This post was updated on Oct 30, 2023
Why am I like this?
At a pivotal moment in my life, I received the diagnosis that I was a “love addict.” The weight of that term impacted me deeply. What did it mean? How abnormal IS love addiction? Would I be like this forever? I focused my early behavioral and mental health career on the meaning and treatment of love addiction… I worked hard to deeply understand it.
However, after extensive research on the topic, taking a deeper look at the effects of unhealthy attachment, and working alongside my gifted staff of therapists and healers at PIVOT, I came to understand an important reality. Love itself is not addictive. This truth changed everything.
Love itself is flowing, trusting, nurturing, and, most of all, safe. Love is an energy I associate with health, goodness and connection. Where love exists, the human spirit thrives. Love is not the problem. It was the messages I had associated with love (or the lack of it), the insatiable hunger I felt for what I thought was love, and the pain I felt when I thought someone could remove love from me that was the problem.
In fact, naming a condition “love addiction” is counterintuitive and shameful. Instead, at The Glass House, we use the term attachment dysregulation to refer to love addiction. Attachment dysregulation results from an attachment laced with abandonment and neglect, driving individuals to attach in unhealthy ways. As a result of this trauma, we onboard coping mechanisms that we call survival patterns to help individuals manage and tolerate hurtful feelings. These survival patterns can include things like a sense of emotional dependency, obsessions over a romantic partner, substance abuse or other behavioral addictions used to cope. Everybody has their own unique survival patterns, but many people have linked obsessive romance and substance abuse. If this is your story, rest assured, it is not uncommon.
When we know that we’re operating from attachment dysregulation, and living in survival patterns, we see the term differently. The cycles we go through are responses to old wounds. These patterns wreak havoc with our self esteem and perpetuate a cycle of negative outcomes. It feels like we’re addicted to love, but what we’re really experiencing is an intense longing to heal the attachment wounds we carry with us.
If you’re told that you have love addiction and you’ve experienced abandonment wounds from your childhood, then you most likely are craving affection. Maybe you had childhood trauma, or maybe you had other life challenges that changed the way you experience attachment. Now, the absence of affection leaves you in withdrawal like symptoms and you feel like you cannot be okay unless the pleasure that you experience from intense romantic love returns. But it’s never enough, and the perpetually unmet longing feels impossible to fulfill. This deep wound will drive almost every single relational decision.
The “love addict” label itself leaves most people in a puddle of shame. All we wanted was the connection and love that we hungered for. After going from being neglected, disregarded, or abandoned as a child, and feeling like you’ve never HAD love, to being told that you’re addicted to love, many of us feel very confused. Imagine a starving man on a desert island being rescued and given access to a fully stocked kitchen, then to be told that he’s addicted to food. He’s not addicted to food – he’s trying to heal from starvation. That’s truly how life-and-death it feels to us when we who are labeled as love addicts try (however dysfunctionally) to repair our attachment wounds. Many with this label feel like healthier relationships, self-love, and self-control are a far-away dream.
I have to accept that I’m a “Love Addict?!”
I remember when I was thirty-seven, I was in a therapist’s office, brokenhearted over another romantic relationship that had fallen apart.
I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t eat. I couldn’t sleep. I didn’t want to go on.
I was labeled as a love addict and was told that I was someone not capable of giving or receiving love. My behavior towards love interests was controlling, and my expectations were unrealistic. I had to accept that love addiction was the thing that had derailed me.
However, that definition didn’t make sense to me. My relationships didn’t feel loving; what I felt was a constant and intense longing to be loved. How could I be addicted to something I was so unfamiliar with?
In fact, I was starving for romantic love… hoping it would finally give me that sense of self-worth and belonging that my heart was hurting for. It had been a longing for…. as long as I could remember. As an adult, I thought that a romantic partner or a love interest might heal the breach in my low self esteem, although it never worked. But I kept trying.. and trying… and trying. This translated to me being a “stage five cling-on.” I couldn’t be alone and always had to be in a relationship.
