It’s March. Valentine’s Day is a distant memory and wedding season looms. Essentially, this is the time when psychotherapy clients often want to review and discuss their romantic relationships. For clients who struggle with problematic behavioral choices related to love, attachment and intimacy, in particular love addiction (also known as romance addiction and relationship addiction), this can be a very difficult undertaking. These individuals see friends and loved ones finding relationship success, while they take one manic spin after another on the relationship merry-go-round – desperately hoping to find that one special person who can make them feel complete and worthwhile and loved for longer than a few days or weeks at a time.
Of course, love addicts are not actually seeking love. What they’re really chasing, over and over and over, is the emotional escape provided by rush of first romance, sometimes referred to as limerence. Speaking technically, limerence is caused by a neurobiological surge – primarily the release of dopamine, along with oxytocin, adrenaline, serotonin and various other pleasure-related endorphins. Interestingly, this is the same basic (emotionally escapist) neurochemical reaction evoked by addictive substances like cocaine and heroin. So is it any wonder that people sometimes get hooked on the escapist high of early romance?
What love addicts fail to understand is that limerence is not meant to be an emotional coping mechanism. Instead, it is meant to serve as the short-term glue that holds people together long enough to either build a less intense but ultimately more rewarding and longer-lasting intimacy (i.e., love), or to intelligently realize that they’re not right for each other. Love addicts, unlike most healthy people, choose to never progress past limerence. Instead, they rely on this neurochemical rush as their primary way to “not feel” stress and emotional discomfort. In other words, they use the naturally occurring high of limerence for escape and dissociation – just as alcoholics and drug addicts use the chemically induced high of addictive substances to “numb out” and not experience the ups and downs of life.
Unfortunately, love addicts are not always easy to spot, even when they’re being honest in therapy about the fact that they’re careening endlessly from one relationship to the next and have been for quite some time. They seek therapy saying things like, “I never seem to find the right person,” or, “I seem to have problems dating,” little understanding the impossible expectations they place on any potential mate.
Common warning signs for love addiction include the following:
- The client perpetually tries to elevate the romantic (and sometimes sexual) intensity of his/her relationships.
- The client feels trapped when in a relationship, yet desperate and alone when not in a relationship.
- The clients skips important commitments and obligations (work, friends, family, etc.) to search for a new relationship or intensify an existing relationship.
- The client mistakes romantic intensity for love.
- The client remains in unhealthy relationships for fear of being alone.
- The client consistently cheats on current partners with newer and “more exciting” partners.
- The client feigns interest in hobbies and activities as a way to meet someone new or to keep an existing partner.
- The client consistently seeks new relationships while already in a relationship.
- The client is hooked on “the hunt,” repeatedly landing in and then eschewing the same basic disconnected relationship.
Put very simply, love addicts are obsessed with new relationships. They habitually post profiles on multiple dating sites and apps. If there’s a possibility they’ll find the romance-related intensity they seek, they will try it, whatever “it” might be. Almost every decision they make – where to exercise, what to eat, how to dress – is tempered by their never-ending search for romantic intensity.
Love addicts are frequently either unaware of or deeply in denial about their addiction, despite the directly related negative consequences they experience – relationship turmoil, issues at work or in school, depression, anxiety, diminished self-esteem, loss of interest in previously enjoyable activities, financial woes, etc. Rather than understanding that they are the common denominator in their endless string of problems and failed romances, they place the blame on others. If only he/she was , that relationship would have worked out. In this way, love addicts are able to avoid dealing with (or even acknowledging) their issue.
With most love addicts, there is a family history of addiction and/or psychological disorders coupled with a personal history of early-life trauma – abuse, neglect, abandonment, inconsistent attachment, etc. Childhood sexual abuse is especially common, though hardly a prerequisite. Usually, love addicts learn early in life that becoming vulnerable (a necessity for lasting intimacy) is dangerous. As a result, they struggle to bond in healthy, lasting ways. This fear of vulnerability – most often based in childhood attachment trauma – may also result in co-occurring issues like depression and/or anxiety, and these too can precipitate addiction.
Put simply, love addicts (all addicts, for that matter) want to “numb out” and avoid uncomfortable feelings like fear, shame, sadness, stress and even boredom. As such, love addiction is not about finding love; it’s about self-regulating emotions. If/when love addicts are intensely focused on how hot some new person is and how wonderful life will be once they’ve hooked that person and moved into a little cottage with a white picket fence and two kids and a small dog, they are not focused on the vagaries of life and how miserable and stressed out they are. Of course, as with getting drunk or high, this escape is temporary, which is why love addicts repeatedly return to their addictive fantasies and behaviors. In other words, love addicts use the neurochemical distraction of romance as their go-to coping mechanism – much the same as an alcoholic uses alcohol.
Happily, love addiction is a treatable disorder. Typically, treatment utilizes the same basic strategies that work with other addictions – most often a combination of either inpatient or outpatient treatment coupled with participation in a 12-step recovery program such as Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous (or some other love addiction-focused support group). It is important to note and to make clear to any client that you may believe is love addicted that “sobriety” from love addiction does not require total abstinence (which is typically the goal with substance abuse disorders). Instead, love addiction is treated more like an eating disorder; rather than seeking long-term abstinence, recovering love addicts learn to develop and maintain healthy and life-affirming (rather than compulsive and destructive) romantic connections. If you fail to make this clear, your love addicted client may resist specialized treatment even more so than is normal with addictions.