—Addicted To Love song lyrics by Robert Allan Palmer, © Warner/Chappell Music, Inc.
The “Rush” of Romance
For people seeking a healthy long-term relationship, the intensely pleasurable emotions evoked by meeting a potentially special someone are nature’s catalyst—provided to help sustain relationship interest and desire until a deeper connection sets in. In the therapy biz we have a word for this early bloom of romantic enthusiasm: limerence. Limerence is where the other person’s daily activities and very existence become an obsessive source of emotional excitement and distraction. This “rush” of romance is something nearly all of us can relate to, starting with our first schoolyard crush. It is that exhilarating time when how the other person looks, talks, walks, eats, thinks, sleeps, and breathes is the subject of endless fantasy—not to mention late-night texts and phone calls. Of course, most people innately understand that healthy, well-boundaried relationships eventually round the romance bend, heading toward longer-term, more meaningful connection. In other words, most people understand that this wonderful period of limerence is actually a temporary state—a stage—rather than the final product of an intimate relationship.
Some people, however, prefer to continually reenact limerence, getting high from it just as they would from a steady dopamine drip. These individuals would rather live in the rush than move forward into genuine intimacy. Over time, their limerence-seeking behavior patterns can develop into love addiction. Essentially, love addicts (also known as relationship addicts) use fantasy and the intense neurochemical rush caused by being “deeply in love” to achieve the same type of escapist emotional self-stabilization as sex addicts, and they are usually just as detached from the reality of their situation. The main difference between sex addicts and love addicts is sex addicts tend to direct their attention toward whomever or whatever is in the vicinity, often chasing multiple “fixes” (anonymous sex, casual sex, affairs, porn, etc.) over a relatively short period, while love addicts tend to focus obsessively on one person or relationship at a time. Typically, this one person becomes the sole object of the love addict’s life. Recreation, friends, work, and other interests fall by the wayside. In short, love addicts endlessly seek the “high” of intensity-based relationships, sacrificing time, health, money, self-esteem, self-care, and even their jobs so they can devote more time and energy to this heavily fantasized/idealized partnership.
Signs and Symptoms
Love addicts spend much of their lives searching for the perfect romantic partner (or trying to get out of the relationship they’re already in so they can start a new one). They are constantly checking eHarmony, Match.com, and similar websites and apps, and they always have a strategy to ensnare and hold on to their perfect new partner—at least until the initial rush of early romance wears off. Love addicts base nearly all of their life choices on their endless search for the perfect relationship—everything from wardrobe choices to endless hours at the gym to engaging in hobbies or activities that don’t even interest them. A few of the more common signs and symptoms of love addiction include:
- Using sex or romantic intensity to tolerate difficult experiences or emotions
- Mistaking sexual and/or romantic intensity for genuine intimacy and love
- When in a relationship, being desperate to please and fearful of the other’s unhappiness or abandonment
- When not in a relationship, feeling desperate and alone
- Struggling to maintain the intensity of a new romantic relationship
- Choosing partners who are emotionally unavailable, addicted, verbally abusive, and/or physically abusive
- Choosing partners who demand a great deal of attention and caretaking but who do not meet (or even try to meet) your emotional or physical needs
- Participating in activities that don’t interest you or that go against your personal values in order to meet, keep, or please a romantic partner
- Giving up important personal interests, beliefs, or friendships to maximize time in the relationship or to please a romantic partner
- Using sex, seduction, and manipulation to hook or hold on to a partner
- Missing out on important family, career, or social experiences to search for a new relationship
- After a failed relationship, using anonymous sex, porn, or compulsive masturbation to avoid “needing” someone
- Promising over and over again to “give up on relationships and focus on me,” only to swiftly be back out there looking for companionship
- Finding it difficult or impossible to leave unhealthy or abusive relationships despite repeated promises to yourself or others to do so
- Repeatedly returning to previously unmanageable or painful relationships despite promises to yourself or others to not do so
Of course, nearly all romantic relationships exhibit some of the above signs at least occasionally. With love addiction, however, there is a consistent pattern of one or more (usually more) of the signs, and that pattern results in ongoing and eventually escalating negative life consequences.
