When hearing the word “addiction,” most of us tend to think of alcoholism and substance abuse, as opposed to addictive behaviors like eating, spending, gambling, video gaming, sex and love. Nevertheless, people can and do become addicted to highly pleasurable, self-soothing behaviors just as they can become addicted to pleasurable, self-soothing substances – both have the same problematic results.
Individuals may turn to alcohol, prescription medications or illegal substances as a way to self-medicate or to numb out in order to avoid stress and/or emotional discomfort. These same individuals may also turn to an intensely pleasurable pattern of behavior as readily as turning to a substance. Let’s say it is like selecting to watch a X rated movie instead of drinking a glass of vodka.
Love addiction is a human behavior that is indeed a highly pleasurable, self-soothing behavior, a behavior through which some people have become addicted to the feeling of being in love. Love addicts can take on many different behaviors. Love addicts will spend much time and effort on a person to whom they are addicted. Love addicts value this person above themselves, and their focus on the beloved person can be described as obsessive.
This behavior results in love addicts neglecting to care for themselves. They instead, say, attend rock concerts of a beloved musician who does not know the love addict even exists, recreating an image of not who that loved person is, but perhaps a re-creation of a parent figure. Love addicts will select to stop seeing their friends in exchange for staying with the beloved person, only. Love addicts may lose weight, change their hair color or purchase a new wardrobe to suit the beloved. In essence, abandoning important aspects of their lives and well-being in order to stay connected to the object of their affection. Some love addicts find that when not involved in a love-addicted relationship they are able to care for themselves quite adequately, visit with friends and enjoy independence. However, when they become involved, the love addict quickly finds that their self-care capacity steadily declines. Love addiction is common, for men as well as women, however, most love addicts do not realize they are addicted to love.
The simple truth is that addictive behaviors trigger the same basic neurochemical response as drugs. Behavioral addictions create mood-related neurochemicals like dopamine, serotonin, and oxytocin, resulting in feelings of pleasure, anticipation and distraction. This intense neurochemical response to addictive behaviors provides temporary escape and relief. Over time, some individuals learn that the easiest way to avoid feelings of stress and emotional discomfort is to engage in a highly pleasurable and potentially addictive behavior. Eventually they start to use those behaviors not to feel better, but to feel less or to numb out. This is a sure sign of addiction. So the only significant difference between substance and behavioral addictions is that substance addicts ingest alcohol or drugs to create a neurochemical reaction, while behavioral addicts create their own dopamine, serotonin, oxytocin, and other mood-related neurochemicals to enjoy their own intensely pleasurable fantasy or activity – no substance necessary. Love addicts are addicted to dopamine, serotonin, and oxytocin and can create these chemicals naturally in their body – with no need to leave home!
Could I be a love addict?
Adult love addicts usually recognize that when they were children, their most precious needs for validation, love and connection were not met by one or both of their parents. People can become love addicts due to a past history of abandonment from their primary caregivers or people close to them. To further confuse matters, a love addict may display love-addictive behavior toward a parent, their children, siblings, or friends, commonly referred to as enmeshment, which is not always related to romantic love or sexual interactions.
These addictive experiences result in low self-esteem, a conscious fear of abandonment and a subconscious fear of intimacy. To a love addict, intensity in a relationship is often mistaken for intimacy and love. Some symptoms of love addiction include love at first sight, excessive fantasizing about a romantic partner, and abnormal jealousy. Love addicts may find themselves living with a partner who is emotionally unavailable, abusive or dishonest. Many times a love addict will engage in sex with a potential partner, hoping that individual will love them.
Many sex addicts cannot see the role love addiction plays in their compulsive behavior. The fusion of sex addiction and love addiction is separated after years of therapeutic treatment for sex addiction, and the addict has begun to resolve the reasons for his or her compulsive sexual behaviors. This does not happen immediately, as it may take five to ten years to enter the maintenance stage of recovery from sex addiction. Many people give up on such a long duration of clinical support, and thus love and relationship addiction remains a hidden epidemic.
Dr. Susan Campbell, author of nine books on relationships and conflict resolution has written the Love Addiction Quiz. If you answer “yes” to more than two of these questions, you should take a serious look at learning more about love addiction and its treatment.
- Are you in a break up and then make up cycle with a romantic partner?
- Do you often think to yourself that this person is not good for you?
- Do any of your close friends tell you that this person is not good for you?
- After you two have been apart for a few days, do you get to a point where you feel empty or lost without this person?
- During the days immediately following a breakup with this person, do you experience difficulty sleeping, eating, or carrying out other self-care activities?
- Do you need emotional intensity in order to feel alive?
- Do you feel “high” when the two of you re-connect after a fight or a falling out?
As with any addiction, recovery from love addiction is a process of self-discovery. It requires taking specific steps: breaking through denial and acknowledging the addiction; owning the harmful consequences of the addiction; and intervening to stop the addictive cycle from occurring. The first step should be learning more about love addiction. Here are some excellent books on the topic:
- In Pia Mellody’s book, Facing Love Addiction, the author addresses each aspect of the recovery process, and exploring the childhood experiences that may result in love addiction.
- Brenda Shaffer, a licensed psychologist and a certified addiction specialist, has written Is It Love or Is It Addiction?
- Melody Beattie covers love addiction in her book The New Codependency.
- Howard Halpern wrote his classic text How to Break Your Addiction to a Person in 1982.
- Robin Norwood wrote her classic book entitled Women Who Love Too Much in 1985.
The next step is to find a 12-step support group in your area. Susan Peabody, therapist, and author of Addiction to Love, started the 12-step program Love Addicts Anonymous. Additionally, another 12-step meeting for love addiction is Sex & Love Addicts Anonymous (SLAA).
Like drug addicts, love addicts experience withdrawal symptoms. Sadness, depression, excessive sleepiness, or suicidal thoughts are part of this withdrawal process. Working with a therapist can be the most important step to help guide the love addict through the process of recovery. Guiding a person through childhood experiences of abandonment, navigating through the feelings of pain, fear, anger and emptiness requires a skilled therapist trained in love and sex addiction.
Next week, our blog post is about pornography addiction.
Resources used in this blog:
Robert Weiss LCSW, CSAT-S (12.2.14) Understanding Process (Behavioral) Addictions, Counselor Magazine for Addiction Professionalshttp://blog.counselormagazine.com/2014/12/understanding-process-behavioral-addictions/