Learn / Breaking Toxic Bonds: How to Get Help for Love Addiction

Breaking Toxic Bonds: How to Get Help for Love Addiction

Hannah Friedman
 October 3rd, 2022|   Clinically Reviewed by 
Rajnandini Rathod

Humans naturally seek love and connection. But because relationships are innately complex, it can be hard to tell the difference between an incredible feeling and a harmful dynamic. There’s not a lot of agreement among professionals about what love addiction is, exactly. But regardless of how they’re labeled, unhealthy patterns in romantic relationships can seriously affect your quality of life.

Fortunately, treatment for love addiction is available. It can help you find a healthier approach to your relationships with others—and most importantly, yourself.

Is Love Addiction Real?

Also called pathological love or relationship addiction, love addiction is not officially recognized in the DSM-5.1 While some professionals view it as a behavioral addiction that has to do with impulse control, others see it as a mood disorder.

Some researchers even believe that all romantic love has addictive qualities,2 as it produces a similar effect to drugs and alcohol:

“Studies suggest that the subjective state (or states) of ‘being in love’ is intimately tied to characteristic biochemical reactions occurring within the brain. These reactions involve such compounds as dopamine, oxytocin, vasopressin, and serotonin and recruit brain regions known to play a role in the development of trust, the creation of feelings of pleasure, and the signalling of reward…Consequently, scientists have begun to draw a number of parallels between the naturally rewarding phenomena associated with human love and the artificial stimulation afforded by the use of addictive substances such as alcohol, heroin, or cocaine.”

This may explain why it’s so common—one study estimates that 5-10% of the U.S. population experiences love addiction.3

When Does It Become a Problem?

Humans are social beings. As such, seeking out and prioritizing love is natural and normal.

Love addiction becomes a problem when you get stuck in a relationship (or cycles of relationships) that are unsafe or unhealthy for you. Often, these cycles form bonds that make the volatile dynamic between you and your partner addictive—which makes it very hard to know when you should leave. In abusive relationships, this is known as trauma bonding.4

If you are experiencing any type of abuse, you can get help immediately. Call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1.800.799.7233 to speak with an expert.

These patterns usually arise from insecure attachment issues, which are rooted in codependency and childhood trauma.

How Pathological Love Shows up in Your Life

While there’s no official criteria, one group of experts names 6 core dimensions of love addiction:5

1. Salience: Your life comes to revolve around your love interest.
2. Tolerance: The time you need to spend with them, or the time you spend thinking about them, increases over time.
3. Mood modification: You use time with your partner as your go-to strategy to cope with your feelings.
4. Relapse: You can’t cut down on how much time you spend with, or preoccupied with, your partner.
5. Withdrawal: You get frustrated, sad, or even have physical symptoms when you can’t spend time with them.
6. Conflict: Obsession with your love interest affects all other aspects of your life.

This kind of fixation is typical of early-stage relationships. But normally, the “honeymoon phase” eventually subsides. This level of obsession isn’t meant to be sustained long-term, and doing so causes other important parts of life—like friendships, family, work, and your own interests—to suffer.

People also report feeling these symptoms of love addiction:6

  • fear of being alone
  • feeling “empty” without their partner
  • a need to constantly be around their partner
  • no strong sense of self outside of the relationship
  • losing interest in life outside of their partners
  • a history of emotionally unavailable love interests

(Note that identifying a condition like this can be tricky, so it’s best to speak to a professional about your concerns.)

Neglecting other areas of your life causes it to fall out of balance, which affects your mental health. Obsessive love interferes with priorities like your performance at work and your relationships with others in your support network.

Staying in relationships to your own detriment can diminish your trust in, and respect for, yourself.

See our article on sex and love addiction for more on recognizing the difference between healthy, toxic, and abusive relationships.

Love Addiction and Other Mental Health Diagnoses

Like other mental health conditions, sex and love addiction commonly occur alongside other disorders7 like depression, anxiety, and bipolar. The traits of certain conditions, like ADHD and borderline personality disorder, can complicate relationships and play into struggles with love addiction.

Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)

Impulsiveness and craving stimulation are hallmarks of ADHD. This means that for people with ADHD, there’s a biological reason why relationships might swing between extremes.

“A rush of biochemical euphoria comes with ‘new love,’” says marriage and family therapist Jonathan Halverstadt. “Those of us with ADHD often hyperfocus on romance, not just for the sake of romance, but also to increase those pleasure-producing neurotransmitters (dopamine) that are in short supply in our brains. Highly charged emotions are not part of lasting love. They are just feelings — strong and wonderful feelings — but you need much more to make an ADHD relationship last.”8

Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD)

BPD makes it difficult to regulate your emotions. People with BPD struggle with setting boundaries and maintaining their sense of self in relationships. According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, symptoms of BPD9 can include “unstable personal relationships that alternate between idealization (‘I’m so in love!’) and devaluation (‘I hate her’),” also known as “splitting.”

