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Unpacking the Notion of Love Addiction

Curated by Claudia Shannon / Research Scientist / ishonest

Being in love can bring on a rollercoaster of powerful, sometimes even overwhelming, emotions. The rush of excitement, joy, and other positive feelings love can spark may, for some people, kindle the desire to chase after that experience again and again.

Sometimes, this is referred to as a love addiction.

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No.231 - Pigmentation & Blemishes

But this so-called addiction to love merely refers to a set of behaviors, according to licensed clinical psychologist and psychologist Anthony DeMaria, PhD.

Theres no clinical diagnosis of love addiction, DeMaria goes on to explain. This term usually refers to a preoccupation with the feeling of being in love, which might lead someone to seek out love in a way that causes unwanted consequences.

Whats wrong with calling this an addiction? Using addiction to describe this pattern is problematic for several reasons, explains Emily Simonian, a licensed marriage and family therapist with Thriveworks.

For one, addiction remains stigmatized in society as a whole. Not only that, but substance use disorders can be serious even life-threatening. Overusing or inappropriately using the word addiction can erode the weight and meaning of a true addiction.

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As such, Simonian suggests emotional reliance as a less problematic and more accurate way of describing it.

With all that in mind, read on to learn what exactly a reliance or fixation on love might entail, and what steps experts recommend for overcoming it.

What are the signs?

Experts do recognize that certain patterns of behavior can become problematic, even addictive. To date, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th edition (DSM-5) recognizes gambling disorder and internet gaming disorder as behavioral addictions.

Yet since love addiction isnt an official diagnosis, you wont find it in the DSM-5. Experts also havent established any official criteria or symptoms that characterize this behavior pattern.

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That said, a few key patterns in your relationship behavior might invite some deeper exploration. If youve noticed any of the signs below, it may be worth connecting with a mental health professional for support.

Intrusive thoughts

Its typical to find your mind preoccupied with a love interest during the honeymoon phase, when youre first falling for someone, explains Omar Ruiz, licensed therapist and founder of TalkThinkThrive.

But if pervasive thoughts about a particular person, or the idea of love in general, start to negatively affect your job, schoolwork, sleep, or any other areas of your life, that may pose some cause for concern.

Separation anxiety

Missing a partner is very common. But if you feel unbearable distress when theyre not around, Ruiz says that may signal what some call love addiction an unhealthy fixation, in other words.

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You may even find yourself avoiding circumstances that would separate you from your love interest, says Gail Saltz, MD, a psychiatrist and clinical associate professor of psychiatry at The NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital.

For example, you might:

  • skip work
  • ditch school
  • cancel plans with friends
  • avoid following through on family commitments
Serial monogamy

Do you move from relationship to relationship, not out of fear of being alone, but from an overwhelming or insatiable desire to feel loved? DeMaria says that may point to an unhealthy preoccupation.

Using love as a tool for avoidance

Maybe you find yourself spending a lot of time with the person you love, and you focus on thoughts of them when you cant be together to avoid painful or unwanted thoughts and feelings.

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No.201 - Prevent Elasticity Damage

Thinking about a love object as a way of avoiding negative emotions can be a red flag, Ruiz says.

Staying with someone, even when its unhealthy

Even when a relationship becomes potentially toxic or beyond repair, you may make frantic efforts to maintain it, DeMaria says. But these attempts to keep the relationship alive may prove self-defeating.

Not every relationship will work out, of course, and sometimes moving on is the best option for you and your continued well-being.

Only getting enjoyment out of love or a relationship

Do you mostly only feel positive emotions when in love or with a significant other? That could suggest an unhealthy behavior pattern, Simonian says.

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Maybe you find yourself:

  • no longer enjoying hobbies or activities that used to excite you
  • centering on your partner or relationship as a reason to live
  • grappling with feelings of hopelessness when you arent with your partner

What drives this behavior pattern?

Although experts agree across the board that you cant actually become addicted to relationships, or love in general, many relationship and post-breakup patterns can certainly resemble addiction.

This has a lot to do with your brain chemistry.

For instance, Saltz says you may become determined to get back together with an ex to re-experience those pleasurable feelings associated with love. This shares some similarities with the cravings experienced by people living with substance use disorders.

