Love addiction, also known as pathological love, refers to a “pattern of behavior characterized by a maladaptive, pervasive and excessive interest towards one or more romantic partners, resulting in lack of control, the renounce of other interests and behavior, and other negative consequences”¹.
Because “love addiction” is not officially recognized by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), it can be hard to determine how many people actually suffer from this problem.
Certain studies estimate that between 5-10% of the US population may experience this potentially destructive behavior. Love addiction is more common in certain populations, such as an estimated 12-26% in college students².
So how do we identify love addiction? Is it possible to avoid? And what can we do to heal?
What does love addiction look like?
Dr. Stanton Peele, psychologist and psychotherapist who authored the book Love and Addiction, believes “all of us know people whose compulsive or obsessive engagements in relationships have caused great damage.”
Whenever Dr. Peele hosts workshops, he often shares an exercise where he offers a different definition of addiction: he defines addiction as “becoming enmeshed in a destructive involvement, but rather than extricating yourself, you continue to pursue it, causing yourself even more pain and damage.” After sharing this definition, Dr. Peele then asks how many people have been in an addictive relationship. Most people raise their hands.
Love addiction can look like³:
- A compulsive need to be in love or fall in love often
- Putting your romantic partner on a pedestal
- Obsessing over a romantic interest
- Experiencing cravings, withdrawals, and euphoria over a partner
- Creating a dependency or codependency on your partner
- Seeking emotional comfort from to the point of unrequited love
The negative consequences of love addiction are similar to the negative consequences of any other substance addiction. Individuals may experience:
- An inability to function normally in everyday life
- Clear negative consequences for the individual and those around them
- Inability to experience a healthy relationship that can lead to mutual growth, well-being, and self-esteem
Love addiction can manifest in various ways, just like any other addiction.
What causes love addiction?
A few different factors can influence love addiction, just like any other kind of addiction. Genetics, trauma, and upbringing significantly impact our likelihood of addiction. And, just like with substances, early exposure to addictive relationships can increase the chance of someone experiencing love addiction.
Love addiction can stem from a few other factors³:
- Low self-esteem
- Childhood trauma: abuse, neglect, rejection
- Fear of abandonment
- Lust or sex addiction
Love addiction can also stem from an unhealthy attachment style⁴. There are four main types of attachment styles:
- Secure Attachment: Feels safe and secure and able to regulate one’s own emotions
- Anxious Attachment: Clings to a partner out of fear of abandonment
- Avoidant Attachment: Stops seeking closeness or expressing emotion out of fear of intimacy; may find it hard to trust others or form close emotional bonds
- Fearful-Avoidant Attachment: A combination of anxious and avoidant attachment styles, may avoid affection yet have a deep craving for it
Our attachment styles are not fixed, and we can take active steps to heal to create healthier bonds. If you’re not sure what healthy love looks like, it can be helpful to examine what healthy love isn’t.
Toxic Love Versus Healthy Love
Power games. Being possessive. Obsessively wondering whether your partner is cheating. Clinging to their company. Feeling filled with anxiety about what they’re doing, whether they’ll call. You might feel out of control or think about the person so much that they permeate all of your thoughts. All of these behaviors could be considered a toxic kind of love.
On the other hand, healthy love can focus on mutually committing to growing together and feeling fulfilled both independently and with one another. You might share a common goal, like creating a business or nurturing a family, or if you have diverse interests, you might support one another in achieving each other’s aspirations without having to be attached every single moment of every single day.
When does love become destructive?
Scientists like to use the term “process addiction” to gauge when a behavior becomes addictive. In contrast to substance addiction, where an individual is actively dependent on a drug or other equivalent substance, “process addiction” refers to activities, such as gambling, shopping, sex, or eating.
There are striking similarities in process addictions to drug addictions, and the brain can experience chemical reactions that rival substance addiction just from completing these behaviors. When we develop a dependency on these chemical reactions, the seemingly “normal” behavior may transform into addictive behavior.
A person with love addiction may show they need increased amounts of a certain behavior to achieve the desired emotional effect. As a result, they may have issues when they try to stop the behaviors or find it extremely challenging to be alone, thereby feeling desperate. They may experience withdrawal symptoms and find it extremely difficult to manage their emotions.
Romantic love releases dopamine, oxytocin, vasopressin, and serotonin, stimulating regions of the brain associated with feelings of pleasure, reward, and trust. This process involves the same neural activities and parts of the brain associated with addiction.
With this in mind, it’s easy to understand how love addiction can be just as powerful and destructive as any other substance addiction. Love addiction can be challenging to manage on your own because we all need a certain amount of love, affection, and human connection in order to be truly healthy.
Finding Support for Love Addiction
Experts find that the goal shouldn’t be to eliminate feelings of love, given that these are authentic aspects of a person’s mind and personality. Instead, we should look and see if there are signs that point to a deeper issue or a root cause.
For many, love addiction can be a symptom of a bigger issue. A therapist can help you explore barriers to healthy connection in cognitive behavioral therapy. They can help identify any co-occurring issues, such as potential sex addiction or attachment disorders. Together, you can develop a plan to help you heal from love addiction while developing healthier attachments and patterns of communication.
Love addiction, just like any other addiction, is nothing to be ashamed of, and there is plenty of professional support available. If you are struggling with love addiction or you’re not sure how to recognize unhealthy relationship habits, we can help. Call us at 855-510-4585 or start a to see how we can help you get to the root of love addiction and love yourself in the process.
- Sanches, M., & John, V. P. (2019). Treatment of love addiction: Current status and perspectives. European Journal of Psychiatry, 33, 38-44.
- Earp, Brian D et al. “Addicted to love: What is love addiction and when should it be treated?.” Philosophy, psychiatry, & psychology : PPP vol. 24,1 (2017): 77-92. doi:10.1353/ppp.2017.0011
- Murray, Krystina. “Love Addiction.” Edited by David Hampton, Addiction Center, Recovery Worldwide, LLC, 7 Dec. 2021, https://www.addictioncenter.com/drugs/love-addiction/.
- Feeney, Judith A., and Patricia Noller. “Attachment Style as a Predictor of Adult Romantic Relationships.” American Psychological Association, Inc., 1990.
- Emamzadeh, Arash. “What Is Love Addiction? | Psychology Today.” Psychology Today, 10 Feb. 2019, https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/finding-new-home/201902/what-is-love-addiction.
- Peele, Stanton, and Archie Brodsky. Love and Addiction. Broadrow Publications, 2015.
Reviewed by Emmeline Massey MSW, LSW