So, when I was told I had love addiction, it confused me because the “cure” I was given was to not draw attention to myself, stay out of relationships for one year, and attend a “love addicts” group to listen to others share their stories of relationship addiction.
The prescription seemed totally counterintuitive and left me feeling even more abandoned and alone. What I always wanted was to love and to be loved, and now I couldn’t ever have that… because I was addicted to love. Would I have to stay away from love like any other addict would from any other addictive substances? The idea of addiction to love made me feel like I didn’t deserve to be loved. I couldn’t be trusted with love. Love wasn’t safe for me.
It made no sense.
How could I be addicted to something that I had never experienced? This “Love Addiction” term on-boarded so much shame and anxiety.
Read on for more information about what love addiction means, its causes, cycles, the signs of love addiction, the symptoms, and, importantly, how to get help.
What Is Love Addiction Really?
Love Addiction, also referred to as pathological love, is a behavioral pattern that is characterized by an overwhelming and unhealthy preoccupation with one or more romantic partners. This excessive interest often leads to a lack of control, obsessive thoughts and behaviors, and a driving need to have attention, validation and reassurance from another person. This usually causes adverse consequences on various aspects of one’s life.
Love addiction is similar to other addictions in the sense that it involves obsession, cravings and withdrawal. Also, like drug addiction, people often find that they struggle to achieve satisfaction. There is never enough. And, as in drug addiction, many people who are told they have a love addiction KNOW that they want things to be different but feel unable to stop the cycles they find themselves in. Maybe the next one will be different… better… satisfying… Maybe it will finally make me feel loved.
People who experience this behavior are in an ongoing search to soothe underlying emotional pain. This underlying pain is specifically relational. It’s borne from relationship damage caused by early unmet needs.
The following are some of the many ways that the problematic feelings and problematic behaviors of love addiction may originate:
- Lack of nurturing and attention at a young age
- Lack of emotional safety in childhood
- Childhood abuse (of any kind), or a childhood exposure to abuse (of any kind)
- Unmet physical, psychological, or emotional needs in early development
- Chaotic/unsafe relationships modeled in childhood
- Parent(s) or primary caregiver(s) had substance use disorders
- Parent(s) or primary caregivers(s) were unable to create security do to mental illness or other forms of instability
- Relational trauma at any point in life, including betrayal trauma
- A traumatic loss at any point in life
The following are examples of how this longing can manifest:
- Unhealthy attachment to people
- Romance or sex to heal past adult, adolescent, or childhood trauma
- Repeated attempts to get unmet needs fulfilled by others
- Intense avoidance of fear or emotional pain
- Intolerance for loneliness
- Lack of balance in life – relationships and relationship seeking dominate
- Continual reward seeking behavior – looking for the “rush” of intensity
We’ll get to some specific symptoms and characteristics of love addicts in just a little bit.
Love addiction can be a way of coping with emotional distress, pain, or fear, and can provide a temporary sense of fulfillment or pleasure. The relief experienced feels often like well being, but it usually doesn’t last. Our dysfunctional attempts to heal our inner pain from an outside source often keep us in cycles of pathological love.
The demands, expectations and emotional requirements we have on others are hard for anyone to live up to. The intensity of our needs often pushes people away, or when they do stay, we find that they simply are not capable of healing the deep, historical pain we feel. We are habitually disappointed again and again. The cyclical craving, obsession, and disappointment is a defining characteristic of love addiction.
This kind of dysfunctional attachment is frequently unhealthy and can lead to negative consequences, such as codependency, obsessive behavior, and difficulty forming and maintaining a healthy relationship. Our mental health can suffer, and the quality of all relationships in our life can diminish.
In addition to the negative consequences mentioned, love addiction can also lead to individuals who may become so focused on their romantic relationships that they neglect other areas of their life, such as work, friendships, spirituality, and personal goals. The fixation on the relationship dominates their world.
