When people say they “have an addiction,” they’re often talking about an extreme fondness for something. Sure, you might really love snowboarding, listening to podcasts, or watching cat videos. But generally speaking, these aren’t actual addictions.
Addiction is a serious condition that affects the brain. True addiction makes it difficult to think about anything else. You’re compelled to keep seeking that thing out, even when your need negatively affects you or your loved ones.
This description can make it easy to translate certain relationship behaviors into a “relationship addiction.”
These behaviors might include:
- feeling incomplete without a partner
- constantly talking about falling in love
- having more interest in being in love than in sustaining a healthy relationship
But can you actually be addicted to love? It’s complicated.
Addiction typically refers to alcohol or substance dependency, but experts increasingly support the existence of behavioral addictions. These include addictions to things like gambling and shopping. Relationship addiction, some argue, could fit into this category.
But it’s not that simple.
According to Vicki Botnick, a marriage and family therapist in Tarzana, California, “using the term addiction to talk about love and sex is controversial.” Love and sex are both a natural part of human life, unlike, say, substance use or gambling.
The lack of diagnostic criteria also complicates things. “Are you an addict when you jump from relationship to relationship? What does ‘loving too much’ actually mean?” she asks.
In other words, simply moving from relationship to relationship or wanting to have multiple relationships at the same time doesn’t mean you’re “addicted.” Neither does falling in love quickly, wanting to find a new partner immediately after a breakup, or enjoying how it feels to have a relationship.
Still, Botnick acknowledges that, “as with any condition, it’s concerning when someone’s thoughts and behavior cause significant, ongoing distress.”
A few recent studies have explored how characteristics of addiction can show up in the development of romantic relationships.
A 2018 review and case study echoed the link between love and dopamine. However, the authors noted that the cravings and longing tend to mellow over time into a more stable, lasting love. That is, when the love is mutual. One-sided or unrequited love might feel more addictive.
The addictive qualities of love can also come into play during a breakup. A 2010 study examined brain activity in 15 people who had recently experienced relationship rejection. According to the study, similar areas of the brain activated by cocaine cravings were also activated after rejection.
As with other types of addiction, addiction-like behaviors around relationships result from a complex interaction of factors. These include brain chemistry, genetics, upbringing, and the relationships you see around you.
Others argue that love is simply an evolutionary survival response.
Botnick also points to low self-esteem as a key contributor. “When we don’t know how to get positive feedback from inside ourselves, we need it from outside sources. Falling in love, or just getting interest from potential partners, can become a method we rely on.”
She also adds that attachment issues can fuel this pattern.
Although relationship addiction isn’t recognized as an official diagnosis, mental health experts and existing research generally agree on a few key signs that suggest cause for concern.
You need to keep falling in love
Experts link the euphoric high (activated by the release of dopamine and other “happy” hormones) that’s so common in the early stages of love to addictive relationship behaviors. So it follows that someone experiencing this pattern would crave that feeling again and again.
“You might find yourself in a revolving door of relationships, with no down time in between,” explains Melissa Stringer, a marriage and family therapist in Sunnyvale, Texas.
You want the excitement of early love, but you don’t want to stick around for a relationship. This can hurt both you and your romantic partners over time, especially when you don’t communicate (or realize) your relationship goals.
You continue “craving” someone who doesn’t feel the same way
“With all addictions or comfort-seeking behaviors, an obsessive type of focus can begin to take over,” Stringer says.
Maybe you struggle to let go of a relationship after it ends. Or you might fixate on the person you love, even if they no longer return your feelings. Even after they ask for space, you might feel compelled to keep seeing them, trying to convince them to give the relationship another chance.
This overwhelming need for your partner can also happen within a relationship when you crave their company so much you neglect work, school, and other important parts of your life in order to spend time together.
You idealize the idea of love
According to Botnick, unrealistic cultural ideas about love can play a part.
“From fairy tales to Lifetime movies to Facebook feeds, we’re bombarded with images of ‘perfect’ partners and love that ‘completes’ us,” she says.
With these ideals in mind, you might feel like you have to keep searching for that soulmate, that perfect love, without considering the very real work that goes into making a relationship strong and successful.
You don’t care who you date, as long as you’re in a relationship
Many people who struggle with compulsive relationship behaviors need others to build up their self-worth. If you find it hard to love yourself or make yourself happy, you might look for someone to fulfill that need.
This consuming need for a relationship can make it easier to end up with someone who isn’t the best match. It could even have a harmful impact if you stay in an abusive or toxic relationship to avoid being single.
