Understanding Love Addiction Through the Lens of Attachment
Understanding Love Addiction Through the Lens of Attachment by Ian Hammonds, LPC-Intern; LMFT-Associate As a forwarding statement, the point of this article is to not BLAME our families. Instead, it is to give insight as to why we may have fallen into love-addicted patterns as well as to give us a path to avoid them. Understanding the source of a problem can sometimes be the very remedy to make the pain of something go away. Other times, it can be fuel or motivation to help us steer clear of triggering old wounds from unmet attachment needs that are linked to our childhoods. As you read this, please be kind to yourself as points in this post might re-awaken old wounds!
What is Love Addiction? All too many times, I have had clients come to me who have felt stuck in one destructive relationship after another. I have seen, over the years, many clients who have felt hopeless in their ability to love and be loved. I have seen negative thought patterns take a toll on a person’s sense of self as well as who they were in relationships. All of these are indicators that they were love-addicted. While love addiction is not explicitly defined in the DSM-5, it is a growing study that more and more psychologists are doing research on. Love addiction essentially means that the way we engage in loving partnerships is harmful, destructive, and detrimental to our own selves. Love addicted individuals view love and loving relationships the same way that someone addicted to alcohol might view drinking. There is a certain neurobiology that is similar in love-addicted persons to those addicted to drugs and alcohol—the rush of dopamine when the substance of love is given, the “come-down” when love is either deprived or unreciprocated.
It is incredibly easy to fall into love-addicted patterns. We live in a society that idolizes love, loving and committed relationships, and long-lasting marriages. We are told at very young ages that we are to marry, have children, and live happily ever after. But we also live in a state of constant anxiety and panic that we are not worthy or worthwhile if we are not in a loving and committed partnership OR if we are in a relationship that is on the rocks or in danger of ending soon. These unrealistic wide scale expectations essentially set up a platform for many different kinds of individuals to become love-addicted.
Family of Origin: Where Love Addiction Starts It can feel overwhelming to realize that society inserts us into a double-bind. We are often set up in the adult world to engage in destructive, self-detrimental patterns in order to fulfill our basic human need: to love and be loved. However, the source of these patterns can be looked at in a much simpler and focused lens—our families of origin. If we start off in childhood with a flimsy definition of love that is not congruent with ourselves as we navigate adulthood, we are thrust into a world with little defenses against the harmful messages that the world gives us about love. Thus leading to love addiction.
To relate back to my experiences with my clients, I have heard many painful childhood histories that have led to a love addicted pattern in adulthood—alcoholic parents, overbearing mothers, physically abusive fathers, religious and spiritual trauma; the list goes on. These all essentially capture the idea that our unmet attachment needs in our families stay open and wounded until we create a healing environment for them.
Let me give an example. A person I knew grew up in the Bible Belt as a queer person who was not welcomed in their family. The message was constantly reinforced that they were not loveable because of who they were. In their early adult years, they became enthralled in a very codependent relationship and subsequently were left feeling confused as to why they kept winding up in emotionally volatile relationships. This person was love addicted, and the very source of their addictive patterns was their family—they were repeating the negative attachment cycles they had with their parents as they unconsciously tried to fulfill their deprived parts of their childhood. They were searching for someone who would tell them “you are loveable as you are”. However, they were going about it in personally destructive ways.
Another example would be a female client I had who grew up in an emotionally abusive and toxic household. The message that she was not enough was constantly reinforced growing up as she would see her siblings get favorably treated while she would be treated poorly. This woman entered into a hostile marriage with an overbearing man as she was re-enacting what was taught to her at a young age—that she was not enough. In this marriage, she was also facing a love addiction. And the very idea of trusting someone who did not have her best interest at heart was a feeling of familiarity to her because of her family background.
In these very sad but very real cases, it is the therapist’s job to emphasize the importance of healthy boundaries, safer communication styles, a deeper understanding of what led their client into their individualized love addicted patterns, and helping the client redefine what is SAFE in a loving partnership.
Bringing it all Home The main message I am conveying in this post—LOVE SHOULD NOT FEEL LIKE AN ADDICTION. As human beings, our bodies were born 100% physically and emotionally dependent on others (i.e. babies need the comfort of their mothers, children need the feeling of stability in their own homes as their brains develop, etc). And for us to have unhealthy family patterns instilled in us at birth sets us up to feel like we do not deserve healthy kinds of love with our partners as adults.
If you feel that you are stuck in an addictive love cycle, some tips to break the cycle are:
Learn to advocate for yourself: understanding that putting your own self and needs first can lead to healthier attachments with lovers, friends, and family members. This can also create healthier boundaries that some might not have been taught growing up.
Nurturing your inner child: deep within each love-addicted person, there is an inner child that still is yearning for the kinds of love that were deprived of them from their parents. Get in touch with what your inner child is telling you and help heal them by tapping into what makes you feel complete as a whole person. You do, after all, deserve it.
Seeking professional help: having your own space to process your past negative love patterns with a professional can lead you to a better understanding of why you feel caught, stuck or helpless in your relationships.
If you have recognized love-addicted behavior in yourself or in your partnership and you are ready to make a change, reach out today! We have a great team of therapists here at Austin STRONG: Relationship Building Center who want to help you live your best life. You can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org or navigate over to the Our Team page to see the team and book a free 15 minute phone consult. You are worthy of love and belonging. Don’t be afraid to give yourself the life you’ve always wanted.