Being in love can bring on a rollercoaster of powerful, sometimes even overwhelming, emotions. The rush of excitement, joy, and other positive feelings love can spark may, for some people, kindle the desire to chase after that experience again and again.
Sometimes, this is referred to as a “love addiction.”
But this so-called “addiction” to love merely refers to a set of behaviors, according to licensed clinical psychologist and psychologist Anthony DeMaria, PhD.
There’s no clinical diagnosis of love addiction, DeMaria goes on to explain. This term usually refers to a preoccupation with the feeling of being in love, which might lead someone to seek out love in a way that causes unwanted consequences.
What’s wrong with calling this an addiction? Using “addiction” to describe this pattern is problematic for several reasons, explains Emily Simonian, a licensed marriage and family therapist with Thriveworks.
For one, addiction remains stigmatized in society as a whole. Not only that, but substance use disorders can be serious — even life-threatening. Overusing or inappropriately using the word “addiction” can erode the weight and meaning of a true addiction.
As such, Simonian suggests “emotional reliance” as a less problematic and more accurate way of describing it.
With all that in mind, read on to learn what exactly a reliance or fixation on love might entail, and what steps experts recommend for overcoming it.
Experts do recognize that certain patterns of behavior can become problematic, even addictive. To date, the “Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th edition (DSM-5)” recognizes gambling disorder and internet gaming disorder as behavioral addictions.
Yet since love addiction isn’t an official diagnosis, you won’t find it in the DSM-5. Experts also haven’t established any official criteria or symptoms that characterize this behavior pattern.
That said, a few key patterns in your relationship behavior might invite some deeper exploration. If you’ve noticed any of the signs below, it may be worth connecting with a mental health professional for support.
It’s typical to find your mind preoccupied with a love interest during the “honeymoon phase,” when you’re first falling for someone, explains Omar Ruiz, licensed therapist and founder of TalkThinkThrive.
But if pervasive thoughts about a particular person, or the idea of love in general, start to negatively affect your job, schoolwork, sleep, or any other areas of your life, that may pose some cause for concern.
Missing a partner is very common. But if you feel unbearable distress when they’re not around, Ruiz says that may signal what some call love addiction — an unhealthy fixation, in other words.
You may even find yourself avoiding circumstances that would separate you from your love interest, says Gail Saltz, MD, a psychiatrist and clinical associate professor of psychiatry at The NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital.
For example, you might:
- skip work
- ditch school
- cancel plans with friends
- avoid following through on family commitments
Do you move from relationship to relationship, not out of fear of being alone, but from an overwhelming or insatiable desire to feel loved? DeMaria says that may point to an unhealthy preoccupation.
Using love as a tool for avoidance
Maybe you find yourself spending a lot of time with the person you love, and you focus on thoughts of them when you can’t be together to avoid painful or unwanted thoughts and feelings.
Thinking about a love object as a way of avoiding negative emotions can be a red flag, Ruiz says.
Staying with someone, even when it’s unhealthy
Even when a relationship becomes potentially toxic or beyond repair, you may make frantic efforts to maintain it, DeMaria says. But these attempts to keep the relationship alive may prove self-defeating.
Not every relationship will work out, of course, and sometimes moving on is the best option for you and your continued well-being.
Only getting enjoyment out of love or a relationship
Do you mostly only feel positive emotions when in love or with a significant other? That could suggest an unhealthy behavior pattern, Simonian says.
Maybe you find yourself:
- no longer enjoying hobbies or activities that used to excite you
- centering on your partner or relationship as a reason to live
- grappling with feelings of hopelessness when you aren’t with your partner
Although experts agree across the board that you can’t actually become addicted to relationships, or love in general, many relationship and post-breakup patterns can certainly resemble addiction.
This has a lot to do with your brain chemistry.
For instance, Saltz says you may become determined to get back together with an ex to re-experience those pleasurable feelings associated with love. This shares some similarities with the cravings experienced by people living with substance use disorders.
Research from 2016suggested feelings of intense romantic love activate regions of the brain’s “reward system” — the same regions engaged with substance use disorders.
Since romantic love activates this system, people in love may experience many of the same behaviors associated with substance use disorders, including cravings and withdrawal.
But it’s essential to keep one important distinction in mind: A
2017 studysuggested this effect on the brain lasts much longer in response to substance use than it does in response to love.
