For healthy people seeking a long-term intimate partnership, the neurochemical rush that happens when meeting someone new who just might be “the one” is nature’s catalyst. Think of it as the short-term glue that keeps people together long enough for a deeper connection to be made. Almost everyone can identify with this early stage in a relationship, when you may be thoroughly fixated on the other person and his/her daily activities – even his/her very existence – might become an obsessive source of emotional excitement and distraction. Most people, though, understand that healthy romantic relationships evolve over time into somewhat less exciting but ultimately more meaningful intimacy. In short, the initial rush of romance is just a temporary stage. Love addicts, however, seek to perpetually extend this surge of brain chemicals, using it to get high in the same way and for the same reasons, that alcoholics and drug addicts abuse their substance of choice.
Love addiction is diagnosed by a love/sex addiction specialist or health care professional in the same basic ways as other addictions. The three primary issues are:
- An ongoing (six months or more) preoccupation to the point of obsession with romantic fantasies and new relationships
- An inability to exercise control over romantic fantasies and new relationships
- Negative consequences directly and/or indirectly related to out-of-control romantic fantasies and serial relationships
The American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) lists 11 criteria for addiction to a substance (love addiction is what’s called a behavioral or process addiction), but only two criteria must be present for a diagnosis. The three-part diagnosis suggested above is an abbreviated version of the DSM-5’s approach; love addiction is not officially listed as a disorder in the DSM-5.
Like any other kind of addict, love addicts, are largely in denial about what they do and the problems their behavior is causing – emotional isolation, trouble at work or in school, financial woes, declining physical and/or emotional health, loss of interest in previously enjoyable activities (like socializing with friends, hobbies, exercise) Rather than recognizing that they are the common denominator in their endless failed relationships, love addicts will place the blame on their dates, lovers, partners, spouses and anyone else with whom they become entangled. In this way, they’re able to avoid looking at and addressing their desperate, problematic behavior.
Love addicts often look and act quite a bit like sexual addicts — especially if they use sex as a way to hold on to or manipulate a partner. And indeed there’s often a lot of overlap between the two disorders. The main difference between love addiction and sex addiction is that love addicts tend to focus their obsession on one specific person, while sex addicts will usually pursue any sexual opportunity they can find.
Most addicts — no matter what kind — have experienced some form of trauma when they were young, be it neglect, abuse (emotional, physical, sexual), abandonment, inconsistent parenting, smothering parenting or some other type of trauma. Childhood sexual abuse is particularly common for female love addicts. No matter what form this early-life trauma takes, the result is typically a fear of and/or an inability to become vulnerable and to bond in healthy ways with other people. If this lack of healthy attachment begins in childhood, it’s very likely to be carried into adult life, possibly resulting in love addiction. Unresolved childhood or adolescent trauma may also underlie co-occurring psychological issues like depression, anxiety and low self-esteem, and these, too, may contribute to love addiction.
Usually love addicts learn relatively early in life that an effective way to “numb out” and to not feel difficult emotions like shame, fear, depression and anxiety is to escape into the intense and distracting neurochemical rush of romantic fantasy. In short, if a love addict is focused on how hot a new person is and how wonderful their life will be when they’re together, the addict is able to avoid focusing on his or her problems, whatever they may be. (Other addicts pursue the same goal, but they do so through the use of addictive drugs, gambling, video gaming, spending, sex and/or other addictive substances and behaviors.) Over time, this self-induced neurochemical distraction becomes the love addict’s go-to coping mechanism for all of life’s difficulties. As such, love addiction is less about the search for love and more about finding a way to control tough emotions.
Symptoms of Love Addiction
There is a perception that there are more female love addicts than men who struggle with love/relationship addiction; this may or may not true. What is clear is that men are perfectly capable of becoming love addicted, just as women can become addicted to sex. Here are some common signs of obsessive and/or compulsive behavior where love, relationships and romance are concerned:
- Mistaking sexual and/or romantic intensity for love and genuine, lasting intimacy
- Feeling desperate and alone when not in a relationship
- Missing out on important commitments (with family, work or elsewhere) to search for a new relationship
- Seeking a new relationship while still in a relationship
- Constantly struggling to maintain the sexual/romantic intensity of an existing relationship
- Feigning interest in activities that aren’t enjoyable as a way to keep a partner or meet someone new
- Relying on romantic intensity as a way to escape from stress and other types of emotional discomfort
One primary difference between male and female love addicts is the way in which they view and talk about their issue. Women are more likely to identify what they are doing as related to a relationship, whereas men will often classify their behavior as sexual, even when their activities are as focused on making a connection as those of their female counterparts.
Regardless of gender, love addicts spend much of their time either searching for the perfect love interest or getting out of their current relationship so they can focus on a new one. They constantly check their profiles on dating sites like Match.com, eHarmony, Ashley Madison (even when they’re not married) and JDate (even when they’re not Jewish). Almost every decision — what to wear, where to eat, where to socialize, where to exercise, what job to have — is colored by their desire to meet a “perfect” partner, the one person who can make them feel complete and whole and perpetually excited about their relationship.
Since there’s comparatively little research about the causes of love addiction, most health care professionals who treat love addicts rely on research about other types of addiction. Studies of other addictions, coupled with anecdotal evidence from love addiction treatment specialists and love addicts themselves, point to these risk factors:
- A personal or family history of addiction (any type)
- A personal or family history of a psychological disorder, such as depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder or another mental illness
- A history of unresolved trauma, such as neglect, abuse, abandonment, inconsistent parenting or domestic violence
- A history of childhood sexual abuse, either overt (physical abuse) or covert (an inappropriate emotional partnership with a parent)
- A history of inappropriate childhood exposure to pornography, sexual situations or other types of adult sexuality
For most love addicts, there’s not one single factor that leads to addiction. Rather, it’s a combination of both genetic and environmental influences that come together in ways that lead to extreme emotional discomfort and a desire to escape or numb oneself from these very difficult feelings.