel whole and worthy, in a co-dependent way.
Love addicts spend a great deal of time fantasizing about love and their relationship with their love object. When in a relationship, a love addict becomes intolerably uncomfortable when their partner pulls away, and in some cases, this withdrawal can cause them to engage in unhealthy behaviors, including manipulation, abuse, substance use (a co-occurring problem for some love addicts), threats, and game-playing. These behaviors ultimately destroy the relationship and result in the very sense of rejection that they fear.
Women are more prone to love addiction than men, although both can experience the disorder.
If a love addict is in relationship, they typically:
- Confuse chemistry or intense sexual experiences for love
- Fall in love easily, quickly, and frequently
- Experience intense relationships that fizzle out quickly
- Desperately want to please their partner and go to all lengths to do so
- Feel bored and restless with a partner following the initial honeymoon phase
- Repeatedly end up with partners who are unable to commit, and believe they can change them
- Experience an inability to maintain a long-term intimate relationship
- Chose partners who need a tremendous amount of attention, yet do not reciprocate
- Use relationships to mask and avoid dealing with deep, emotional pain
- Trust partners who are not trustworthy out of desperation that the relationship work
- Give up activities they enjoy to spend more time with their partner
- Feel pressure to participate in activities they don’t enjoy or don’t value to keep a partner engaged
- Use sex and seduction to hook a partner
- Act controlling and overly-pleasing
- Distort the reality of the relationship to feed their ideal vision
- Feel terrified of being abandoned
- Feel powerless when in love, in a sort of trance
- Find themself in a break-up, make-up cycle with a romantic partner
- Feel empty or lost when their partner is away for a few days
If a love addict is single, they typically:
- Have a preoccupation with seeking, craving, and searching for a romantic partner
- Settle for less than they deserve out of feeling desperate
- Lack direction, purpose and a sense of personal identity
- Display a pattern of serial dating
- Compulsively use sex and fantasy to combat a sense of loneliness
- Seek partners who are unavailable and/or abusive and then find it impossible to leave those relationships
- Use sex or romantic intensity to tolerate difficult experiences or emotions
- Miss out on important life experiences to instead search for a romantic or sexual relationship
- Feel inadequate, worthless, and terrified to be alone
- Repeatedly return to an unhealthy relationship instead of being alone
- Experience periods of depression and deep reflection
- Lead a high-functioning life despite having deep underlying emotional problems
The Problem with Love Addiction
Love addiction, like all addictions, can cause problems with one’s social life, career, and can even lead to feelings of anxiety and depression. Addicts can sometimes develop other addictions to cope with their sense of emptiness and upset -- using alcohol, substances, food, and/or sex to mask their loneliness. For fewer, the separation from or rejection by a partner, can result in a love addict being at risk to hurt themselves or others.
Treatment for Love Addiction
If you are concerned that you might be suffering from love addiction, professional help and support is essential to overcoming symptoms and beginning the process of recovery. Oftentimes the biggest hurdles to recovery are admitting the problem, committing to change, and adapting the necessary treatment (e.g., individual and/or group psychotherapy).
Melody Beattie, author of CoDependent No More offers that “There are almost as many definitions of codependency as there are experiences that represent it” (p.31). Understanding the unique experience of a love addict can be a lifelong journey. Both Pia Mellody and Melody Beattie offer wisdom to help love addicts and codependents understand and overcome their tendencies.
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Beattie, M. (1992). Codependent No More: How to Stop Controlling Others and Start Caring for Yourself (2nd ed.). Hazeldon.
Griffiths MD. A “components” model of addiction within a biopsychosocial framework. Journal of Substance Use. 2005a;10:191–197.
Mellody, P., Miller, A. W., & Miller, K. (1992). Facing love addiction: Giving yourself the power to change the way you love: The love connection to codependence. New York, NY: Harper, San Francisco.
Robinson TE, Berridge KC. The psychology and neurobiology of addiction: An incentive-sensitization view. Addiction. 2000;95:91–117. [PubMed]
Young KS. The evaluation and treatment of Internet addiction. In: Vandecreek L, Jackson T, editors.Innovations in clinical practice: A source book. Sarasota, FL: Professional Resource Press; 1999. pp. 17–31.