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What is Love Addiction?

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Updated February 15, 2013

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What is Love Addiction?

It may look beautiful, but romantic love can be unhealthy and compulsive.

Image (c) Jamie Grill/Getty

Love addiction is a phenomenon in which a person becomes "addicted" to the experience of falling or being in love. It can overlap with sex addiction -- the same person can experience obsessive love and compulsive sex, even towards the same person -- but there are key differences.

Love addiction is just one of several types of maladaptive romantic love, which hurt rather than enhance the lives of those involved. Other harmful forms of romantic love include immature love, which can include negative elements such as possessiveness, jealousy, and pity; codependency, in which one person in a couple enables the addiction of the other; and stalking or cyberstalking, a form of violence which, intentionally or not, instills fear in the victim.

Like all addictions, whether to substances or behaviors, love addiction can take over a person's life so that he's spending more and more time thinking about, pining for, and pursuing the person, or persons, he believes he's in love with. The feelings of euphoria that accompany falling in love can lead to obsessive thinking and "craving" the object of your affection when not available. In fact, love addiction has little to do with genuine feelings of affection or caring, but instead revolves around the rewarding sensations that are re-experienced by satisfying the cravings for being with — or imagining you are with — the person you are in love with, along with the belief that romance is a magical experience in which unrealistic ideals are projected onto the object of affection.

Similarly, sex addiction can take over someone's life, but not generally with any unrealistic ideals about the other person or delusions of love; in fact, sex addiction often involves seeing the object of desire as a mere sex object of interest only for physical gratification and a boost to the ego. Often, rather than seeing one person as special (as in love addiction), someone with a sex addition will see her sexual partners as replaceable and interchangeable. Yet with some individuals, sex addiction and love addiction co-occur, making it difficult to separate the two. Both love addiction and sex addiction stem from unhealthy experiences of attachment in early childhood, particularly those that revolve around ambivalence or anxiety.

Some of the irrational ideas that underlie love addiction are quite common in popular culture, and are promoted in romantic novels and movies, and through the greeting card and pop music industries. These irrational ideas include the belief that you cannot go on living without the object of your love addiction, that you are less of a person — or somehow incomplete — without the object of your love addiction, or that there's just one special person in the world that you can be "truly" in love with. Because the reality of adaptive romantic love is a more balanced, mutually supportive process, in which both people accept each other's humanity, weaknesses and failings, and continually re-commit to one another, love addiction quickly leads to disappointment.

Addictive love can never live up to the ideals that it's based on, so some experts have argued that love addiction is a fixation with the early stages of romance. Someone who is prone to love addiction may therefore have a series of lovers, whether real or imagined. As soon as the object of affection reveals any human weakness other than those that are romanticized, or rejects the person who is obsessing about them, they are replaced with a new target. Some love addicts have multiple partners, somehow bypassing the awareness that love cannot be based on lies and betrayal. They fool themselves as much as their victims when they tell themselves they are "in love with two or more people at the same time."

Although love addiction has been conceptualized and studied in different ways, some researchers have found that men and women are equally likely to develop love addiction, which has been estimated to occur in about 5-10% of the US population. Despite popular belief, it seems that men are slightly more likely than women to develop passionate love at the beginning of a relationship, although women may have a stronger association between love and desire. More research is needed to clarify the relationship between love addiction and gender.

Sources

Curtis, J. "Elements of pathological love relationships." Psychological Reports, 53, 83–92. 1983.

Feeney, J. & Noller, P. "Attachment style as a predictor of adult romantic relationships." Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 58, 281–291. 1990.

Sussman, S. "Love Addiction: Definition, Etiology, Treatment." Sexual Addiction & Compulsivity, 17:31–45, 2010.

Timmreck, T. "Overcoming the loss of love: Preventing love addiction and promoting positive emotional health." Psychological Reports, 66, 515–528. 1990.

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