The Mighty contributor Catherine Renton describes how BPD affects her romantic relationships:10

“I am obsessive in love — falling quickly, deeply and I always put my partner’s needs before my own…Once I become attached to someone, I get drunk on lust as dopamine floods my body. I’ve fallen in love so many times, it’s like an addiction. I crave the affection and touch of another human so much I have overlooked some questionable personality traits just so I don’t end up alone.”

It’s important to distinguish between BPD (which is a diagnosable disorder) and love addiction (which is not). These 2 conditions share some of the same symptoms, but BPD involves much more than just a predisposition to love addiction.

Learning How to Have Healthy Relationships in Rehab

Removing yourself from your usual cues and getting into a recovery-focused environment is a great way to set yourself up for success. Plenty of residential rehabs offer programs specifically for this addiction and the unique challenges it entails.

Treatment varies from program to program, but often involves these components:

  • Gender-specific care: Treatment may take place at a larger, co-ed facility with gender-specific housing and therapy groups, or at a dedicated center.
  • Healing underlying trauma: Love addiction often stems from core wounds like abandonment, which are rooted in childhood experiences.
  • Developing healthy coping skills: Patients grow their toolkit for managing their own lives and their connections with others.

Rehabs That Treat Love Addiction

Gentle Path at The Meadows is a men-only program that provides specialized treatment for sex and relationship addictions. Gentle Path’s approach is based on the Meadows Model,11 developed by leading codependency expert and author of Facing Love Addiction,12 Pia Mellody.

Recovery Ranch in Nunnelly, Tennessee combines clinical, holistic, and experiential therapies to help patients explore past traumas and shift towards more mature, authentic love.13

Love is an important part of life—but it doesn’t have to come at a price. Rehab can help you navigate relationships in a way that keeps your best interests at heart.

Visit our sex and love addiction treatment directory to learn more about available programs and reach out to rehabs directly.

Reviewed by Rajnandini Rathod

  1. What’s the DSM-5? (2022, August 3). Psych Central. https://psychcentral.com/lib/dsm-5 []
  2. Earp, B. D., Wudarczyk, O. A., Foddy, B., & Savulescu, J. (2017). Addicted to love: What is love addiction and when should it be treated? Philosophy, Psychiatry, & Psychology : PPP, 24(1), 77–92. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5378292/ []
  3. Sussman, S. (2010). Love Addiction: Definition, Etiology, Treatment. Sexual Addiction & Compulsivity, 31–42. https://doi.org/10.1080/10720161003604095 []
  4. Resnick, A. (2021, November 5). What is trauma bonding? Verywell Mind; Verywell Mind. https://www.verywellmind.com/trauma-bonding-5207136 []
  5. Costa, S., Barberis, N., Griffiths, M. D., Benedetto, L., & Ingrassia, M. (2021). The love addiction inventory: Preliminary findings of the development process and psychometric characteristics. International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, 19(3), 651–668. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11469-019-00097-y []
  6. What is love addiction? (n.d.). Verywell Mind. Retrieved from https://www.verywellmind.com/what-is-love-addiction-5210864 []
  7. Tripodi, M. F., Guiliani, M., Petruccelli, I., & Simonelli, C. (2012). Sexual Addiction Theory, causes and therapy. Institute of Clinical Sexology, Rome. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/234118847_Sexual_AddictionTheory_causes_and_therapy []
  8. Halverstadt, J. (2010, June 17). 10 ways to save your relationship. ADDitude. https://www.additudemag.com/save-your-adhd-relationship-marriage/ []
  9. Borderline personality disorder. (n.d.). NAMI California. Retrieved October 3, 2022, from https://namica.org/illnesses/borderline-personality-disorder/ []
  10. Renton, C. (2018, August 11). The “obsessive” way i fall in love as someone with borderline personality disorder. The Mighty. https://themighty.com/2018/08/love-triggers-bpd-borderline-personality-disorder/ []
  11. The meadows model. (2022, September 7). The Meadows of Wickenburg, Arizona. https://www.themeadows.com/about/the-meadows-model/ []
  12. Pia Mellody Books. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.piamellody.com/books.html []
  13. Love addiction treatment center. (n.d.). The Ranch TN. Retrieved from https://www.recoveryranch.com/mental-health-treatment-programs-nashville-tn/process-addiction-treatment-center/love-addiction-treatment-center/ []

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