Much has been written about how addiction to drugs, alcohol or other substances tend to contribute to the problem of abuse in relationships. But what about addiction to people? Can you be addicted to someone or to a relationship? You can, and this is known as “addiction to love” – though relationships based on such an addiction are not really about love at all but rather an extreme emotional dependence, rooted in fear and resulting in very obsessive behavior.
“Love” can be an addiction – just like any other
“Love addiction” can cause a person to be prime target for abuse by causing them to pathologically seek out painful relationships with people who are in some way unavailable and can’t meet their needs. It can keep victims of abuse “stuck” in abusive relationships, and if a love addict does manage to extricate him/herself from the relationship or is left by their partner, (s)he will often have trouble “letting go” and/or will immediately seek out another relationship to replace the one recently lost.
Love addiction causes a person to continue “using” and “craving” even though the substance (person/relationship) to which they are addicted is unavailable, causes them pain or is abusive, the relationship is hurting others, and causing the “addict” to neglect his/her own health, family, and other parts of life.
Some characteristics of love addiction occur with all relationships. However, if the relationship begins to be destructive, with constant or cyclical verbal/emotional or physical abuse by one or both partners, and neither person can break it off, then it is addictive.
Long before authors such as Pia Mellody and Susan Peabody made the term “love addiction” popular, Stanton Peele, a well-known authority on addiction, was clued into the fact that “love” (which, as marketed by today’s culture, is really emotional enmeshment and emotional dependence) can be as addictive as alcohol or drugs. He wrote a book about this in the 1970s called “Love and Addiction“. The book is out of print now but you may be able to obtain a copy at AbeBooks or Powell’s.
According to Stanton Peele, an individual can become obsessed with another person to the point that other areas of his/her life are neglected. The person focuses all of his/her attention and energy on the “love object”.
Even when the person knows intellectually that the obsession is causing harm, even thinking about breaking up the relationship will bring on an anxiety attack. When the relationship is finally terminated by either party, withdrawal symptoms of sleep and eating disorders, shaking, confusion, weeping, and feelings of failure, depression, and hopelessness occur.
Here is more from Stanton Peele about love addiction:
People can become addicted to other people in the same way they become addicted to drugs. We are not using the term addiction in a metaphorical sense; we mean it literally.
Love Vs. Exploitation
We believe that our concept of addictive love sheds light on the nature of middle-class family life as well as on the nature of addiction. Juxtaposing “love” and “addiction” gives us another way of looking at the world. By generalizing the pattern of addiction we can see that heroin users, for instance, are not a race apart. Dependency on drugs is akin to middle-class dependency on spouses. It just so happens that society finds drug addiction unredeeming and so outlaws the syndrome.
The concept of addictive love can provide us with another means of self-examination. Like Erich Fromm in The Art of Loving, we believe that if persons are to work toward mutual understanding and actualized love, we must learn to distinguish between love and the destructive exploitation of self and others that takes the name of love.
And Michael J. Formica says:
At its core, addiction of any sort is about making some behavior – any behavior, … the centerpiece of one’s life, and doing that to the point where the choice interferes with what might be defined as typical social functioning.
Addictive behavior is a survival mechanism prompted by fear, shielding us from confronting our deeper demons by providing us with a superficial demon.
Partners of abusers experience denial of the abusiveness, both from their partners and internally. This denial is very much like the denial experienced by addicts, and just as life threatening. Denial and the loss of self esteem often cause the abused partner to remain extremely loyal to the abuser. (Until the denial about the abusiveness is broken through.)
This may explain why some victims of abuse will choose to stay even if there are no logistical reasons (financial, etc.) that (s)he cannot leave. Simply put, the victim stays because the victim is addicted to their partner and is not yet able to give up his/her “habit” because they are still in denial.
Helen E. Fisher, Ph.D., a professor of anthropology at Rutgers University and author of “Why We Love: The Nature and Chemistry of Romantic Love.” applied brain-imaging technology to a group of volunteers looking at photos of their romantic partners, she discovered that the areas of the brain that lit up were the same as those that corresponded to drug addiction.
Promoted by our society and culture
Our culture has traditionally glorified love addiction with the notion that we fall in love and live “happily ever after.” This ignores the groundwork that relationships require. Many love relationships depicted in the media are really love addicted relationships. (See Romeo and Juliet as an example – not a very happy ending, huh?)
