Valentine’s Day has been and gone. While the greetings card and flower industries are measuring their takings, most of us go back to ordinary worries around our relationships: are we in one? Can we stay in one? Can we attract one?
Talk of relationship “addition” or “love addiction” seems baffling to most people for whom addiction is associated with alcohol, drugs, or perhaps gambling. Love addiction has been ridiculed in the press – either an overblown term for the serial dater, the Hollywood A-lister who has a new partner on their arm each time the red carpet is rolled out. When the golfer, Tiger Woods, announced he was seeking help for sex addiction, it was greeted in some quarters with scornful murmurs of excuse making for sexual or emotional lack of self-control.
Yet there is a very painful phenomenon we see in psychotherapy practice whereby ordinary human beings seems to become “addicted” to an experience or falling in love, or becoming limerent – the experience of sudden, all-consuming obsessive, romantic and erotic thoughts towards one person. We also see sex addiction, where a person uses sex or pornography compulsively, seemingly oblivious to the damage it does to their jobs, homes and families.
Love addiction is just one of several types of maladaptive romantic love, which hurt rather than enhance the lives of those involved. Like all addictions, whether to substances or behaviours, love addiction can take over a person's life. We hear of the client is spending more and more time thinking about, pining for, and pursuing the person, or persons, he believes he or she is in love with. The feelings of euphoria which can accompany falling in love can also lead to obsessive thinking and "craving" the object of affection when not available.
In fact, love addiction has little to do with genuine feelings of affection or caring, but instead revolves around the rewarding sensations that are re-experienced by satisfying the cravings for being with — or imagining you are with — the person he or she is in love with, along with the belief that romance is a magical experience in which unrealistic ideals are projected onto the object of affection. Similarly, sex addiction can take over someone's life, but not generally with any unrealistic ideals about the other person or delusions of love; in fact, sex addiction often involves seeing the object of desire as a mere sex object of interest only for physical gratification and a boost to the ego.
Often, rather than seeing one person as special (as in love addiction), someone with a sex addition will see her sexual partners as replaceable and interchangeable. Yet with some individuals, sex addiction and love addiction co-occur, making it difficult to separate the two. Both love addiction and sex addiction stem from unhealthy experiences of attachment in early childhood, particularly those that revolve around ambivalence or anxiety. Some of the irrational ideas that underlie love addiction are quite common in popular culture, and are promoted in romantic novels and movies, and through the greeting card and pop music industries.
These irrational ideas include the belief that you cannot go on living without the object of your love addiction, that you are less of a person — or somehow incomplete — without the object of your love addiction, or that there's just one special person in the world that you can be "truly" in love with. Because the reality of adaptive romantic love is a more balanced, mutually supportive process, in which both people accept each other's humanity, weaknesses and failings, and continually re-commit to one another, love addiction quickly leads to disappointment.
Although love addiction has been conceptualized and studied in different ways, some researchers have found that men and women are equally likely to develop love addiction, which has been estimated to occur in about 5-10% of the UK population. Despite popular belief, it seems that men are slightly more likely than women to develop passionate love at the beginning of a relationship, although women may have a stronger association between love and desire.
Clearly more research is needed. Undoubtedly, it would be helpful if popular culture could move away from the idea of the “magical other” – that there exists one person who can make us feel special, make our fears or our emptiness disappear. The music and entertainment industry would be foolish to kill that cash cow of romanticising insecure attachment and heartbreak. So perhaps what we need to do is look long and hard at the compulsive and often life-threatening condition of addiction. The behaviour or the substance may differ but remains the same is that it is only a symptom of a more complicated syndrome of insecure attachment and traumatic entanglement.
To borrow and mis-quote from the Tina Turner song “What’s love really got to do with it”?