Is It Love or Is It Addiction?

The greatness of love stories is not in how perfect they can be, but what lessons they reveal to us. —Brenda Schaeffer

Words we often associate with addiction include obsessive, excessive, destructive, habitual, attached, dependent, and sick. And when you think about it, some of these words can be used to talk about love relationships or our use of sex.  This does not mean love is a habit we have to kick. Our need to experience love is real—the goal is to identify and keep addictive elements out of our love life and bring healthy elements in.  Through my clinical experience I learned relationships have the characteristics of both addictive love and healthy belonging and most people do not know the difference.  Clients understand the concept of love, romance and sex as an addiction because they are living it.  “I can’t get her out of my head.” “I want to leave him but I’m too afraid.”  “My behaviors around sex are just like my behaviors around alcohol.”  It was from them I learned the reality of love as an addiction.

In the coming weeks I will do a series on addictive love based on my books. My wish is that you pick up one insight that can help you or someone you care about enjoy and protect the human gifts of love, romance and sex.

What is Addictive Love?

Addictive Love is an umbrella word I use for three categories—love addiction, romance addiction, and sex addiction.  Love addiction refers to the enmeshed attachments we form with other people; romance addiction refers to the unhealthy attachment to the sensations being in love produces, and sex addiction refers to the uncontrollable attachment to sexual highs.  Addictive love may or may not include a romantic or sexual component.  When the object of love is also the object of his/her romantic and sexual desires, he/she will experience intense feelings often resulting in irrational behaviors if the love object withdraws, betrays, threatens to leave or leaves.  Addictive love can be anything from a mild dependency to a fatal attraction.  We read about the extreme cases in the daily news:  stalking, domestic abuse, sexual abuse, sordid romances.

My clinical definition of Addictive Love is that it is an unconscious attempt to get unmet needs fulfilled, avoid fear or emotional pain, solve problems, fill our loneliness, heal past trauma, and maintain balance. The paradox is that addictive love is an attempt to gain control of our lives, and in so doing, we go out of control by giving personal power to someone or some experience outside ourselves.

If we failed to get everything needed in just the way it was needed growing up, if we felt pain in past relationships, or if we suffered trauma of some kind, we are prone to addictive love. Thus, it makes sense to learn more about this relational disease.

Why Addictive Love is so common.

Our society’s obsession with love, romance and sex pervades every aspect of our lives--the internet, movies and television, advertising, song lyrics, and even great works of fiction, poetry, drama and art. Our culture idealizes, dramatizes, and models a dependency that suggests we cannot live without a person, romance or sex. We have been groomed to look outside ourselves for happiness and love.  

We are also neuro-chemically vulnerable.  Biology provides us with the three sensations of pleasure--arousal, fantasy, and satiation controlled by hundreds of chemicals such as PEA, dopamine, and oxytocin. Though these chemicals are meant to enhance our love life we can become dependent on these “feel good” chemicals and medicate our ills with them or continue the search for the high. 

The psychological seeds of addictive love are usually sown in early life when we experience overt or covert abuse or neglect from those we love.  The feelings of “never having enough” or “not being enough” often result. Addictive love is an unconscious attempt to satisfy an inner hunger for security, sensation, power, identity, belonging, and meaning.  It is based on fear:  fear of pain, fear of failure, fear of being alone, fear of getting close, fear of deprivation, fear of anger, guilt and rejection, fear of disappointing someone, fear of change, fear of getting sick or going crazy.

Obsessive, dependent, erotic love often is a misplaced attempt to achieve that mystical fusion we so deeply desire. We want to end the feelings of isolation caused by our learned restraints against true intimacy.  Aroused by the experience of love, one often is willing to suspend those restraints in order to merge with another. If the merger is dependent and immature, the result is addiction.  Life energy is directed on the pursuit of gratification rather than growth.   If mature, the love will grow and expand.

Kari’s Story

As young as three years of age, I remember escaping the pain of loneliness and fear by creating places and imaginary friends in my head. I felt safe in this other world.

As I entered my teens, my craving for love and attention intensified. Now I had body feelings and rebellion to add to the fantasy mix. I obsessed about guys. I fantasized being chosen by older, popular guys.  And I worked hard to make my fantasy reality but inside I continued to feel depressed, unloved, and unpopular. Nothing seemed to fill the big empty hole inside of me.  It was a vicious circle. I went from painful feelings—to fantasizing about a new romantic relationship—to acting out the fantasy—to painful feelings—to another fantasy.

My cravings persisted into adulthood. Looking for someone to fix the wounds of childhood, I sought romantic love. I continued in my rich fantasy world of magical deliverance, believing that another love would appear and make me whole.  I had several love affairs, but none fulfilled me. Then, I met Cliff. I really thought I found the man of my dreams. He would be the one to heal my wounds and provide the love I had been looking for. We fantasized about our shared life together. We shared a dream of marriage, living and working together, sharing our spiritual life. He was intrigued by my sense of magic and wonder.  We laughed, played and loved each other. I was in a magical whirlwind for months. Then a sexual addiction I had not known about surfaced. His addiction led him to another woman.  I was devastated.

I am processing this loss of the magical “us”. Along with letting go of the pain and obsession, I am grieving the loss of some wonderful moments as well. I think I am getting the lesson. It is time to let love be love and not a fantasy fulfiller. It is time to heal the roots of my need to take flights into fantasy.  It is time to fill that hole inside of me with self-love.

I hope you will follow me in future blogs as I take you to a deeper understanding of the following topics:

  •  What Love is and Is Not

  • Three Types of Addictive Love

  • The Psychology of Addictive Love

  • Signs of Love Addiction

  • Signs of Romance Addiction

  • Signs of Sex Addiction

  • Signs of Healthy Belonging

  • Power Plays

  • Power Sharing

  • The Body in Love

  • The Ego in Love

  • The Soul in Love

  • The Spirit in Love

Let me know if there is a topic you want to know more about.