Today’s episode is going to be one that will be a complete light-bulb moment for some of our listeners… or else more of a fascinating-and-helpful but not especially relevant episode for many others. Love addiction is a real issue in some marriages, often with devastating consequences. What makes it particularly tricky to understand is that it’s like normal love between couples, but stuck in that early infatuation stage.
I don’t know if you’re like me but I like being in love. A lot. With Verlynda. And you hear the term “love addiction” and it’s easy to think — whoa? I might have that!
But love addiction isn’t the strong, committed, healthy and life-giving love that married couples pursue. It’s really about being addicted to or obsessing over falling in love and the “rush” of new relationships.
People with love addiction constantly chase the excitement, romance and passion of the first stages of a romantic relationship. And then when this initial intense pleasure wears off, they become less interested in maintaining the relationship and often leave in hopes of recapturing that intense passion with someone else.
The brain has to make sense of this, of course. So love addicts will often believe that what they are searching for is true love, and so they hope to find a spouse with whom they can maintain these intense feelings of romantic love forever. However, since the brain is not wired for this, this is an unachievable outcome. Consequently, if they choose to stay in a relationship, love addicts will become dissatisfied and may possibly go to extreme lengths to try and recapture the “magic” of the early relationship stages.
Research estimates that between 5 and 10% of the adult population suffer from love addiction to some degree[i].
The High of Love
Feelings of romantic love in the first stages of a relationship release chemical such as dopamine and adrenaline in the brain. This creates feelings of intense pleasure and energy as well as sexual arousal. These are the same chemicals released during sex and when abusing drugs such as cocaine and heroin[ii].
Romantic love activates the unconscious reward system in the brain. This motivates a person to want to keep experiencing more. It also causes people to intensely focus their attention on the source of the pleasure (in this case the romantic partner). It also creates feelings of obsession and a desire to pursue the partner[iii].
Please understand: this is part of normal, healthy love in the development of a new relationship. Being totally infatuated with your partner and desiring to spend time with them is a good thing, right? It is not a problem in itself. It only becomes a problem when a person chases these feelings and views them as more important than the relationship itself.
If you end up exclusively pursuing the intense feelings of passion, arousal and excitement that come at the start of a relationship, then the chemical processes of love can create behavior cycles very similar to other forms of addiction where the addict gets hooked on the rush of feel-good chemicals. They come to see romance and love as the only ways they can experience this feeling. Of course, this could be a subconscious realization.
Typically the intense stage of romantic love only lasts up to 18 months before being replaced with the less intense “companionate love”. So continually chasing this feeling and being dependant on it leads to very unhealthy, immature relationships, or to the person repeatedly breaking off their relationships in search of new ones.
When Love Addiction is Harmful
Some researchers argue that even normal, healthy love has a lot of similarities to addiction[iv]. Love produces feelings of intense pleasure, motivates a person to keep seeking contact with the source of this pleasure (the other person), can create feelings of obsession and can cause feelings of sadness when the object of your desire is not available. This probably sounds familiar to a lot of people. And all of this is very similar to patterns found in addiction.
Now: there’s no need to freak out here. This only becomes harmful when it interferes with the person or their partner’s well-being or safety. Some signs that love has become a harmful addiction include:
- Desire for love interfering with your ability to function in everyday life
- Desire for love interferes with your ability to form healthy relationships
- Desire for love causes you to ignore other basic health and wellbeing needs
- If you feel a great deal of anxiety or distress when you are not with your spouse
- You find yourself creating possessive or abusive behaviors
- You begin to see negative consequences such as poor mental health, breakdown of relationships with friends/family, loss of interest in anything else or relationship instability for either the addict or their partner
Don’t take those signs out of context or alone — be thoughtful in your application of this. The last point there as an example could apply to all sorts of different potential root issues.
So to clarify further, let’s look at some of the common characteristics of a love addict’s relationships.
