What happens when 'in love' becomes an addiction? 

The state of being 'in love' is easy to recognise, featuring prominently in everything from Disney movies to Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet. In Love Actually, Mark's obsession with Julia, who marries his best friend, is full of idealisation and yearning. Characters in love also appear in TV series like Sex and the City and Friends.


However, being 'in love' is not always portrayed as comfortable, a sentiment reflected in various languages. In French, 'La Douleur Exquise' describes the exquisite pain of wanting someone you can't have. The Portuguese word 'Saudade' captures a longing for someone loved but unattainable. In English, we use "lovesick" to describe the emotional and physical state of someone deeply affected by love, often in a way that causes distress or discomfort.

'Lovesickness' is typically related to romantic love, such as unrequited love leading to feelings of obsession, sadness, and longing. This condition is often described using the term 'limerence,' coined by psychologist Dorothy Tennov in the 1970s. Limerence is an intense, involuntary emotional state characterised by obsessive thoughts and feelings of infatuation towards another person who is idealised and whose flaws are overlooked.

There is a strong desire to have these feelings reciprocated, causing euphoria or sadness in response to the behaviour of the object of affection. Physical symptoms may include increased heart rate and sleeplessness, while daydreams or fantasies about the other person often include idealised scenarios.

Why does it happen if feeling limerence is often emotionally painful and overwhelming? Our evolution and biology may offer some insight: our brains are 'wired' for two primary purposes: survival and reproduction. From an evolutionary standpoint, limerence can be seen as a way to form a bond and reproduce. The intense emotions and obsessive focus on a potential mate increase the likelihood of forming a close, lasting bond, which can be advantageous for raising children and ensuring the continuation of genes.

The biology of limerence

Despite the 'romance' portrayed around limerence, it may come down to our biological makeup. Limerence involves intense emotions and physical experiences driven by various neurochemical processes and brain activities. These biological mechanisms contribute to the intense and sometimes overwhelming feelings involved in limerence.

Dopamine levels elevate, causing euphoria and high energy, leading to addictive-like behaviours as individuals seek these pleasurable feelings repeatedly. Norepinephrine, involved in the body's fight or flight response, results in physical symptoms like increased heart rate, sweaty palms, and excitement and nervousness around the romantic interest.

Serotonin, which regulates mood and social behaviour, drops during limerence, leading to obsessive thoughts and compulsive behaviours similar to those seen in obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). Oxytocin and vasopressin are involved in bonding and attachment. Oxytocin, the "love hormone," is released during physical touch, reinforcing bonding. Vasopressin promotes long-term commitment and attachment. The brain regions activated during limerence contribute to the obsessive focus and goal-directed behaviours seen in limerence, alongside impaired judgment and impulsive behaviours.

Understanding the biology of limerence can provide insights into why we experience such powerful feelings of infatuation and attachment, highlighting the deep-rooted evolutionary and neurobiological mechanisms at play.

When 'in love' becomes addictive: The pain of love addiction

Love addiction is not an official medical diagnosis recognised by major psychiatric or psychological organisations like the World Health Organization (WHO) or the American Psychiatric Association (APA). Nor is it listed in the 'bibles' of diagnosis: the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) or the International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11).

However, the concept is widely discussed and used by mental health professionals, relationship counsellors, and popular psychology to describe patterns of behaviour that resemble addiction in the context of romantic relationships.

Love addiction describes a pattern of behaviour in which an individual becomes excessively and compulsively preoccupied with the idea of love, a specific partner, or the experience of being in love. This preoccupation can interfere with day-to-day life and lead to unhealthy relationships and emotional distress. Love addictions are underpinned by irrationally thinking very positively about a person or idealising them.

Key characteristics and signs of love addiction:

Obsessive thoughts:

Constantly thinking about a romantic or potential partner to the point where it disrupts other areas of life.

Intense cravings:

Feeling an overwhelming need to be in a relationship or to receive attention and validation from a romantic partner.

Repeated relationship patterns:

Engaging in a cycle of intense, short-lived relationships or repeatedly returning to a dysfunctional relationship despite adverse consequences.

Neglecting personal needs:

Prioritising the relationship or the idea of love over personal well-being, career, friendships, and other essential aspects of life.

Emotional dependency:

Relying heavily on a partner for self-esteem, happiness, and purpose.

Fear of abandonment:

Experiencing intense fear of being alone or abandoned, leading to clingy or controlling behaviours.

Tolerance and withdrawal:

Similar to substance addiction, love addicts may develop a tolerance (needing more intensity or novelty in relationships to feel the same level of excitement) and experience withdrawal symptoms (depression, anxiety, irritability) when not in a relationship or when a relationship ends.

What causes love addiction?

Love addiction can stem from various factors that may make an individual more vulnerable to it, including unresolved issues from childhood, such as neglect, abandonment, or inconsistent parental affection. Other factors include past experiences of trauma or abuse, insecure attachment styles developed in early relationships with caregivers, and low self-esteem, causing the seeking of validation and worth through romantic relationships. Psychological conditions like anxiety, depression, or other addictive behaviours can also increase vulnerability.

