What Is Love Addiction? Why It’s Different from Codependency, and How To Recover
One must heal in their own time.
Addicted to Love, by Robert Palmer, was an anthem of the 80s. In 1985 it topped the Billboard 100 and sold over a million copies. It is infamous for its iconic music video, where Palmer sings in front of five high-fashion models in bright red lipstick, uniform black dresses, and slicked-back hair. “You might as well face it,” Palmer sings to some unknown lover, “you’re addicted to love.”
Aside from a catchy track that has stood the test of time, Palmer was onto something. Who can’t relate to the following line: “Your lights are on, but you’re not home. Your mind is not your own. Your heart sweats, your body shakes. Another kiss is what it takes.” Anyone who has fallen in love with a romantic partner knows the feeling; as if something has taken control, and you become a powerless pawn of some mysterious, transcendent force.
The high doesn’t last, of course. Ultimately, the honeymoon period fades, and reality starts to creep back in. But like all drugs, love has an addictive quality, and love addiction is a little-known, but very real psychological condition. One of the clearest definitions of love addictions comes from Pia Mellody, a world-renowned expert on trauma and codependency, and the author of Facing Codependence.
In Facing Love Addiction, Mellody distinguishes love addiction from the more commonly understood codependency. In this article, we’ll explore these distinctions, allowing you to identify if you experience love addiction, gain a clearer insight into your relationships, and begin the road to recovery.
What is love addiction?
During her work as a counselor, Mellody started to notice that many people who were treated by codependency still had issues once the root cause of their codependency had been resolved.
Having seen this a number of times, Mellody started to explore what could be the cause. Her curiosity led to the term Love Addict, which is “someone who is dependent on, enmeshed with, and compulsively focused on taking care of another person.”
For Mellody, although codependency can lead to love addiction, not all codependent people are sex and love addicts. Mellody goes further to claim that people who suffer from love addiction tend to attract a certain type of partner, which she refers to as a Love Avoidant.
The avoidant is afraid of intimacy, while the addict is excessively focused on the relationship. Mellody calls this a co-addicted relationship, often characterized by painful cycles of conflict and emotional dependency and unhealthy behaviors. It is an unhealthy addiction compounded by your choice of partner.
Although most common in romantic relationships, this dynamic can be found in all types of relationships, including familial relationships or friendships. It’s even possible to experience different dynamics in different relationships — for example, someone might show traits of love addiction in a romantic relationship, while being love avoidant in other relationships.
It’s important to note that the cultural depiction of love, from Hollywood to hit songs such as Palmer’s, doesn’t promote healthy relationships. The idea of meeting the one, falling in love, or experiencing impassioned on-again, off-again cycles might make for a compelling story, but it’s not the healthy foundation of a relationship.
The characteristics of love addicts and love avoidants
Many love addicts have addictions elsewhere in life. Just like substance abuse, in the beginning, a new relationship can offer intense pleasure or the joy or “high” of falling for someone new. But also like drug addiction, sooner or later, those initial highs wear off and become painful lows.
As a result, many love addicts tend to find themselves in cycles, where they constantly chase the “fix” of falling in love by leaving one partner and meeting someone new.
Equally, love addicts can feel completely lost when not in a relationship. They struggle to form their own sense of independence and assign their value to their relationship status. In Facing Love Addiction, Mellody highlights three characteristics of love addicts:
- An obsession with the person they’re addicted to, including spending too much time or focus or valuing this person above themselves.
- An unrealistic expectation of unconditional positive regard.
- Neglect to care for or value themselves when in the relationship.
Anyone who has lost themselves in a relationship at some point might ask the questions: “Are these mental disorders, and is there some form of love addiction treatment?” and will likely relate to the bullet points listed above. Love addiction, however, is deeply rooted in childhood trauma.
Driven by fear
Love addiction is driven by the fear of abandonment, in which love addicts attempt to cultivate relationships in an unhealthy way, through enmeshment. This covers a paradoxical fear of intimacy. “These two fears — abandonment and intimacy — bring up the agonizing self-defeating dilemma of the Love Addict,” Mellody writes.
Love addicts struggle to receive a healthy expression of love and tend to attract partners who also have their own fair share of trauma and unhealthy behaviors. Because it’s linked to childhood trauma, this pattern shows up in many relationships, not just with romantic partners. If you find you often end up in relationships and overextend or neglect yourself, that could be a sign of love addiction.
Mellody notes that many people who are love addicts assign their spiritual needs to the person to whom they are addicted, making them their higher power. As a result, there is a desire to hold onto the relationship at all costs, even toxic or abusive relationships. Love avoidants avoid intimacy, which triggers the love addict’s fear of abandonment, and the cycle continues.
The common characteristics of love avoidants, on the other hand, are:
- Avoiding intensity within relationships by creating intensity outside of the relationship, usually in the form of addictions.
- Due to a fear of being engulfed, love avoidants protect themselves by creating barriers to vulnerability and true intimacy.
- They avoid intimate contact by using “distancing techniques,” such as putting up emotional barriers or maintaining some type of control over the relationship (allowing someone else to dictate how they have to be is often an unconscious fear).
Between them, these compatible pain points, and unconscious fears, create a form of trauma-bonding. Both are likely to have mental health challenges and low self-esteem. The result of two people who have an immature relationship to love is another common characteristic of a co-addicted relationship: emotional cycles. Both the love addict and love avoidant experience these in different ways.