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No.202 - Prevent Elasticity Damage

Research from 2016 suggested feelings of intense romantic love activate regions of the brains reward system the same regions engaged with substance use disorders. Since romantic love activates this system, people in love may experience many of the same behaviors associated with substance use disorders, including cravings and withdrawal.But its essential to keep one important distinction in mind: A 2017 study suggested this effect on the brain lasts much longer in response to substance use than it does in response to love.

Addictive substances, including alcohol, nicotine, and many recreational drugs, trigger the release of a feel-good brain chemical called dopamine, and evidence suggests love can do the same.

Basically, dopamine tells your brain, This feels great! Lets do it again! Saltz says.

Simonian explains the love addiction can leave someone unable to focus on anything except being with their partner and the accompanying romantic feelings, which disrupts day-to-day functioning.

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This interruption of functioning is what makes this behavior like an addiction, Simonian says.

According to a 2021 study, certain stages of romantic love can cause an experience that resembles withdrawal.

Saltz notes that a breakup, in particular, may cause some of the same symptoms involved in withdrawal, including:

  • anxiety
  • trouble sleeping
  • changes in appetite
  • a low mood and feelings of depression

But again, since love addiction doesnt represent an actual addiction, these symptoms cant be compared to the experience of true withdrawal from a substance you physically depend on.

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No.111 - Purge Impurities

The abrupt change in routine and loss of receiving affection, paired with decreased levels of dopamine in the brain, might feel like withdrawal, Simonian says. However, withdrawal from discontinuing drug or alcohol use can cause serious physical symptoms that dont line up with the emotional intensity of a breakup.

These withdrawal-like symptoms are usually rooted in grief, DeMaria says, since the end of a relationship can feel like a devastating loss.

Get tips to cope with a breakup here.

Attachment can also play a part

According to Simonian, a fixation or reliance on romantic relationships can often happen as a symptom of other concerns, like:

  • depression
  • anxiety
  • low self-esteem
  • childhood trauma
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According to Saltz, this preoccupation often stems from attachment issues. These potentially self-destructive patterns can develop as a result of how you were treated in the past, especially by caregivers.

Past relationships, particularly ones formed during childhood, tend to set a template for your attachment patterns with others, DeMaria explains. People often attempt to replicate or resolve issues stemming from their early attachment patterns in their current relationships. This can lead to repeating painful emotional experiences in relationships that feel familiar.

According to attachment theory, four main types of attachment describe how you view relationships and behave within them.

Anxious-insecure attachment, which seems to stem from inconsistent attention from caregivers, often involves:

  • strong cravings for intimacy
  • an overdependence on relationships
  • frequent relationship insecurity or anxiety
  • a fear of abandonment
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Some of these tendencies may resemble an addiction, so to speak, because they lead you to fixate on someone else as a means of avoiding anxiety and other unwanted emotions.

How to cope

Since one of the hallmarks of this fixation is persistent, even all-consuming thoughts of love and relationships, Simonian advises finding other interests that you can focus your energy on.

That could mean any number of possibilities, of course. Ideally, youll want to opt for activities that mentally engage you and help promote a sense of self- worth.

You can also try engaging in activities that increase those same happy hormones as love, including:

  • exercising
  • listening to music
  • getting a massage
  • watching a movie that makes you laugh
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Its also helpful to find ways to self-soothe so you arent relying on others for your sense of emotional well-being, Simonian says.

She suggests a few examples of self-soothing coping skills, including:

  • meditation
  • journaling
  • breathing exercises

Find more self-soothing techniques here.

When to get support

If pursuing or maintaining relationships is disrupting your happiness, health, or ability to complete day-to-day responsibilities, Saltz recommends reaching out to a mental health professional.

How can therapy help?
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According to DeMaria, a therapist can offer support with:

  • uncovering the underlying cause of your preoccupation with love
  • finding new ways to practice self-love and self-care
  • addressing unhelpful and unwanted behavior patterns
  • building up self-esteem, which can promote a healthier approach to future relationships

Your therapist might recommend different strategies or techniques, depending on what they determine lies behind these relationship behavior patterns.

That said, Saltz notes they might commonly use therapy approaches like cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT).

CBT can help address persistent thought patterns driving compulsive behaviors, while DBT can help you learn new strategies for managing and coping with emotional distress instantly and more effectively regulating emotions in the future.

Read more on: mental, addiction

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