Written by Mike Quarress, a Certified Sex Addiction Therapist at Edgewood Treatment Centre.
Much controversy surrounds the idea of “love addiction.” People ask, “can one really be addicted to love?” But, one of the fastest growing 12-step fellowships is Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous (SLAA). Heck, even Robert Palmer wrote a song with the following chorus: “might as well face it, you’re addicted to love.” Addiction treatment providers are launching new programs for love addiction—but the question stands: is it real and, if so, what is it?
As a Certified Sex Addiction Therapist and a clinician who works with individuals who have compulsive sexual behaviours, I would like to share my understanding of love addiction. I will describe the etiology of the disorder, as well as assessment and treatment processes.
Addiction to Fantasy
An individual with love addiction will not fall in love with a person who is likely to reciprocate. On the contrary, they will be attracted to a person who will neglect them, often someone with an avoidant attachment style. The individual with love addiction will not be consciously aware of their motivations for these behaviours.
An individual with love addiction is not addicted to another person, nor to love itself. They are addicted to their fantasy of the relationship and how they imagine it will affect their lives. As an individual with love addiction matures into adulthood, they will develop and project their childhood fantasies onto other people. In their fantasy relationship, the individual with love addiction finally feels that they matter to someone else, that they are loveable and worth something.
The etiology of love addiction is rooted in early childhood trauma related to neglect or abandonment, which results in the child’s inability to attach securely to caregivers. Such children will often develop attachments in fantasy relationships. When the child feels neglected, disconnected, disengaged, or lonely, a fantasy relationship provides feelings of security, safety, and attachment. These feelings give the child a sense of well-being, and a basis for believing that they matter to someone. However, this idealized figure is often a person who is unresponsive, unavailable, or not actually real.
Fantasy relationships affect brain chemistry in ways similar to real relationships, and other reinforcing behaviours and substances. When the child is in a fantasy state, the brain releases dopamine, which is responsible for motivation and learning of reward-seeking behaviour. Each time the child enters a fantasy state, the release of dopamine reinforces the behaviour. As the child matures and becomes an adult, they have more opportunities for social engagement and, thus, more opportunities to project their fantasy onto other people. Dopamine, vasopressin, oxytocin, and other neurotransmitters and hormones motivate the individual to create fantasy attachments so that they can feel important to someone.
The brain’s process for reinforcing rewarding behaviours occurs without an individual’s conscious awareness. However, excessive reinforcement of a behaviour will eventually cause the individual to feel dysfunctionally strong motivation to engage in the behaviour. Thus, the particular behaviour will be observed as compulsive and as a symptom of addiction.
Love addiction gets its name from the loving emotions that an individual experiences through their fantasy relationships: attachment, connection, being loved, sexual attraction, desire, and being worth something to someone. The individual with love addiction has developed a dependency to the neurotransmitters and hormones that are released by entering their fantasy. Consequently, when such an individual’s fantasy is shattered through unambiguous abandonment or rejection, they feel symptoms similar to withdrawal—without their fantasy, they cannot produce the release of chemicals within their body to which they have become dependent.
When an individual with love addiction goes into “withdrawal,” they regress to a child-like state which presents as neediness and insecure attachment: a trauma reaction. Observers may misinterpret this as normal distress in reaction to the severing of the relationship, or feeling heartbreak. However, the individual with love addiction internalizes the event as a core belief system which consists of the following: “I don’t matter.” “I am unlovable.” “I am unworthy.” This belief system drives the individual’s dysfunctional behaviours and is at the root of their disorder.
Assessing Love Addiction
Assessing love addiction starts with gaining an understanding of the individual’s experiences in close relationships so that one can identify their attachment style. One must also identify any patterns of dysfunctional behaviours in the individual’s relationships such as giving too much time, energy, or attention. Obsession with the other person, usually at the individual’s own expense, is the essential symptom of love addiction. Obsession can include idealizing the other person and believing that they are “finally, the one who will really love me.”
An individual with love addiction will bond quickly with others, appearing very warm and emotionally responsive. However, they will often be very frightened by any sort of inactivity or lack of communication in the relationship—they will want to know what their partner is doing at all times and will become very anxious and hypervigilant when they cannot. Finally, individuals with love addiction are attracted to people who appear strong and independent. They are excited by the chase, and by the challenge of hooking up with such people by using their flirtatious, seductive, and erotic energy.
Treating Love Addiction
Treating love addiction requires therapeutic modalities rooted in theories of trauma, attachment, and deep family of origin work. Since love addiction is often rooted in an individual’s established core beliefs, treatment must help the individual recognize and acknowledge the problematic nature of their established core beliefs, and then replace them with new, empowering beliefs about themselves. Thus, an individual can develop a more secure attachment style by learning healthy relationship behaviours, including how to establish healthy boundaries. There is no doubt that individuals with love addiction can be treated successfully so that they can experience healthy and satisfying intimate relationships, which all humans need to thrive.
Please Call Us For More Information
If you would like to learn more about the love addiction treatment programs offered by EHN Canada, or if you have any questions about addiction or mental health, please call us at one of the numbers below. Our phone lines are open 24/7—so you can call us anytime.
- 1-800-387-6198 for Bellwood Health Services in Toronto, ON
- 1-800-683-0111 for Edgewood Treatment Centre in Nanaimo, BC
- 1-888-488-2611 for Clinique Nouveau Depart in Montreal, QC