The emotional cycles of love addiction
Mellody is clear to note that any co-addictive relationship, built upon love addiction, doesn’t result in only one victim. The dynamic itself is fuelled by both sides. Both tend to follow common emotional cycles and mood swings, and these tend to match each other, which keep the cycles repeating endlessly — or as long as there’s a lack of self-awareness of what is unfolding.
The emotional cycle of the love addict
1. Attracted to the power of the love avoidant
This is because people with love addiction don’t believe they’re capable of looking after themselves, they’re often seduced by people who demonstrate an ability to do well in life and have everything together. The love avoidance will usually make the addict feel special through charm, which is actually a barrier to true vulnerability.
2. The love addict enjoys the high of the new relationship
A fantasy is sparked in the love addict, based on childhood trauma and related to the idea of a “rescuer” — a form of reward learning in which someone who will come along and take care of them, or remove them from a challenging situation. At this time, the person can become blind to what is going on in front of their very eyes.
3. The love addict feels relief from pain
Now convinced the relationship will make them feel whole, and fill the inner void left by a lack of self-love or unhealed trauma, the addict continues to escape to a fantasy-land, projecting an ideal image of their partner to keep the illusion in place.
4. The love addict shows neediness and denies growing distance
As the love addiction continues to spiral, the love addict will grow increasingly obsessive. This sparks a distancing mechanism in the love avoidant. However, one quality of love addiction is a denial of the true nature of the relationship — many will explain away distancing or fail to accept it.
5. The love addict starts to accept the growing distance
Eventually, the denial fades away, and the love addict is aware their partner is distancing. In turn, love addicts attempt to regain control through increased intensity, and can experience a resurfacing of childhood trauma of abandonment.
6. The love addict enters withdrawal
As the fantasy dissolves and their partner distances more, or leaves, overwhelmed by the intensity, the love addict will enter a painful withdrawal stage due to the absence of their “drug” of choice.
7. The love addict obsesses over getting the person back
The obsession remains, either through a desire to rekindle the relationship or to get the partner back, making them responsible for their pain. They will then begin another cycle, either with the previous partner, or someone new.
The emotional cycle of the love avoidant
1. The love avoidant enters a relationship of guilt
Due to engulfment in childhood, love avoidants tend to feel support as a form of obligation and see a need to caretake the person they’ve met. This could be as simple as agreeing to enter the relationship due to guilt over saying no.
2. The love avoidant hides behind seduction
This avoids true intimacy or healthy boundaries. Instead, seduction allows the love avoidant to form a relationship that is, at a deeper level, still quite distant, as they’ve not fully shared their wants and needs.
3. The love avoidant starts to feel engulfed
This then moves from hiding behind seduction to becoming resentful at perceived lost freedom. They may get angry or overly critical of their partner.
4. Resentment becomes more distant
Using the feeling of being victimized by their partner’s neediness, the love avoidant will further bury themselves behind self-imposed barriers.
5. The love avoidant seeks intensity outside of the relationship
The need to avoid enmeshment and regain a sense of self leads the avoidant to look outside of the relationship.
6. The love avoidant repeats the cycle
At the same time, the love avoidant might end up returning to an unhealthy relationship due to guilt, or a triggered fear of abandonment once they sense the relationship could be over.
Equally, Mellody notes that there are three dynamics. In addition to a love addict and love avoidant, some relationships occur between two love addicts or two love avoidance. The former is, as you can imagine, incredibly intense, with both people getting lost in each other and the relationship. The latter is low in intensity, often lacking in intimacy or closeness.
How to recover from love addiction
As you explore the above characteristics and cycles, consider how they relate to your life and your relationships. Do you spot signs of codependency or love addiction? Do you experience cycles, or anxieties arising from unhealed trauma? These qualities may surface in different ways, and it requires self-honesty to truly look at how these patterns could be playing out in your life.
It’s important to remember that most of this is unconscious. That doesn’t make anyone necessarily wrong, and it’s not a failing to nurture unhealthy dynamics (again, our culture promotes the idea of unhealthy relationships!). But if you do see signs of love addiction you’d like to change, below are the four stages in what Mellody calls the phases of recovery:
- Address addictive behaviors outside of the relationship (such as substance abuse, eating disorders, or gambling): That means taking full responsibility for how you relate to addiction, internally, away from blaming or focusing on other people.
- Disengage from the addictive part of the relationship process: if cycles and unhealthy dynamics are present, it doesn’t have to mean the end of the relationship. But it does require both people to do inner work, and develop greater emotional regulation, independence, and self-awareness. That might involve a period of time away from the relationship. Mellody notes that it can take six months of separation, followed by three to six months or re-developing the relationship, for things to become healthier.
- Enter therapy to address childhood trauma: because many of the issues of love addiction are deep-rooted, therapy might be necessary to understand and reclaim the wounds that lead to unhealthy behaviors in adult life.
- Work on the underlying symptoms of codependency: love addiction is always entwined with codependence. That means looking at the deeper issues, such as why you struggle to be independent, where you place unrealistic expectations on your partner, and working to create a much healthier, interdependent dynamic.
The period of recovery from love addiction can take time. But don’t be too deterred — the work required includes a valuable process of self-discovery, the relinquishing of energy lost through unhealthy relationships, or an imbalance of codependency.
Be patient. Heal in your own time. And know that, ultimately, overcoming love addiction will lead to a greater sense of freedom — both inside and outside of relationships.