The link between love addiction and co-dependency

Co-dependency refers to a pattern of behaviour in which an individual excessively relies on others for approval and identity, often to the detriment of their needs. Codependent individuals may prioritise others' needs over their own and derive their sense of worth from their ability to care for and control their partner. Both love addiction and co-dependency involve a high degree of emotional dependency on another person, where the state of the relationship heavily influences an individual's sense of self-worth and emotional stability.

A core feature of both conditions is an intense fear of being alone or abandoned, leading to behaviours aimed at preventing the partner from leaving. Individuals with love addiction or co-dependency often struggle with low self-esteem and seek approval and validation from their partner to feel worthy and valued. These conditions lead to dysfunctional relationship patterns, with a focus on maintaining the relationship at all costs, often sacrificing personal well-being and health.

Love addiction and co-dependency are interconnected conditions that involve unhealthy dependencies on romantic relationships. Understanding their link can help develop effective treatment strategies to foster healthier, more balanced relationships and improve overall quality of life.

If you identify problematic signs of love addiction or co-dependency within your relationships, there are ways to access help:

1. Therapy

  • Individual therapy: Helps individuals understand their patterns, develop healthier self-esteem, and learn to set boundaries.
  • Couples therapy: Can help both partners understand their roles in the relationship and develop healthier dynamics.

2. Support groups

Groups such as Codependents Anonymous (CoDA) and Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous (SLAA) provide support and strategies for recovery.

3. Self-care and boundaries

Encouraging individuals to focus on self-care, set healthy boundaries, and develop interests and relationships outside the romantic partnership.

I offer two approaches, as standalone treatments or in combination, according to individual needs.

1. EMDR (eye movement desensitisation and reprocessing)

EMDR can be a practical therapeutic approach for individuals struggling with love addiction. Here's how EMDR helps:

Processing traumatic memories:

Many individuals with love addiction have unresolved trauma or attachment issues from childhood. EMDR helps reprocess these traumatic memories, reducing their emotional charge and impact on current behaviours and feelings.

Alleviating emotional distress:

EMDR targets and alleviates the intense emotions associated with love addiction, such as fear of abandonment, obsessive thinking, and emotional dependency. By reprocessing these emotions, individuals can achieve a more balanced emotional state.

Changing negative beliefs:

Love addiction often involves negative self-beliefs and low self-esteem. EMDR helps individuals identify and reframe these negative beliefs into more positive, realistic ones, promoting healthier self-perception and relationship dynamics.

Breaking patterns of obsessive thoughts:

EMDR addresses the obsessive thoughts and compulsive behaviours associated with love addiction by helping individuals desensitise to triggers and develop healthier thought patterns.

Improving emotional regulation:

EMDR enhances emotional regulation, allowing individuals to manage their emotions better without resorting to addictive relationship behaviours.

By addressing the root causes and emotional triggers of love addiction, EMDR facilitates healing and promotes healthier, more fulfilling relationships.

2. Psychodynamic psychotherapy

Psychodynamic psychotherapy can be an effective treatment for love addiction by exploring the underlying unconscious processes and past experiences that contribute to addictive behaviours in relationships. Here's how it helps:

Exploring childhood and attachment issues:

Psychodynamic therapy delves into early childhood experiences and attachment patterns. Understanding these foundational relationships helps identify how unresolved issues contribute to love addiction, such as the need for approval or fear of abandonment.

Uncovering unconscious motives:

The therapy aims to bring unconscious thoughts and feelings to the conscious mind. By uncovering hidden motives and desires, individuals can gain insight into why they pursue unhealthy relationships and addictive behaviours.

Understanding repeated patterns:

Psychodynamic therapy helps individuals recognise and understand repeated relationship patterns. By identifying these patterns, individuals can see how past experiences influence their current behaviours and relationship choices.

Addressing emotional conflicts:

The therapy provides a space to explore and resolve internal emotional conflicts that contribute to love addiction. Resolving these conflicts can reduce the compulsion to seek out addictive relationships as a way to cope with unresolved feelings.

Developing insight and self-awareness:

Psychodynamic therapy fosters greater self-awareness and insight into one's behaviours, thoughts, and feelings. This increased self-understanding enables individuals to make more conscious and healthier relationship choices.

Enhancing emotional regulation:

Individuals can develop better emotional regulation by exploring and processing emotions in therapy. This helps reduce the intensity of emotions that drive love addiction, such as anxiety, jealousy, and desperation.

Building healthier relationships:

Individuals can form healthier attachment styles and relationship patterns by working through past traumas and emotional issues. This leads to more balanced, fulfilling, and stable relationships, reducing the reliance on addictive behaviours.

Overall, psychodynamic psychotherapy helps individuals with love addiction by addressing the root causes of their behaviour, promoting emotional healing, and fostering healthier relationship dynamics.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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Gerrards Cross SL9 & London W10
Written by Helen Hadden, Psychotherapist; psychodynamic & EMDR, adults. BPC, MBACP
Gerrards Cross SL9 & London W10

I am a psychotherapist working with adults using one-to-one talking therapy in the NHS and private practice. Working psychodynamically, I also use EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing). Originally developed to treat PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) now, EMDR is used to treat many issues, including anxiety and depression.

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