Addictive substances, including alcohol, nicotine, and many recreational drugs, trigger the release of a feel-good brain chemical called dopamine, and
Basically, dopamine tells your brain, “This feels great! Let’s do it again!” Saltz says.
Simonian explains the “love addiction” can leave someone unable to focus on anything except being with their partner and the accompanying romantic feelings, which disrupts day-to-day functioning.
“This interruption of functioning is what makes this behavior like an addiction,” Simonian says.
According to a 2021 study, certain stages of romantic love can cause an experience that resembles withdrawal.
Saltz notes that a breakup, in particular, may cause some of the same
- trouble sleeping
- changes in appetite
- a low mood and feelings of depression
But again, since love “addiction” doesn’t represent an actual addiction, these symptoms can’t be compared to the experience of true withdrawal from a substance you physically depend on.
“The abrupt change in routine and loss of receiving affection, paired with decreased levels of dopamine in the brain, might feel like withdrawal,” Simonian says. “However, withdrawal from discontinuing drug or alcohol use can cause serious physical symptoms that don’t line up with the emotional intensity of a breakup.”
These withdrawal-like symptoms are usually rooted in grief, DeMaria says, since the end of a relationship can feel like a devastating loss.
According to Simonian, a fixation or reliance on romantic relationships can often happen as a symptom of other concerns, like:
- low self-esteem
- childhood trauma
According to Saltz, this preoccupation often stems from attachment issues. These potentially self-destructive patterns can develop as a result of how you were treated in the past, especially by caregivers.
“Past relationships, particularly ones formed during childhood, tend to set a template for your attachment patterns with others,” DeMaria explains. “People often attempt to replicate or resolve issues stemming from their early attachment patterns in their current relationships. This can lead to repeating painful emotional experiences in relationships that feel ‘familiar.’”
According to attachment theory, four main types of attachment describe how you view relationships and behave within them.
Anxious-insecure attachment, which seems to stem from inconsistent attention from caregivers, often involves:
- strong cravings for intimacy
- an overdependence on relationships
- frequent relationship insecurity or anxiety
- a fear of abandonment
Some of these tendencies may resemble an “addiction,” so to speak, because they lead you to fixate on someone else as a means of avoiding anxiety and other unwanted emotions.
Since one of the hallmarks of this fixation is persistent, even all-consuming thoughts of love and relationships, Simonian advises finding other interests that you can focus your energy on.
That could mean any number of possibilities, of course. Ideally, you’ll want to opt for activities that mentally engage you and help promote a sense of self-worth.
You can also try engaging in activities that increase those same “happy hormones” as love, including:
- listening to music
- getting a massage
- watching a movie that makes you laugh
“It’s also helpful to find ways to self-soothe so you aren’t relying on others for your sense of emotional well-being,” Simonian says.
She suggests a few examples of self-soothing coping skills, including:
If pursuing or maintaining relationships is disrupting your happiness, health, or ability to complete day-to-day responsibilities, Saltz recommends reaching out to a mental health professional.
How can therapy help?
According to DeMaria, a therapist can offer support with:
- uncovering the underlying cause of your preoccupation with love
- finding new ways to practice self-love and self-care
- addressing unhelpful and unwanted behavior patterns
- building up self-esteem, which can promote a healthier approach to future relationships
Your therapist might recommend different strategies or techniques, depending on what they determine lies behind these relationship behavior patterns.
That said, Saltz notes they might commonly use therapy approaches like cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT).
CBT can help address persistent thought patterns driving compulsive behaviors, while DBT can help you learn new strategies for managing and coping with emotional distress instantly and more effectively regulating emotions in the future.
While you can’t actually be “addicted” to love, you can certainly become emotionally dependent on romantic relationships so much that it negatively affects your well-being.
If your preoccupation with pursuing or being in love starts to challenge your ability to work, maintain relationships with friends and family, or take care of yourself physically, a good next step involves connecting with a therapist.
A therapist can offer compassionate guidance with identifying the cause of these thought patterns and behaviors and developing helpful coping strategies.
Rebecca Strong is a Boston-based freelance writer covering health and wellness, fitness, food, lifestyle, and beauty. Her work has also appeared in Insider, Bustle, StyleCaster, Eat This Not That, AskMen, and Elite Daily.