Healthy love for another person comes out of free choice based on attraction to the other person, one's beliefs about love and commitment, and connection based on mutual interests and goals. Strong feelings and a desire to be with the object of your affection is a normal part of “being in love.” But can love possibly become an addiction? Absolutely.
Love addiction arises out of environmental, familial, and, once again, chemical upsets in one's life. As with other types of addiction, love addiction has a compulsive component, the development of tolerance, and withdrawal symptoms. Each time a love “high” is achieved, there is a temporary sensation of relief.
The compulsive nature of love addiction is a person's drive to be in a relationship or to be “in love” regardless of whether the relationship is abusive, inappropriate, or destructive in some way. The love addict will feel a sense of panic when a relationship is broken off and she will direct all her energies to either resurrect the broken relationship or immediately find another.
Tolerance in love addiction occurs when the addicted person needs more and more from the relationship to feel the same level of excitement as in the beginning. The other person in the relationship is, in a sense, the love addict's “substance.”
The symptoms of withdrawal from a broken relationship may feel excruciating to the love addict. He may experience sleep disturbances, gastrointestinal upsets, irritability, depression, and anxiety. The craving for the emotional euphoria of love will then drive the addict to find another relationship to pursue.
Satisfying love relationships promote personal awareness and growth, encouraging the same in others. For someone with a love addiction, relationships and love feelings are used as a way of coping with a life that otherwise feels empty. The intrigue, flirtations, and manipulations involved in love addiction provide a level of excitement missing from ordinary life.
Where does love addiction begin? The roots of love addiction may be found in infancy. The first year of life is when an individual ideally develops a healthy sense of attachment. This occurs when a helpless infant has her needs for love, security, safety, and physical sustenance met by a warm, responsive caretaker. Reactive attachment disorder may develop in the absence of this loving care.
Reactive attachment disorder is a disturbed ability to relate socially in most situations and typically shows up as generalized mistrust of people or indiscriminately trusting people. This disorder occurs when an infant's basic emotional needs, physical needs, and/or security needs are not met adequately by the primary caretaker. Reactive attachment disorder may also occur when the existence of multiple caregivers prevents an infant from forming stable attachments.
There are two main subtypes of reactive attachment disorder. An individual suffering from the inhibited type of reactive attachment disorder will often remain aloof and uninvolved in social situations. Although she may respond with politeness to friendly overtures, her heart will not be involved in the interaction and she will end the connection as quickly as possible.
The likely root of love addiction stems from the disinhibited type of reactive attachment disorder. In this situation, a person responds to social situations indiscriminately, or does not show good judgment in selecting people with whom to attach. This individual will try to connect socially with anyone who is willing, whether or not the person is a healthy social choice.
Low self-esteem, feelings of inadequacy, and insecurity are common characteristics of a love addict. These qualities put a love addict at risk for submitting herself to abusive, dangerous, and unhealthy relationships in her search for love. A love addict's constant fear of losing her partner may also lead her to engage in desperate measures to retain the attentions of her partner.
Although reactive attachment disorder may result from an abusive, neglectful caretaker, there may also be legitimate reasons why a caretaker is unable to meet the needs of an infant. A caretaker may be physically ill, mentally ill, away in the military, or in other ways unavailable through no personal fault.
A child with reactive attachment disorder may grow into an adult who develops a love addiction in an unhealthy attempt to meet this legitimate need for attachment and love. A person may initially develop a love addiction by observing unhealthy relationships within her family system. Parents, extended relatives, or close family friends may have also had a love addiction that served as an example for the addict.
Environmentally, movies, television, and music often represent love addiction as a normal and desirable way of life or as a subject for comedy. For an individual who is susceptible to love addiction, it can be difficult to resist the influence of this unhealthy representation of love perpetrated by the entertainment industry. In addition, what about biological influences on love addiction?
The biological chemistry associated with the emotion of love is real, complex, and amazing. Dopamine, norepinephrine, testosterone, phenylethylamine (PEA), and serotonin levels are all associated with the emotion of love. When an individual is feeling romantic, the levels of dopamine increase in the brain's nucleus accumbens and caudate nucleus, and in the ventral tegmental area.
This is the region of the brain that forms the reward network that has been discussed in previous chapters. You may recall that this area of the brain is heavily associated with cravings and addictions. It might even be said that increased dopamine levels act like a “love potion.” When a person's need for love goes unmet, elevated dopamine levels lead to cravings that intensify with the unavailability of a partner. Additionally, dopamine stimulates an elevation in testosterone levels that increase sexual desire.
Levels of phenylethylamine (PEA) increase with feelings of infatuation. Elevations of this brain chemical, which is closely related to amphetamines, lead to feelings of euphoria and excitement when an appealing potential partner comes into view. Chocolate contains PEA and may be why chocolate is often described as an aphrodisiac.
Norepinephrine comes into play by providing energy, feelings of euphoria, and the ability to imprint this wonderful love experience into long-term memory. Remember, having a rewarding experience available in our memory banks serves as a trigger to want more and more. An interesting chemical phenomenon that occurs simultaneously with the rise in dopamine, PEA, norepinephrine, and testosterone is a drop in serotonin levels.
The decreased serotonin levels lead to the obsessive qualities associated with love. All else may be forgotten in the pursuit of the love object. When attachment problems, environmental influences, and chemical imbalances converge, one can easily see that love addiction can be a serious and often debilitating disorder.
Love addicts are often motivated by fears of change, loss, and abandonment. Taken to the extreme, these fears can result in assaults, suicide, stalking, and even murder. How does a person know if he is a love addict? The following characteristics are commonly seen in a love addict:
It is very difficult for him to trust in relationships.
He often has a fear of abandonment and loneliness.
He may experience intense anger over abuse or the lack of nurturing in childhood.
He is likely to emotionally attach without taking the time to get to know a person.
He confuses wants with needs.
He may behave manipulatively and dependently.
He will likely become preoccupied with his romantic interests to the point of being unable to concentrate or focus on other activities in his life.
Emotional emptiness may be present even while he is involved in a relationship.
Unrealistic qualities and expectations may be attached to the person he is attracted to, along with the belief that only that person can bring him happiness.
He may spend excessive amounts of money on his romantic interests. Debt and a failure to meet financial obligations may result.
A love addict will try to regulate his moods through relationships. Depression and anxiety disorders are common. The mood elevations created by a new relationship lead to a false sense of well-being. Professional treatment with therapy and medications may be necessary to help a love addict accurately assess and manage his emotions.
A person with a love addiction will find it very difficult to believe that she is deserving of a healthy love relationship. She is likely to focus more on her partner and pleasing him rather than on developing her own sense of self. In fact, a love addict may continue to worry and obsess about a partner whom she broke off with years ago.
Is recovery from love addiction possible? Yes, but as with other addictions, professional help will likely be necessary. Psychotherapy to deal with such issues as attachment disorders, low self-esteem, undeveloped self-identity, lack of social skills, and mood disorders may be quite beneficial to a love addict's recovery. Medication management of mood disorders or other associated mental health problems may also be necessary.