Characteristics of a Love Addict’s Relationships
Relationships where one (or both) partners are love addicts are likely to be[v]:
- Lacking in intimacy and trust due to being solely focused on romance and not on companionate love
- Clingy, suspicious and jealous
- Using sex as a substitute for love – desiring or initiating sex with the hope of receiving love
- Likely to resort to extreme lengths to get the fix of chemicals caused by love: addict will often view this as trying to “fix” the relationship
- Highly unstable – the addict partner may simply leave when the passionate love fades
- High likelihood of affairs- to meet the need for excitement and romance which it’s not possible to sustain in a long-term marriage
Defining Your Therapeutic Separation
Once again we’ve created some extra help for our much appreciated supporters. This week we drill down to help you answer the question, “Am I a love addict?” If you’ve been hearing what we have said so far and are really beginning to wonder, this guide will take you through the addiction criteria for this issue, help you begin to identify where it might have come from and then really help you to see what you might be missing and can look forward to as you pursue healing from love addiction. You can get this by becoming a patron of The Marriage Podcast for Smart People.
Attachment, Rejection and Trauma
Let’s talk about possible causes of love addiction. Maybe you are wondering, why am I doing this? Or you have a spouse who appears to be a love addict and you are looking for some way to make sense of how they found themselves in this place.
Love addiction is sometimes linked to insecure attachment and attachment disorder. We’ve talked about attachment in the past — attachment is the science of love. Insecure attachment is one type of attachment that is born from how our own parents or primary caregivers showed love to us as babies and toddlers. Growing up with insecure attachment can lead to the obsessive feelings, dependency and intense need for love and acceptance that can cause someone to become addicted to feelings of love.
Love addiction can lead to very unhealthy relationships based solely on trying to maintain feelings of passion at the expense of trust and intimacy. Research suggests that some people who develop love addiction do so as a way of coping with past trauma (such as a previous abusive relationship, or experiencing abuse from parents as a child). The love addict uses their relationship as a way to “reenact” and relive the trauma they experienced in an attempt to heal unresolved wounds. As such they may continually seek out emotionally unavailable or even abusive partners to try and meet their need for love and approval.
Research shows that being rejected in love still creates feelings of addiction in the same way that mutual requited love does. Being rejected or thinking about a former partner you still love activates the same reward and obsession areas in the brain, while triggering both happy and sad memories and creating feelings of intense longing[vi]. For a love addict, being rejected or breaking up with partners continues to feed the cycle of addiction, even as it creates intense distress and unhappiness. This is worth noting too since the breakup can be part of the addiction (instead of just focusing on the pursuit of love).
Treatment for Love Addicts
This isn’t something that’s going to just go away. Love addiction should be treated by a Certified Sex Addiction Therapist. This is a specialization for those of us working in the field of sex addiction.
First the addict needs to admit that they have this issue and commit to getting help. Treatment involves breaking the habits and cycles of addiction, and then “picking up the pieces” of the relationship and the addict’s life[vii]. There are various treatment methods and approaches, some of which are similar to treatment for other addictions, such as the twelve step model.
As part of getting help, addicts may also need to treat the underlying issues such as attachment disorder, past trauma, negative self-worth and beliefs, or any other painful issues which the person is using love addiction to avoid facing. Really diving into these issues and pursuing deeper healing helps to break the back of this addiction and free you up to enjoy healthy love.
One specific issue of treating love addiction is that the addict may fear that once treated, they will be unable to experience the thrills and excitement of love anymore. The addict’s spouse can help with this by showing them that healthy, long-term love is always better than the unrealistic fantasy of love addiction. Really if you’re focusing solely on the superficial rush of chemicals then you’re missing out on a lot of what proper love has to offer.
Couples can then move from an “immature” love based solely on the chemicals in the brain, to a “mature” love based on trust, commitment and intimacy[viii]. We talk quite a bit more about the difference of these two things in the bonus guide that we have made available to our patron’s for this week’s episode. Definitely check that out if you want to learn more, or if you’d like to talk to us about how love addiction might be impacting your marriage feel free to reach out to us.
[i] Earp et al., “Addicted to Love.”
[ii] Earp et al., “Addicted to Love.”
[iii] Aron, “Reward, Motivation, and Emotion Systems Associated With Early-Stage Intense Romantic Love.”
[iv] Earp et al., “Addicted to Love.”
[v] Katehakis, “Love Addiction.”
[vi] Fisher et al., “Reward, Addiction, and Emotion Regulation Systems Associated With Rejection in Love.”
[vii] Griffin-Shelley, Sex and Love.
[viii] Earp et al., “Addicted to Love.”