It can also cause individuals to stay in toxic or abusive relationships, as they feel unable to break away from their partner for fear of being alone.
Furthermore, these unhealthy behaviors can also lead to financial problems, as individuals may prioritize their romantic relationships over their financial responsibilities. They may spend excessive amounts of money on gifts, dates, trips, or other gestures to maintain the relationship. It’s not uncommon for someone who is labeled with love addiction to try to prove their worth to a partner financially, since they often believe that their authentic self is inadequate or unworthy of receiving love.
What Causes Love Addiction?
So, how does love addiction start? Early childhood relationship experiences are the first place to look to understand these unhealthy behaviors.
In my work with clients, I see that issues in adult relationships often relate back to their childhood experiences. You’re drawn to what’s familiar, regardless of merit. It is what you know. For example, this means that you can be drawn to people who cause you pain repeatedly. Even when people deeply want to have different realities than those relationships that were modeled for them in childhood, often they find themselves inexplicably recreating the painful experiences they endured when they were young. Think of it like building a house – the decor might be different from what you grew up with, but you’re likely creating architecture from the same blueprint that your own family used. This normally happens unconsciously and we see unhealthy patterns being passed down limb after limb of the family tree. It takes careful, intentional work to change these patterns.
An Insecure Attachment
Love addiction and attachment disorders can develop when individuals try to fill the void left by a significant emotional or psychological childhood wound. When children do not receive the emotional nurturing and healthy attachment they need from caregivers during their formative years, they may develop an insecure attachment style that makes them more prone to the problematic feelings and problematic behaviors of love addiction. This frequently looks like anxious attachment in adulthood.
The origin of your anxious attachment could have been from a parent who was frequently gone, who couldn’t stay connected with you, or who had their own wound and couldn’t nurture you. Perhaps you lost them at a young age, or for whatever reason, your parent wasn’t able to be a stable presence for you. Maybe you had two parents with a toxic dynamic between them and, because of their own dysfunction, they weren’t able to meet your needs. Maybe your security was interrupted by a shift in caregiving that felt unsafe or confusing, such as foster care or changing homes among relatives.
Circumstances like these, and others, can lead to an adult life spent craving attention and reassurance. There is a longing for connection and security, but when it happens, it’s coated in fear and worry – what if it goes away? What if I’m not enough? What if I do something wrong? How can I be sure they won’t leave? We are trying to be relational without fundamentally understanding how to get our needs met in a safe, trustworthy way.
People with love addiction tend to resonate with the term “attachment disorder” upon looking at the emotional challenges of neglect and abandonment they experienced in their childhood. Because their deep unmet longing is hard to tolerate, the individual is often left feeling lifeless and empty. They spend years, sometimes a lifetime, trying to repair that childhood longing through their partners. Attempt after attempt leaves the sufferer baffled, as romantic partners and romantic love fail to quench their cravings and meet their expectations.
People who consider themselves to be healing from a childhood attachment disorder are often able to make better sense of the mood swings, brain processes, unhealthy behaviors, and the overall lack of relational well being that they’ve experienced.
Sometimes other diagnoses may have been given by a licensed therapist or other mental health professional. For example, substance addictions (or another behavioral addiction in the diagnostic and statistical manual), depression, anxiety, personality disorders, or trauma diagnoses can be co-occurring. These additional diagnoses can be underlying, or can be the unintended result of, the dysfunctional attempts to soothe the pain of living with the original emotional wound – the attachment injury.
If you believe that your well being is at risk because of mental health issues that you can not safely manage, you should speak to a licensed therapist.
We always want every person interested in Pivot to care for any mental health issues, and if you’re reading this, it’s very possible that what you’re looking for is love addiction treatment. Read on to see if some of the withdrawal symptoms, core wounds, and characteristics of addictive love fit for you.
Most love addicts who are unable to end relationships will try to “fix” it and prove to themselves that they are “winning.” For them, “winning” often means that their romantic partner stays with them, and that the intimate relationship continues, regardless of the quality. They do not have a solid sense of self-worth outside of a relationship, so they may protect it to the point of their own self-detriment.
