If you find it hard to end relationships, addressing the underlying causes could help as well as understanding what addiction really is.
Maybe you know a relationship isn’t supporting your physical and emotional health but feel unable to leave it. Or you might feel like you can’t stop thinking about your partner and their needs to the point that you leave your own on the back burner.
In fact, you may think you’re addicted to that person.
What you feel is real and has an explanation. But rather than addiction, some researchers refer to this experience as emotional dependence.
Love addiction or addiction to people aren’t formal mental health diagnoses.
In fact, the term “addiction” is no longer used in general. Instead, medical experts talk about substance use disorder.
But people and relationships aren’t substances, and they don’t have the same effects on you.
Although not everyone agrees, some researchers suggest you could experience symptoms similar to those of someone living with substance use disorder.
- intense cravings
- significant changes in mood, including feeling fearful or anxious
- neglecting other responsibilities and relationships
- having your life revolve around that person
- staying in the relationship even when experiencing negative consequences
- symptoms of withdrawal when apart from that person
But while emotional dependence can lead you to engage in behaviors that may mirror symptoms of substance use disorder, this isn’t the same as addiction. The causes and processes in place are different.
It isn’t possible to be addicted to a person.
In fact, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th edition (DSM-5) doesn’t recognize any
Still, research from 2016 suggests that because romance can stimulate the reward centers of the brain in a similar way to substances, it could lead to certain patterns that mimic what some people call addiction — or, more accurately, compulsive behavior.
Some people also live with a condition called erotomania.
Erotomania is a type of delusion that makes you believe someone is in love with you, even if there’s no evidence to support this belief. Most often, this other person is a celebrity or someone you admire.
If it feels difficult to let someone go even when you know it’s for the best, a few different factors other than addiction might be at play.
According to attachment theory, your attachment style — or the way you bond with others — forms through some of your earliest relationships, such as with your parents or primary caregiver.
While a secure attachment style tends to support balanced relationships, an insecure attachment style can cause more stress.
According to 2019 research, insecure attachment styles — especially anxious and avoidant types — were associated with less satisfaction in relationships.
Understanding your attachment style can help you identify how you expect a relationship to meet your needs.
For example, if you have an anxious attachment style, you might feel like you can’t rely on your partner to consistently meet your needs, which can lead to fear of abandonment.
Fear of abandonment
Fear of abandonment can make it feel like any relationship is better than being alone. And if you feel this way, it can be harder to break off a relationship even when you know it might not be the right choice for you.
While experts believe anxious attachment plays a significant role in abandonment anxiety, there may be more to the story.
You might also fear abandonment if you:
- live with a personality disorder
- were abandoned in the past by a parent or partner
- have a history of trauma or live with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)
Some people find viewing their codependency symptoms through the lens of addiction is helpful when communicating their experience with others, even though experts don’t recognize the term as a formal condition.
In relationships, codependency is linked to:
- difficulty with authenticity
- an unclear sense of self
- people-pleasing behaviors
One theory is that rigid and unsupportive family environments lead to codependency when you feel that changing yourself to fit a parent’s expectations is the only way to be accepted.
These feelings can carry over into adult relationships, making it harder to maintain your sense of self and needs.
Mental health conditions
Research from 2015 suggests that what you may feel is an addiction to a person could be better explained by mental health conditions such as:
- Personality disorders. Borderline personality disorder, dependent personality disorder, and histrionic personality disorder are connected to anxious attachment styles and sensitivity to rejection.
- Anxiety disorders. If you live with an anxiety disorder, it could feed into unbalanced emotional dependence in a relationship. For example, separation anxiety can cause intense stress at the thought of being apart from a loved one.
- Bipolar disorder. Research from 2019 reports that intense romantic attachment causes symptoms of hypomania similar to hypomania that people with bipolar II disorder experience, suggesting these relationships and bipolar disorder may be activating the same regions of the brain.
Obsessive love vs. OCD
Sometimes, people refer to love as “obsessive,” which might make it easy to confuse with obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).
While emotional dependence can cause intrusive thoughts about the other person, it’s not the same as OCD, a formal mental health condition.
In OCD, obsessions are distressing thoughts you cannot control and might become a source of shame. They also often lead you to engage in compulsive behaviors to relieve the stress they cause you.
If you tend to become overly dependent on people or relationships, breaking them off may sound challenging. It’s natural to feel this way.
Even if that coping mechanism wasn’t supporting your well-being, losing it can take an emotional toll.
This is why it’s so common to re-engage in some relationships even after you’ve promised yourself you’ll never go back.
Learning new ways to manage difficult emotions can help you stay away from old relationship patterns for good.
Try to keep notes (or a journal)
- serving as a written reminder of why you’re leaving the relationship when you feel like reconsidering
- helping you reconnect with yourself and establish a clearer vision of your own goals and dreams
- allowing you to identify and process difficult emotions
Consider reconnecting with a hobby or goal
Relationships that consume all of your energy and attention can leave you feeling like you no longer know the real “you.”
If you feel disconnected from yourself, the first step might be exploring potential areas of interest or asking what goals motivate you. When you’ve found a potential answer, consider dedicating time every day to explore that hobby or work toward that goal.
Practicing somatic exercises might help
Overdependence on a partner or relationship can be a maladaptive, or unproductive, strategy for coping with difficult emotions.
Somatic therapy, which helps you tune in to your own physical and emotional responses to stress, could help you reestablish a sense of self and develop emotional regulation skills, according to 2018 research.
While somatic therapy often works best with the support of a trained therapist, you can try these four exercises at home.
Try inner child work
Acknowledging and reconnecting with your inner child could help you overcome emotional dependence in relationships, especially if past trauma has shaped how you approach relationships.
Inner child work focuses on:
- healing childhood trauma and complex PTSD
- addressing and reducing feelings of shame
- developing self-compassion
A trauma-informed therapist can guide you through the process of inner child work, but you can also practice some aspects of it on your own. Here’s how to get started.
Consider a support group
Some people report that talking with others who identify with the concept of love addiction is a significant part of healing from emotional dependence.
If you’re interested in joining a support group, you might be able to find a local group in your community.
Therapy can help
According to 2019 research, certain forms of therapy could allow you to challenge your current relationship patterns by helping you:
- confront cognitive distortions
- improve communication with yourself
- separate fantasy from reality in relationships
- develop a secure attachment style
Working with a therapist may also help you reconnect with yourself if you feel out of touch with your own wants and needs.
Although addiction to a person isn’t a formal medical diagnosis, it’s possible to fall into a pattern of emotional dependence on someone.
Breaking out of this relationship pattern can be difficult and often means getting to the root of what’s causing your emotional dependence. Emotional regulation strategies, patience, and self-compassion can help you through this process.