Some experts suggest that “love addiction” may share similar qualities with substance use disorder and addiction.
Love is one of the most central components of the human experience. Romantic love, in particular, may sometimes feel so powerful that it can be all-consuming.
Since falling in love elicits such strong emotions and feelings of desire, some experts refer to it as a “love addiction and withdrawal,” even though it’s not formally recognized as one.
Due to love’s addiction-like qualities, some people may refer to their romantic habits as an “addiction.” But mental health professionals and clinicians may instead refer to it as pathological love or limerence.
A note on ‘love addiction’
“Love addiction” may feel like an addiction, but it’s not recognized as a clinical term and cannot be medically diagnosed. Still, it’s a common phrase people use to describe feeling excessively dependent on their romantic partners. In some cases, the feeling of “love addiction” may interfere with an individual’s career and relationships and diminish self-respect.
“’Love addiction’ is a process ‘addiction,’ lifestyle ‘addiction,’ or a soft ‘addiction,'” says Sherry Gaba, LCSW, a psychotherapist and love addiction specialist in Southern California.
“So, you’re not addicted to the substance. You’re addicted to the behavior. Someone with a love addiction has a feeling of emptiness or nothingness. They almost feel like unless they are in a relationship, there’s nothing to be happy about.”
According to Gaba, the difference between healthy love versus “love addiction” is that those who experience the latter tend to focus more on the beginning stages of love when emotions are intense. These feelings of euphoria may lead to infatuation and even obsession.
As a relationship progresses, this addiction-like dynamic between two partners usually subsides. But a person who may have an unhealthy relationship to love may not want those initial feelings of intensity to go away.
“Sometimes they get bored because that feeling does go away,” Gaba says. “They are more addicted to the feeling than the actual relationship. That’s why they go from one relationship to the next.”
Love addiction is not classified as a mental illness because it’s not yet recognized in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th edition (DSM-5).
However, scientific evidence suggests that problematic feelings about love may cause a similar response in the brain as substance use disorder (SUD) and addiction.
A 2016 study, for instance, compared brain scans of people with drug addictions and people who identified as having “love addictions” and found that both addictions similarly engaged “regions of the brain’s reward system, specifically dopamine-rich regions.”
This means that SUDS and behavioral addictions like love or internet addiction share a similar effect on the brain’s reward pathways.
Lara Dye, PhD, a clinical psychologist and addiction specialist in Austin, Texas, believes that love addiction belongs in the DSM-5. “Most of what’s included in the DSM anyways is largely trauma reactions and attachment problems, and the ways people express that pain,” she says.
According to Dye, including love addiction in the DSM could also inspire more psychologists to receive formal training for unhealthy feelings and behaviors around love.
A 2010 review estimates that between 3% and 6% of the general adult population experiences love addiction. But because there’s no standardized way of assessing and diagnosing these feelings, the findings are subjective.
If you’re wondering whether you may be dating someone with love addiction, there are a few signs and symptoms to look out for:
- an overwhelming fear of being alone
- obsessive thoughts regarding the relationship
- excessive need for contact with the partner
- negative emotions when away from the partner
- lack of self-identity outside of the relationship
- feelings of worthlessness when not in a relationship
- loss of interest in work, activities, and friendships
- an attraction to emotionally unavailable people
Kerry Cohen, PsyD, LPC, a psychologist and sex and relationships expert, explains that while many characteristics can define the concept of “love addiction,” two key traits are especially important:
- Your feelings and behavior around sex and love consistently lead to negative consequences and distress for yourself and those around you.
- You rely on sexual or romantic partners to meet your needs and avoid emotional pain.
Many people could find themselves in a relationship that induces feelings of love addiction. But if the two conditions that Cohen listed above are not occurring, their unhealthy behaviors and problematic feelings may not be chronic.
Experts explain that people who experience feelings of love addiction may be dealing with issues of childhood trauma and fear of abandonment.
Gaba says that those with a history of trauma may be people “who might have grown up in a family where their parents were emotionally unavailable. They didn’t get what they needed, so they are trying to fill that empty void and fix what they didn’t get growing up.”
While some individuals who identify with the love addiction label experienced childhood abandonment or neglect, Cohen explains these prior difficulties are not necessarily a prerequisite. Instead, she believes that “culturally, we are set up for ‘love addiction.’”
