Our relationships are mirror images of who we are. They reflect how we think and feel about ourselves. What we were taught in childhood is often carried with us through life. This point is driven home with the choices we make in our relationships. Our experiences shape our view of the world and ultimately whether we view ourselves as worthy or lovable. The old adage, “We are the company we keep” holds true here. Thus, if we grew up in a healthy environment, then the relationships we have with ourselves and others should be relatively healthy. The opposite holds true if we grew up receiving conditional love or love mixed with indifference or shame. Being raised in a toxic environment is often the blueprint for low self-esteem, lack of self-worth and a cycle of unhealthy relationships.
While most were raised being taught that they can’t love another until they first love themselves, some may have grown up being told to love themselves without being taught how to love themselves. For those raised with hypocrisy, neediness and dependency often replace intimacy and healthy attachments. In this situation, relationships are often approached from the perspective that their partner will somehow “fix” or complete them. Relationships may be romanticized as hoping for the “fairytale” ending (i.e. “In love with being in love”). Any emotional investment in the relationship is exchanged for the thrill of the chase. Often when the chase stops, the relationship stops.
A partner may be abandoned in an effort to avoid being abandoned themselves or when boredom sets in. When one relationship ends, another is often quickly secured. They may convince themselves that “this time things will be different” or “this time things will work out.” Unfortunately, wishful thinking without self-awareness or positive habit change is an unhealthy cycle at best, and self-sabotaging behavior at worst.
Love Addiction Defined
Humans are wired for connection, but when intimacy is avoided it’s like being rewired for self-protection. In this sense, relationships are not viewed as having a legit connection with someone, but as a way to avoid vulnerable emotions by seeking pleasure or reward. Any feel-good moments received are often short-lived, and the inevitable crash from the cycle repeating can leave a person feeling guilty, empty, depressed or anxious.
Some theories describe love addiction, or pathological love, as being behaviorally similar to other addictions. The chase feels euphoric and pushes pain away for a while. Then, the inevitable crash hits, where they become disillusioned by their partner, or where shame is experienced, kicking the cycle into gear once again to push away more pain.
The pattern of love addictive behavior has underlying themes of a lack of self-worth, the need for others for validation and a fear of abandonment. What drives the cycle is often the need to feel worthy and valued, or to just feel. Feeling numb or empty are common experiences, where the high from being in a new relationship allows for positive feelings, if only in the moment. Once the feel-good moment passes, the lows can trigger another round in the cycle to avoid feeling lonely or empty.
Breaking the Habit
Make Peace with Yourself. Forgiveness is one of the biggest acts of self-love. Those who are stuck in a cycle of feeling guilt or shame are more prone to self-sabotaging behavior by seeking out experiences that validate their negative opinion of themselves. Those stuck in an unhealthy relationship with themselves are also more likely to repeatedly seek out other unhealthy relationships, further validating their feelings. This in itself becomes a toxic cycle that requires awareness and acceptance in order for change to happen.
Feelings of unworthiness or a lack of self-love usually start earlier in life, often in childhood. Taking the necessary steps in addressing when these feelings and beliefs may have started can aide in healing and in forgiving yourself for carrying around emotional pain you are not meant to carry.
Awareness and Acceptance. Be honest with yourself and your starting point. Wherever your starting point is, take steps to nurture yourself along your journey giving yourself the validation, secure boundaries, and encouragement along the way that you may not have received earlier in life. Understanding why patterns are established or how they started is important for building awareness into why we feel certain ways, or how our feelings can guide our choices in relationships. Without self-awareness or if living in denial, these are red flags that a pattern will continue until acceptance is reached.
Take Inventory on Your History and Your Habits. Be honest with yourself and your personal history. Many times, what was modeled earlier in life can be imitated throughout life, for good or bad. Behavior is learned. If there’s a history of love addiction in your family, recognizing the cycle is a first step in ending the cycle.
Granted, awareness doesn’t guarantee change. So it is important to recognize your own habits. By taking inventory on your personal history and your daily habits, you can start recognizing what is working for you, or what habits are working against you.
Reach Out. Sometimes it can be difficult moving ahead in your life if you’re feeling stuck or unsure how to move ahead. Maybe you’re confused about self-awareness or are struggling with reaching acceptance. Or you may feel unsure about what habits you are comfortable with, or whether they’re affecting your happiness. Speaking with someone who understands your situation can help in creating healthy boundaries, in building self-awareness and in making healthier choices for yourself.
Earp, B., et al. (2017). What is love addiction and when should it be treated? Philosophy, Psychiatry & Psychology, 24, 1, 77-92.
Redcay, A., et al. (2019). Assessment of relationship addiction. Sexual and Relationship Therapy, 1468-1749.