They are found in a highly destabilizing position when abandoned, often being unable to function at work or in social circumstances because of a withdrawal from love. The pain of real or perceived rejection and abandonment feels intolerable. And once the addictive rush of the honeymoon phase is over, perceived rejection or abandonment are visible everywhere. It’s very hard in attachment withdrawal to see that there are healthier ways to engage in relationships. At this point, a person may likely feel desperate and unworthy. Their self esteem is plunging, and often, the belief is that only the attention of a romantic partner can help. This is true withdrawal.
Love Addict Core Wounds
If you’ve experienced any of the following and have not taken the time to heal your wounds, then you are likely to be susceptible to what some call “love addiction”:
- Your parents got divorced
- One or both of your parents had untreated mental illness
- You were adopted
- You lost a sibling or parent at a young age
- You were abused
- Your parents were emotionally unavailable
- You were neglected
- You were abandoned
- You didn’t get validation from your parents
This drives us to either want overly dramatic and intense emotions in relationships, or at times, detach completely for fear of neglect and abandonment. These are both ways that our ability to have healthy, secure attachment gets compromised.
In either case, the result is a disconnected and unhealthy relationship.
It’s important to note that love addiction can have multiple causes, and each person’s experience is unique. Understanding the underlying causes of love addiction is an important step toward recovery and developing healthy coping mechanisms.
The Love Addiction Cycle
Unfortunately, “love addicts” usually pick a love-avoidant person to partner with, which triggers an unhealthy cycle, because the love-avoidant is terrified to have anyone get too close, so they push you away. People with love addictions are not satisfied by love-avoidant types, but they are normally drawn to them because the dynamic is familiar. You may recognize this pattern if you often realize that you’ve chosen someone who is “emotionally unavailable.” This causes the love addiction to spike into acute symptoms because their self worth is connected to the attention and validation given by a partner.
Love addicts live in a chaotic world. They are fearful of being alone or rejected, so they endlessly search for that special someone to make them feel whole.
They become attracted to the intense experience of “falling in love” instead of wanting the peace of healthy relationships. Once a relationship has grown comfortable, they can mistake stability for boredom – OR they can become terrified that their partner has become bored or disinterested. Once the intensity of falling in love has simmered down, worry often follows because relational normalcy feels unfamiliar. They have a very hard time learning to experience feelings like contentment and relational safety.
Their life choices become focused on the search for this perfect relationship – from wardrobe choices to hours at the gym to doing hobbies that may not interest them. This search for immature love leaves a person in constant consideration of what “they” would want.
They live in the hope of finding the one person who will fill their inner void, and their expectations in relationships are often unrealistic.
Furthermore, people with love addiction struggle with setting boundaries and communicating their needs in a relationship. They may prioritize their partner’s needs and wants over their own, which can lead to feelings of resentment in the relationship.
