Do the euphoria, turmoil, and difficulty letting go point to an addiction? Experts and research may have other explanations.
Love doesn’t just feel good. It can lead to lasting bonds that offer psychological benefits and promote general health and well-being.
Still, relationships and love can also present difficulties, especially when your goals for romance don’t play out how you planned.
Some experts have suggested “love addiction,” loosely defined as the pursuit of love in spite of damaging or harmful consequences as one possible complication. Withdrawal symptoms may be another one.
Yet not everyone agrees it’s possible to be addicted to love, and the very idea of love addiction remains controversial.
Can you be addicted to love? No, according to the official definition.
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th edition (DSM-5) no longer recognizes addiction as a diagnosis. Instead, it refers to substance use disorder (SUD).
In basic terms, this disorder involves substance use you can’t control, even when that use harms you or other people in your life.
Current research suggests that addiction happens when ongoing substance use affects the way your brain functions, prompting needs and changes in behavior, learning, and memory.
The DSM-5 includes gambling use disorder in the same category.
But it also notes that existing evidence doesn’t conclusively support that there are other types of behavioral addictions like exercise, shopping, or sex addictions.
As love isn’t a substance, it would also fall into this “unsupported” category. In other words, there’s no evidence that backs up the notion that love addiction is possible.
In fact, describing a longing for love, or any relationship-related distress, as an “addiction” can effectively trivialize the serious impact of substance use disorders.
If you can’t get addicted to love, you might wonder why it’s possible to find therapists who treat so-called love addictions.
Well, this may happen in part because the concept of love addiction stems from a biological understanding of love.
Love prompts the release of dopamine and other chemical messengers in your brain, activating the same reward pathways associated with substance use.
Feeling rewarded by the euphoria of love, by the passion and pleasure of physical intimacy, only reinforces your desire to seek it out again.
Of course, plenty of other things activate the same pathways: food, sex, and even water.
One theory of addiction (and many exist) suggests that SUD develops when substances begin to yield greater rewards than everyday activities, such as eating or having sex.
The rewards these activities produce could, for some people, lead to behaviors that resemble those linked to addiction.
Consider these scenarios:
- After your partner breaks up with you, you’re still deeply in love and can’t move on. Life without them feels meaningless, and you know you’re meant to be. So, you keep texting, calling, and dropping by their house to see them, even after they ask you to stop.
- You’ve never fallen as hard for anyone as you have your new partner. Hoping to keep them interested, you frequently skip work, spend more money than you can afford on meals and gifts, and daydream about them nearly every moment you aren’t together.
- You’re in love with someone in a monogamous relationship. The affair feels wrong, and you don’t want to participate in cheating — but you still find yourself returning to them again and again.
Some mental health professionals might associate these actions with a potential love “addiction,” particularly when you recognize their destructive impact but still can’t seem to stop.
However, empirically, there’s limited evidence that supports love as an addiction.
Keep in mind, no formal diagnosis of love addiction exists. That said, any of these behaviors might certainly be worth exploring with a therapist.
In terms of substance use, withdrawal can happen when you stop using a substance after using it for some time. Regular use can alter brain and body processes, so quitting suddenly can lead tovarying physical and emotional symptoms, depending on the substance.
But can you experience withdrawal symptoms from a person or relationship?
It may be possible. Some research suggests romantic love could involve a withdrawal-like experience.
This “love addiction withdrawal” might involve:
- persistent crying or tearfulness
- lack of energy and fatigue
- sleeping very little or much more than usual
- changes in appetite
- feelings of loneliness
- a deep desire, or “craving,” to connect with the person you love
- frustration, worry, or tension when you’re apart
- intense feelings of grief or loss
- irritability, anxiety, and other changes in mood
Of course, if you can’t actually become addicted to love, it stands to reason you also can’t go through withdrawal from love addiction.
Consider, though, that love involves risks: rejection, unrequited love, and heartbreak, among others. Most people eventually face some distress as a natural consequence of falling in love.
Rather than describing the pain you feel as withdrawal from a person, it might help to frame it in terms of grief, suggests Dr. Patrick Cheatham, a psychologist in Portland, Oregon.
“Any life change can involve grief for what’s been left behind, especially the unwanted end of a relationship. Processing grief, that fuzzy term we all use, basically means acknowledging that loss, understanding it, and incorporating it into your life story.”
Some losses, he adds, may feel too immense to ever fully comprehend. When coming to terms with loss or failed love proves challenging, this distress might linger.
Love has a psychological basis, too, so you can’t brush it off with a dismissive sigh of, “It’s only hormones.”
Romantic love involves passion, intimacy, and commitment, and you can trace the desire to pursue these feelings back to your earliest childhood attachments.
According to attachment theory, bonds with your parent or other main childhood caregivers create a framework for your adult relationships.
- Secure attachments generally pave the way toward healthier relationships.
- Insecure or anxious attachments, on the other hand, could lead you to fixate on love.
“People with anxious-insecure attachment styles often become preoccupied with the state of their relationship. The attention of a partner, being in a relationship, become central motivations in life. In extreme circumstances, this might feel like a life-or-death situation,” Cheatham explains.
Some researchers have termed love a “natural” addiction while emphasizing that it’s not necessarily a bad thing to experience.
When something feels as positive and pleasurable as love can, it’s understandable that you’d want to pursue it again, if you’ve had it and lost it. That’s a natural human response, as is grief in the wake of loss.
Your personal expectations around relationships can also factor in, Cheatham notes.
“Social narratives about love and relationships over-emphasize ‘finding the one’ and value being partnered over being single,” he explains. “They also idealize the rush of infatuation and early love while ignoring the mundane and often unsexy work of actual relationships.”
Can mental health symptoms play a part?
Symptoms of certain mental health conditions might resemble symptoms of addiction or withdrawal, particularly in the context of lost love or rejection.
Obsessive compulsive disorder might also involve a fixation on romantic partners, or a need to seek repeated reassurance about the relationship.
Attachment challenges can also lead you to seek out emotionally unavailable partners.
Similarly, if you experienced neglect or abuse in the past, you might feel consistently drawn toward toxic or abusive relationships, despite the pain they cause.
You can experience any of the above, along with other relationship-related distress, without any specific mental health diagnosis.
You don’t need a diagnosis of love addiction or love withdrawal to address concerning or unwanted relationship patterns.
An experienced, compassionate therapist can help you learn to navigate relationship-related distress.
Psychotherapy offers a safe space to talk through relationship goals and explore skills to build healthy, lasting commitments. You can also learn to focus on your individual needs and reconnect with yourself by learning to practice self-love.
It’s always worth nurturing a strong relationship with yourself, whether you’re in or out of love with anyone.
Cheatham also recommends:
- sharing your feelings with a supportive friend
- honoring your feelings with personal rituals around grief
- focusing on things you like about yourself and your life
- taking time to explore personal relationship vulnerabilities, since this can promote greater mindfulness in future connections
The way you describe your feelings and experiences with love may not matter all that much, when it comes to healing. Getting support to navigate those feelings is what really matters.
An experienced relationship therapist likely won’t refer to attachment challenges or distressing relationship patterns as a “love addiction,” but their support can still go a long way toward helping you work toward healing.
Ready to find a therapist who’s right for you? These 10 tips can help.