Healthy, intimate, romantic love is a beautiful thing. Unfortunately, love addiction – the endless, obsessive, dysfunctional search for romantic fulfillment – is not. When individuals are preoccupied to the point of obsession with falling and/or being in love, as love addicts are, they tend to behave in highly regrettable ways, just like alcoholics, drugs addicts, compulsive gamblers, compulsive spenders, sex addicts, etc. And love addicts inevitably experience the same basic consequences as all other addicts: depression, anxiety, lowered self-esteem, ruined relationships, trouble at work or in school, declining physical and/or emotional health, financial woes, loss of interest in family, friends, hobbies and other previously enjoyable activities, etc.
Love addiction is typically diagnosed based on the following criteria
- An ongoing preoccupation to the point of obsession with intense romantic fantasies and new relationships.
- An inability to exercise control over romantic fantasies and new relationships.
- Negative consequences directly and/or indirectly related to out-of-control romantic fantasies and serial relationships.
Love, Lust, or Something Else
Interestingly, love addicts are not actually seeking love. What they’re really chasing, over and over and over, is the emotional escape provided by a rush of first romance, sometimes referred to as limerence. Limerence is the psychological term for the initial stage of a romantic relationship when intensity and infatuation rule the day. Limerence is when the heart races because you’re together and aches because you’re separated. It’s that brief period when literally everything about the other person seems fascinating and exciting – even the stuff that will eventually become annoying (humming while eating, spontaneously rearranging your knickknacks, feeding your well-trained dog table scraps when you’re not looking, etc.) During the limerence stage of a romantic relationship, potential problems are easily overridden by the excitement and the intensity of meeting someone new and attractive and funny and interesting who just might be “the one.”
Almost everyone can identify with this early, thoroughly fixated relationship stage in which the other person’s daily activities and very existence become an obsessive source of emotional excitement and distraction. That said, most people are not love addicted, and, as such, they innately understand that healthy romantic relationships evolve over time into somewhat less exciting but ultimately more meaningful long-term intimacy.
Love addicts, however, choose to live in limerence, relying on this neurochemical rush as their primary way to avoid feeling stress and other forms of emotional discomfort. They use the naturally occurring high of limerence for escape and dissociation, just as alcoholics, drug addicts, sex addicts, compulsive gamblers, and other addicts use the neurochemical high of an addictive substance or behavior to numb out and not experience the ups and downs of life.
In general, there are more self-identified female love addicts than male love addicts. Nevertheless, males are perfectly capable of becoming love addicted, just as females are perfectly capable of becoming sex addicted. One primary difference between male and female love addicts is the way in which they tend to view and talk about their issue. Women are more likely than men to identify what they are doing as relationship related, whereas men typically classify their behavior as sexual, even when their activities are as connection-driven as those of their female counterparts.
Behavior patterns commonly exhibited by love addicts of both genders include the following:
- Relying on romantic intensity to escape from stress and other types of emotional discomfort.
- Mistaking sexual and/or romantic intensity for love and genuine, lasting intimacy.
- Constantly struggling to maintain the sexual/romantic intensity of an existing relationship.
- Feeling desperate and alone when not in a relationship.
- Using sex, seduction, and manipulation to hook or hold on to a partner.
- After a failed relationship, using anonymous sex, porn, and/or compulsive masturbation to avoid “needing” someone.
- Promising over and over to give up on relationships and focus self-care, only to swiftly be back out there looking for companionship.
- Giving up important personal interests, beliefs, and/or friendships to maximize time in a romantic relationship or to please a romantic partner.
- Missing out on important commitments (with family, work, or elsewhere) to search for a new relationship or to fix an existing relationship.
- Seeking a new relationship while still in a relationship.
- Feigning interest in activities you don’t enjoy as a way of meeting someone new or to keep an existing partner.
- Consistently choosing partners who are emotionally unavailable, addicted, verbally abusive, and/or physically abusive.
Looking for Love in All the Wrong Places
Regardless of gender, love addicts spend the bulk of their time either searching for the perfect love interest or wriggling out of their current relationship so they can focus on a new one. They constantly check their profiles on Match.com, eHarmony, Ashley Madison (even though they’re not married), JDate (even though they’re not Jewish), etc. Almost every decision they make – what to wear, where to eat, where to socialize, where to exercise, what job to have – is colored by their desire to meet and hook their perfect partner, the one person who can make them feel complete and whole and perpetually excited about their relationship.
The Source of Love Addiction
People generally become love addicts due to a past history of abandonment from their primary caregivers. Adult love addicts usually recognized as children that their most precious needs for validation, love and connection with one or both parents were not met. This affects their self-esteem dramatically in adult life. It results in a conscious fear of abandonment and an underlying subconscious fear of intimacy. To a love addict, intensity in a relationship is often mistaken for intimacy.
As with any addiction, recovery from love addiction is a process of self-discovery. It requires taking specific steps: breaking through denial and acknowledging the addiction; owning the harmful consequences of the addiction; and intervening to stop the addictive cycle from occurring.
Ultimately, love addicts must enter a grieving process to address the underlying emotional pain that is at the core of the addiction. In Pia Mellody’s book, Facing Love Addiction, the author gives journaling assignments that address each aspect of the recovery process, exploring the childhood experiences that may result in love addiction.
Additionally, the support of 12-step meetings such as S.L.A.A. (Sex & Love Addicts Anonymous) provide both a framework and community support for the addict to engage in the healing work of recovery.
Love addicts experience withdrawal symptoms. Working with a therapist can help guide the love addict through the process of talking about childhood experiences of abandonment, navigating through the feelings of pain, fear, anger and emptiness that may surface, and releasing old emotions that contribute to negative acting-out behaviors.
A solid relationship with a skilled therapist trained in love and sex addiction can help guide the love addict through this process.