“If you think about it, relationships are always treated like destinations,” Cohen says. “We go through the whole movie, for instance, and it ends with the ‘now they’re together.’ It’s a terrible setup for all of us. We are very much given the message that love will resolve your pain.”
Although the causes may vary, a commonality of love addiction may be a false notion that your romantic partner will save you. This can be a lot of pressure to put on another person. Dye explains that this may cause partners to pull away because it may feel overwhelming or exhausting.
There are some possible consequences associated with behaviors that resemble a love addiction. Individuals with obsessive or unhealthy feelings around love may:
- have difficulty holding a job
- participate in stalking or cyberstalking
- distance themselves from friends and family
- experience panic attacks
- lose interest in hobbies and other activities
In rare cases, the consequences of love addiction may even be as severe as homicide or suicide. Other consequences may include the onset of severe emotional pain following a breakup.
“If they lose their partner, which usually happens, they go into severe, very painful withdrawal,” says Jim Hall, MS, a relationships specialist. “It’s so severe for some people that they have to go into treatment centers. They can’t function day-to-day.”
Cohen explains that a tricky aspect of recovering from love addiction is that you treat a powerful emotion like love the same way you might treat addictions to drugs and alcohol, which require abstinence and sobriety, at least for a while.
“It’s probably the most abiding of addictions because it’s lifelong,” Cohen says. “You always have to be working on it because sex and relationships are part of a whole life.”
Here are a few possible treatments for love addiction that may support your recovery.
Psychotherapy can be an effective method for individuals with problematic behaviors around love to learn how to better manage their trauma responses, especially in the presence of any triggers.
In psychotherapy, individuals will:
- unpack early childhood trauma
- gain self-awareness on triggers
- unlearn false notions of romance
- learn to manage anxiety around abandonment
- gain clarity on their emotional needs in a relationship
- practice how to set emotional boundaries
- focus on cultivating their own self-worth
- learn what healthy relationships and intimacy look like
- let go of the fantasized version of their partner or past partner
- gain insight into how to choose better-suited partners
When searching for a therapist, it may be helpful to find one who has experience treating love and sex “addictions.”
Dye explains that intensive workshops may also be helpful, such as multi-day survivor workshops or other workshops that cultivate healthy behaviors around love.
Dye recommends attending a workshop where other individuals with love addiction are required to fully cut off contact with their love interest. From there, they might dive into intensive workshops for several days, which “helps catapult the therapy ahead.”
“Once they come out of the workshop, they are in more of an ‘aha state,’ and then we do therapy once a week, or whatever it takes,” Dye adds.
In addition to workshop retreats and individual psychotherapy, Dye suggests group therapy.
“Groups are also very good because they rewire the healthy human experience of connecting with a bunch of people, not just one pedestalized figure.”
Similar to those recovering from alcohol use disorder, many individuals experiencing what feels like love addiction may also have a sponsor. A sponsor allows those with unhealthy romantic feelings to build their support system, so they become less dependent on their partners.
There are other ways to gain support while managing love addiction.
You may consider attending meetings through Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous (SLAA) or reading a book on the topic written by therapists who specialize in building healthy relationship patterns. Some include:
- “Facing Love Addiction” by Pia Mellody
- “Crazy For You” by Kerry Cohen
- “Loved Smacked” by Sherry Gaba
Also, an Internet search for “love addiction support groups near me” may give you additional options for support.
Although “love addiction” is not formally recognized as a mental illness, some — but not all — neuroscientists and psychologists have said it can be just as powerful as other forms of addiction.
But recovery from what has been informally called “love addiction” is possible. Experts like Dye recommend a total removal from romantic relationships for about 3 to 6 months and participating in therapy, group therapy, and support groups.
“After that, we want to see if they can go back out there and do sober dating,” she explains. “That doesn’t mean no drinking. That means, can you not fall into fantasy again and start doing the same thing?”
Unlike most addictions that require sobriety, love addiction requires learning moderation. This means treating the root cause rather than removing the addiction-like triggers entirely.
Treating feelings of love addiction may be a long journey with a lot of challenging work, but it’s possible to learn how to cultivate healthy and mature romantic love.
“You can heal from it. I really do believe people can heal,” Dye says.