Looking Beneath This Desperate Search for Love
From a mental health perspective, love addiction can best be understood as a form of attachment injury. Essentially, love addicts are repeating early learned attachment experiences. Usually the person was profoundly and/or repeatedly neglected or abandoned (physically or emotionally) by one or both parents, learning in response a maladaptive form of attachment that carries forth into adulthood. Thus, as adults, these individuals consistently seek out unavailable partners, often trying to seduce, manipulate, or care-take those people into loving them and never leaving them. This, of course, sounds much more like the behavior of a dependent child than an adult. And it is. After all, healthy adults in the early stages of a relationship don’t typically expect unconditional, undying love the way that children do.
Because of their early life attachment trauma, love addicts tend to be hyper-vigilant to rejection and/or abandonment. Oftentimes they experience severe anxiety when they spend long periods alone. Sadly, when they do find a healthy, loving partner, the experience can overwhelm them, causing them to flee the relationship in favor of what they’re used to. Knowing this, we might attach the more clinical label of “Maladaptive Adult Attachment Disorder” to love addiction, recognizing it as a misguided attempt to meet healthy dependency needs via learned dysfunctional behavioral patterns and/or by picking people who evoke feelings that mirror past traumatic attachments.
The Spin Cycle of Relationships
Like other addicts, love addicts live in denial. They place responsibility and blame for their pattern of troubled relationships on their dates, lovers, partners, spouses, and anyone else that’s had the misfortune to become entangled with them. This keeps them from looking at their own underlying desperation and shame-driven needs. When their relationships inevitably fail to meet their emotional/psychological expectations, they can become intensely demanding and controlling, trying to get their partner to love them the way they want to be loved, regardless of whether the other person is actually capable of doing that (and almost nobody ever is). Eventually, when their current partner fails them, they act out romantically once again, beginning anew their obsessive search for “the one.” Conversely, they may temporarily avoid relationships altogether, hoping that will fix the problem. Either way, their willful blindness to personal experience traps them in a downwardly spiraling cycle of behaviors that both cause and increase unhappiness.
The good news is that there is a solution. The first step is recognizing that love addicts, like all other addicts, are searching for escape and dissociation from life stressors, uncomfortable emotions, and the pain of underlying psychological conditions such as depression, anxiety, low self-esteem, attachment deficits, unresolved childhood or severe adult trauma, and the like. In other words, love addicts use their highly stimulating romantic encounters to temporarily escape from life and emotional instability. These are the exact same reasons that alcoholics drink, drug addicts get high, sex addicts engage in compulsive sex, etc. As such, it is probably not surprising that love addicts find help in the same basic venues as other addicts.
Typically, therapists and treatment centers specializing in sex and love addiction (and sometimes other intimacy disorders and/or addictions) provide a combination of cognitive behavioral therapy, group therapy, social learning, and alternative treatment modalities (depending on the values, beliefs, and background of the particular client), all of which are designed to replace the escapist “need for love” with healthier coping mechanisms. Twelve-step support groups, most notably Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous (SLAA), are also very helpful, as love addicts can meet and interact with other love addicts, working together to build better lives.
One Final Note
I suggest STRONG CAUTION be exercised before labeling people with behavioral manifestations such as those outlined above as borderline, narcissist, or even codependent. Instead, I encourage you to view them as people who have learned, early in life, a profoundly maladaptive form of attachment that helped them to emotionally survive and to fulfill their otherwise unmet needs. This behavior, learned in childhood, becomes, in adulthood, their way of seeking—and their concept of—meaningful connection. As such, therapy requires not potentially judgmental labels but investigation, intervention, empathy, confrontation, education, and accountability. Only through these measures can love addicts learn healthier and more genuine methods of relational coping.
Robert Weiss LCSW, CSAT-S is Senior Vice President of Clinical Development with Elements Behavioral Health. A licensed UCLA MSW graduate and personal trainee of Dr. Patrick Carnes, he founded The Sexual Recovery Institute in Los Angeles in 1995. He is author of Cruise Control: Understanding Sex Addiction in Gay Men and Sex Addiction 101: A Basic Guide to Healing from Sex, Porn, and Love Addiction, and co-author with Dr. Jennifer Schneider of both Untangling the Web: Sex, Porn, and Fantasy Obsession in the Internet Age and Closer Together, Further Apart: The Effect of Technology and the Internet on Parenting, Work, and Relationships.