Common Signs and Symptoms Of Love Addiction
Love addiction is a condition characterized by an unhealthy and compulsive attachment to people, romance, or sex. Most love addicts will experience some or all of the following symptoms and characteristics:
- Longing for the attention and nurturing that was lacking in childhood
- Feelings of isolation and detachment from family
- Prone to avoid abandonment and rejection at any cost
- Can be controlling and manipulative
- Unrealistic expectations of their relationships
- A tendency to mistake intensity for intimacy
- A tendency to mistake chaos for excitement
- Trust issues – difficulty trusting and/or difficulty being trustworthy
- Hidden pain and denial
- Ongoing perceptions of abandonment or rejection
- Inner rage caused by early abandonment and lack of nurturing
- Craving for positive regard
- A tendency to tolerate high-risk behaviors
- Using relationships and sex to improve mood and relieve pain
- Experiencing other compulsions and addictive behaviors to cope with their feelings
- Confusing love and sexual attraction
- Fantasizes about a romantic relationship when given attention
- Inability to leave unhealthy long term relationship for fear of being alone
- Continual need for reassurance and validation in a relationship
- Abandonment of other interests during a romantic relationship
- Hunger for the experience of falling in love, but lack of success in maintaining healthy relationships
- Experiencing other compulsions and addictive behaviors to cope with their feelings
- Maintaining a secret “double life”
- Intense sense of rejection when others set boundaries
- Investigative behaviors in a relationship
- Can’t see the role they play in their own pain
- Romanticizes the notion of addictive love
- Has had loved ones point out their patterns to them
- Feels lost without a love object to pour their attention into
- Diagnosing or labeling romantic partners when their needs aren’t met
- Inability to be single, leaving one partner for another
- Drawn to emotionally unavailable people
- Obsessive thoughts and/or daydreaming about their partner
- Having feelings of shame and guilt
- Attempting to numb out loneliness or rejection with other behavioral addictions
- Financial problems
- Difficulty maintaining friendships
- Need regular confirmation of commitment and loyalty
- An anxious reluctance to express their own wants and needs
- An inability to identify their own wants and needs
It’s important to note that each person’s experience with love addiction may be different, and not all individuals will exhibit all of these signs and symptoms.
Facing Love Addiction
If you have attachment wounds or you are a “love addict,” it doesn’t mean you are stuck with this forever. I learned that “love addiction” is not a fixed way of being. It’s the result of heart pain and brain processes that can be healed with loving care and skilled attention.
When I was told I had a love addiction, I dug deeper. I wanted to find out where the pain was coming from. What I discovered was that I felt abandoned, and I didn’t know how to be alone. Because of my wounds and my attachment injury, I had been plagued with a hunger for romantic love. For me, love addiction belongs in the list of symptoms that this core wound had caused.
I realized that my love addiction was based on getting validation that I’m lovable and a worthy human. In my childhood, those are core values that were denied to me after my father’s untimely death and my mother’s tragic suicide. Unfortunately, for some, the pattern is to choose the same kind of person as the parent who was unable to give genuine love, caring and emotional support to you. We try this as a do-over. For many people, it’s a do-over-and-over-and-over because the reward system of the romantic relationships we create is never able to provide the deep healing we need for those early wounds and painful messages. We think they can fix us but they can’t.
This leads to a cycle, a relational pattern, that some call an addiction to love.
However, just because you come from a dysfunctional family doesn’t mean you can’t create secure attachments and have healthy relationships. Even if you’ve had a traumatic childhood, or if you’ve experienced a devastating or unhealthy relationship, you can still heal. Believe it or not, everybody is capable of that… and, importantly, everybody is worthy of that. Even you. Especially you.
Intensive Workshop: Break The Pattern Of Love Addiction
If you are committed to change, then you’re not stuck with this forever. If you’re ready to really make some dynamic shifts in your life, then there is hope. It isn’t easy to face our pain and take an honest look at ourselves, but we don’t have to do it alone.
Remember, you are capable of happiness and love, and a healthy relationship. You can have relational freedom.
If you are looking for more mental health resources, to create meaningful connections, and to overcome challenging and toxic relationships, then contact PIVOT. Our team provides evidence-based methods to support your journey toward healing and better self-care. You’ll walk away with a better understanding of yourself, and, importantly, an actual toolbox of skills to help you do things differently. Our team is specially trained to do exactly this work.
At PIVOT, this is our speciality. We are committed to the sincere belief that ANYBODY can experience the relational satisfaction, inner peace, and profound freedom that comes with healing those early attachment injuries and disconnecting from the survival patterns of love addiction. We’ve seen success again and again.
Apart from individual and personalized coaching, we also provide 5-day relationship workshops at our love addiction retreat. This is an opportunity to take a deep dive into who you are, why you do the things you do, and learning about the actual action steps to change. The first relationship is the one with yourself. The Glass House. We can help you get on the right track toward a healthy relationship. Our love addiction intensive will make a huge shift in your life. You are worthy of relational health!