For many people, the word addiction might conjure images of drugs, gambling, or similar behaviors. Carrying a relatively negative connotation in our society, addiction is often associated with weakness and a lack of personal control. But the reality is that there are numerous ways in which an addiction manifests itself. Many individuals have addictive traits of which they may not even be aware.
Some research suggests that as many as 47% of people in the United States suffer from some type of addiction disorder.1 Although it is not often discussed, being addicted to love is a serious and prevalent addictive set of behaviors.
As a culture and a society, the United States is obsessed with love. As individuals, we have become inundated with both healthy and unhealthy messages about what love is and means. More than a biological imperative, love has become about social status, identity, and security on both conscious and subconscious levels.
Ideally, healthy love is one that connects two people in a way that supports each person, both physically and emotionally, while also promoting personal growth and self-betterment. This type of love is known as mature love and exists with equal parts needing, giving, romance, and companionship.2
Conversely, immature love—or the type of love most often associated with addictive behaviors—tends to be overwhelming and all-consuming, with episodes of irrational and intense behaviors that may result in repeated negative consequences.2
Addictive behavior to love results from immature love, and is the consequence of repeated behavioral patterns, such as obsessive thinking, which can often involve sensations of pleasure.2 The desire to repeatedly engage in or chase these pleasurable feelings is like any other craving and underpins the definition of addiction.2
Signs of Love Addiction
Though it is not technically listed as an addiction in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the American Psychiatric Association’s guide for all mental disorders, its common traits, behaviors, and cycles align with other recognized addictions. Among mental health professionals, love addiction is known as a process disorder, or a disorder characterized by a set of maladaptive behaviors.
Certain studies have estimated that love addiction affects between 5 and 10% of the population in the United States.2 Recent research into the scientific nature of love has shown that it, too, has a strong biochemical effect on the brain, making it highly addictive.3
Beyond the biological consequences of love, intense emotions further complicate the experience of addiction. Alternating cycles of extreme emotions, both positive and negative, are hallmark signs of love addiction.3 These emotional signs may include ecstasy, despair, longing, fulfillment, and loss, among other emotional opposites.3 The following are the most commonly observed signs and symptoms of love addiction:
- Mood swings and personality changes
- Obsessive behavior and thoughts
- Irrational behavior or emotion
- Loss of control
Love Addiction Treatment Options
With any addiction, the relationship becomes about stimulation and reward. Put simply, it feels good, and usually, people want more of what feels good. Addiction can trap people in a behavioral cycle where what drives the rewarding sensations of love shapes their behavior and personality. The key to treating these behavioral patterns is to first be able to identify them and then to learn and implement skills to change them.
The following offers a look at some of the treatment steps and options for love addiction:
- Determine the seriousness of addiction: A mental healthcare professional will administer an assessment to determine whether or not a situation meets the criteria for love addiction. Typically, assessments include questions aimed at gauging the severity of emotions and consequences.
- Choose a treatment option: The science of love addiction is fairly new and because of that, treatment options are similar to those used for other types of addiction, including choices ranging from self-help books to group therapy to individual counseling. When looking for treatment, it is most important to seek the help of a qualified professional.
- Engage in treatment: Among the most popular and effective treatment options is cognitive restructuring. There are a variety of modalities of this treatment, such as cognitive or dialectical behavioral therapies, which identify negative thoughts and beliefs and replace them with more positive beliefs, behaviors, and actions. Motivational interviewing, a technique that explores the discrepancy between goals and behavior, has also been shown to be effective in helping addicts identify maladaptive love patterns. A 12-step program, such as Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous, is another resource that is structured and substantiated in providing relief.2
- Pledge abstinence: Essential to the recovery process is a commitment to abstinence. Constructing a positive support network can help the addict stay away from situations and people that may be triggers for the addicted behavior.2
Maintaining Long-Term Abstinence
Addiction is complex, and love addiction appears doubly so. Although drug abuse sometimes stems from emotional deficits, love addiction almost always includes this component. Starting from early childhood, primary attachments to parents, as well as core beliefs about attachment and rejection, shape who we become as lovers and as people.3
Love addiction is the result of repeatedly engaging in relationships that reaffirm those primary, often negative, beliefs. Abstinence, although overwhelming to think about at first, is important because it allows an individual time and space to explore and understand his or her underlying belief system and the effects of those beliefs on his or her behavior.
Typically, addicts act in secret and alone, making decisions on impulse. Helpful to the long-term abstinence process is the ability to create a plan with others. A qualified health professional, such as a mental health counselor, can help define boundaries and provide accountability to sustain abstinence.
It is also important to understand that abstinence isn’t a death sentence. In the short-term, it means creating a safe place within yourself where you can explore belief systems without being triggered into old destructive patterns. Long-term abstinence does not mean that love is out of the question, either, but rather that it must meet specific, healthy criteria.4
- Sussman, S., Lisha, N. & Griffiths, M. (2012). Prevalence of the Addictions: A Problem of the Majority or the Minority? Evaluation and the Health Professions, 34(1), 3-56.
- Sussman, S. (2010). Love Addiction: Definition, Etiology, Treatment. Sexual Addiction & Compulsivity, 17(1), 31-45.
- Earp, B.D., Wudarczyk, O.A., Foddy, B. & Savulescu, J. (n.d.). Addicted to love: What is love addiction and when should it be treated?
- Carnes, P. (2014). Don’t Call it Love: Recovery from Sexual Addiction. New York: Bantam Books.