Brenda Schaeffer, a Minneapolis, Minnesota-based psychologist, certified sexual addiction specialist and author of “Is It Love or Is It Addiction?” says:
Although love addiction is not classified in “Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders-IV,” the official handbook used by mental health professionals in the United States, we are culturally, socially and psychologically groomed to be addicted to love.
All addictions address three neuropathways needed for healthy living: arousal, fantasy and satiation. Food, alcohol, smoking and dependent love addiction are all satiation drugs.
Consider all the love songs, romance novels, and films that depict unrealistically romantic and emotionally enmeshed involvements. We are constantly saturated with the idea of obsession and codependent attachment to another person. “Love addiction” is a societally and culturally promoted addiction.
Part of the DoA (Dynamics of Abuse)
I believe that love addiction can be part of that system called DoA (Dynamics of Abuse), mentioned in previous entries. When love addicts and love avoidants (another type of love addict) pair up, we end up with that synergistic abusive relationship dynamic again, similar to the ones previously mentioned, but with different elements. Most abusive relationships have more than one element of these “DoA” functioning within them which drive them as abusive involvements.
As a simplified example of how this might play out with love addiction, consider the pairing of an * “obsessed love addict” and a “love avoidant/romance addict“.
Below are details of each type of person:
Obsessed Love Addicts cannot let go of someone they love even if their partner is:
- Unavailable emotionally or sexually
- Afraid to commit
- Unable to communicate
- Controlling and dictatorial
- Addicted to something outside the relationship (hobbies, drugs, alcohol, sex, someone else, gambling, shopping etc.)
The Love Avoidant Personality:
In the beginning of a relationship with a love avoidant, the partner is initially “swept off their feet” by the person. The partner may tend to be needy and the love avoidant’s attentiveness makes them feel safe and secure about themselves. Once the relationship is well established and the person begins to emotionally depend on the love avoidant, the love avoidant will back off emotionally and start sabotaging the relationship. The avoidant may take breaks from the relationship by working too much, sexually acting out, using substances or participating in other high-risk behavior or other relationships.
When in a relationship with a needy person the Love Avoidant is superior. He will assume a parental position, have all the power, and look down on his partner. This is a core self-issue of poor self-esteem and in a relationship it will cause him to be controlling and disdainful of the partner. The partner’s neediness pushes the avoidant away, cyclically.
According to Pia Mellody, people who are love avoidant usually experience the need to take care of a parent in childhood. This sense of duty creates a resentment, which results in walls that keep the love avoidant from ever truly experiencing love. Therefore, in adulthood despite the fact that the love avoidant usually hooks up with a dependent person, they will ultimately feel smothered, which is a cue to emotionally escape by acting out. The love avoidant usually does not come to therapy for these issues, but they may get help for an addiction or an at risk behavior.
Romance Addicts (a type of love avoidant):
Romance addicts are love avoidants who are addicted to multiple partners. Romance addicts bond with each of their partners—to one degree or another—even if the romantic liaisons are short-lived or happening simultaneously. By “romance” I mean sexual passion and pseudo-emotional intimacy. While romance addicts bond with each of their partners to a degree, their goal (besides getting high off of romance and drama) is to avoid commitment or bonding on a deeper level with one partner.
Now that we know the players in this scenario, we can see below how this dysfunctional partnership operates (taken from Pia Mellody’s book “Facing Love Addiction“):
So, in simple terms, this is how love addiction can be a factor in drawing a person into painful involvements and in causing them to remain involved, even when they are being hurt or abused by their partner.
What can you do if you’re a love addict or love avoidant?
First, learn all you can about it. According to Dr. Irene:
The reason most of this matters is when it comes to treatment. Codependent love addicts, for instance, need a boost in self-esteem and self-acceptance. They must learn to think better of themselves. Narcissistic love addicts, on the other hand, use grandiosity to bolster their low self-esteem and need to come down to earth. They need to learn some humility and how to become “unselfish.” Ambivalent Love Addicts need to find a healthy relationship and stay engaged in it even when their fear threatens to overwhelm them. Most of all, understanding as much as you can about love addiction will form the basis of your Fourth Step Inventory in a 12-Step Program or give you a head start if you opt for psychotherapy.
Then, seek help. There are organizations, websites, support groups and therapists who can help with addiction. For instance, LoveAddicts.org, Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous, Stanton Peele, Michael J. Formica, Dr. Irene, or other therapists.