Your relationships follow a similar pattern
Relationship addiction can involve a lot of breaking up and getting back together.
“The beginning of a relationship releases endorphins and dopamine, which feel wonderful, while breakups can spike a deep depression. People with certain personality types may feel attracted to this roller coaster and have a hard time feeling alive without it,” Botnick explains.
Stringer expands on this, suggesting that the enthusiasm of believing you’ve found “the one” and depression when the short-lived relationship ends can form a cycle. This cycle can lead to impulsive decisions and affect your ability to function as you usually would.
If you’re working to address compulsive love or relationship behaviors, awareness of how these behaviors affect you is an essential first step.
But, Stringer emphasizes, awareness usually isn’t enough. “Learning new skills and tools for coping are both necessary parts of behavior change,” she explains.
These tips can help you begin creating that change.
Try a reality check
If you tend to idealize love, try looking at your relationships through a more realistic lens.
Love can be great, it’s true. A committed partner can provide emotional support, a sense of connection and belonging, and help meet other needs. But a partner can’t meet all of your needs.
Thriving relationships are interdependent. That means you have an established self-identity and don’t lose it in the relationship. You can work to get your own needs met but also know when to look to your partner for help and support.
Remember that healthy relationships take work. In the beginning, things usually seem easy: You have great chemistry, share interests, and never argue. But over time, as you get more comfortable, your differences might begin to stand out.
This doesn’t mean the relationship has failed. It just means you have to work together to learn more about each other and find a middle ground.
Take a break from relationships
When problematic patterns arise in your relationships, it’s helpful to step back and consider why the same things keep happening.
Dissatisfaction often means you aren’t getting what you need. But maybe you aren’t exactly sure what you need or want. Or perhaps you’re searching for something you’re unlikely to find (like romanticized love that mostly only exists in the media).
Remember, forming and quickly ending relationships doesn’t just affect you. It can also affect the partners you leave behind.
If you don’t want to continue a relationship, you should never feel compelled or obligated to do so. However, you owe it to potential partners (and yourself) to be as honest and clear about your intentions as possible, if you want to avoid causing harm.
Spending time with friends and family can help you prioritize other strong relationships. The bonds you have with other loved ones can fulfill other important social connection needs besides romance.
Practice loving yourself
Self-love is tied to self-esteem, and a lack of either can contribute to relationship dependency and addiction-like behaviors.
Working to build up self-esteem on your own isn’t always easy, but Botnick suggests:
- Asking yourself if you have realistic standards for yourself. If not, try to identify more moderate, achievable goals. Unrealistic goals can lead to self-criticism and self-blame when you fail to achieve them.
- Identifying negative self-talk. If you find yourself thinking something like, “I’ll never have the love I want,” try replacing it with something more realistic such as, “Exploring what I want from a relationship can help me find what I’m looking for.”
Positive self-talk can also help you feel better about yourself and lead to stronger relationships.
Addictive behaviors around love, sex, and relationships can be hard to overcome on your own.
According to Stringer, a number of factors can affect your success in moving past these behaviors without professional help. “When unresolved trauma drives these behaviors,” she says, “chances are lower you’ll simply be able to stop them.”
If you’re having difficulty, a therapist can help. Therapy is always recommended whenever relationship behaviors cause you (or anyone) distress.
It’s best to talk to someone sooner rather than later if you:
- depend entirely on your partner
- believe your life lacks meaning without a relationship
- feel unable to leave a toxic relationship
- can’t stop calling or texting a love interest or past partner who’s asked you not to contact them
- have thoughts of hurting yourself or someone else
- experience significant, lasting mood changes, like depression or irritability
A therapist can work with you to identify and address thought patterns or underlying issues contributing to these feelings and behaviors.
Therapy can also help you develop stronger relationships. If your craving for the euphoric “high” of new love is keeping you from the long-term relationship you actually desire, a therapist can help you come up with a productive plan for creating the kind of love you’re seeking.
The need for love or a relationship doesn’t affect everyone negatively. It’s completely normal and healthy to want a relationship, and if your search for love doesn’t harm you or anyone else, you likely don’t need to worry.
But if you feel dependent on relationships, or if your relationship patterns or behaviors concern you in other ways, a therapist can offer support without judgment.
Crystal Raypole has previously worked as a writer and editor for GoodTherapy. Her fields of interest include Asian languages and literature, Japanese translation, cooking, natural sciences, sex positivity, and mental health. In particular, she’s committed to helping decrease stigma around mental health issues.