On Love Addiction
by Lorna Hochstein, Ph.D.
Love addiction? What is love addiction? How can I be addicted to love? Perhaps this is what some of you are thinking as you read the title of this essay. Others of you might well be moaning, "Not another addiction. . .! Please God, not another 12 Step program." I understand. There have been moments when I have thought all these things myself. But while I am not unalterably convinced that such an entity as "love addiction" actually exists, it is true that I also find the idea quite helpful when I think about women's relationships and the way we get into and remain in relationships. Genuine addiction or not, the concept of "love addiction" certainly provides insights into common, if unsatisfying ways we relate to both being single and being in partnership.
Let me begin by saying that the phrase "love addiction" is a misnomer. Genuine love is knowing and being known by another person. It is about building intimacy through honesty and sharing of oneself. An addiction, however, is antithetical to intimacy; an addiction necessarily involved behaviors and mental sets which push genuine love and intimacy away. An addiction dulls both positive and painful feeling sand prevents us from knowing ourself. We cannot share what we do no know, and thus genuine intimacy cannot thrive where an addiction is present. Thus, a "love addiction" is about pseudo love, about the external, stereotypic appearance of love. It is not about love. While a love addict may look as if she is pursuing intimacy with a vengeance, she is, in fact, running away from intimacy as fast as she can. Love addiction is about unhealthy dependency and about poor self esteem. It is about a fear of abandonment and about an impaired sense of identify. It is about holding on to a relationship at all costs. It is not about loving too much. We are able to depend on another too much, we are able to cling to another too much, we are able to give another women too much responsibility for our life and happiness. We cannot love too much; genuine love is never bad and can never harm us.
So what is a love or relationship addiction and who is a love addict? A love addict is a woman who substitutes an unhealthy and mood altering relationship with a process (i.e. relationship) for a healthy, life giving relationship with another person. An addict is a person who puts this unhealthy relationship at center of her life. This relationship with a mood altering process is an addiction. My own rule of thumb is that a person is addicted to a relationship if being in that relationship had clear negative effects on her life and she continues in the relationship regardless of the effects.
There seem to be two basic types of love addicts. The first type of addict is a woman who addicted to the ideal of simply being in any relationship any relationship at all. This addict is hooked on the idea of being part of a couple regardless of who her partner actually is. The second type of love addict is the woman who is addicted to a particular relationship or a particular partner. This woman is able to function well when she is not romantically involved, but gets hooked on a certain woman and becomes less functional when involved with that woman. Let me give you an example of the second type.
Susan came to therapy to "end" a relationship which had, in fact, ended months before. Susan had dated a co worker, Mary, for several weeks when Mary decided she no longer wanted to pursue a relationship with Susan. Mary was clear with Susan that for her, it was over. Although Susan had dated Mary for only a month, she was devastated. She needed Mary. For the next year Susan followed Mary in her car. Once she skipped work to follow Mary to an out of town trip, and received a reprimand, her first, for missing an important meeting without even notifying her boss. Susan drove by Mary's house frequently and hung around her office at work just to catch a glimpse of her. Once she snuck into Mary's office and went through Mary's appointment calendar looking for possible "date." Once Susan met Mary on the street after Mary had been drinking. Mary threatened Susan and scared her a great deal. But Susan still could not stop her behavior. When Mary changed jobs and moved away, Susan felt lost. She became depressed. A year later, she still finds it hard to put thoughts of Mary out of her mind. Susan was addicted to Mary. Once she managed to break her addiction to Mary, she functioned well at home and at work. She did not feel desperate for a relationship. But she knows it can happen again.
Please understand that Susan is not crazy. She is a fine, intelligent, decent woman. She genuinely longs for intimacy. She genuinely longs for intimacy. While her behavior may seem a bit extreme, there are too many of us who, like Susan, violate our values and disrupt our lives in order to be in romantic relationship; there are too many of us who, like Susan, depend on another woman for the source of self esteem, self value, purpose and meaning in life. It's all a matter of degree.
It is important to know that love addiction is not infatuation; it is not the limerance phase of a relationship. Sometimes a love addiction initially looks like an infatuation or the simple act of "falling in love". The difference is that a woman who is simply "in love" knows she has her own life to live with or without her partner. She retains a sense of her own identity and personal power and does not look solely to her beloved for a purpose and meaning, this is not true of a woman in an addictive relationship.