Wonder whether you’re in love or in lust? Whether your obsession about someone is a sign of love or "addiction?" Whether you’re staying in a troubled relationship because you’re addicted or in love?
It’s complicated, and lust and love and addiction don’t always exclude one another. Endless analyzing doesn’t help or change our feelings, because we’re often driven by forces outside our conscious awareness.
Initial attraction stirs up neurotransmitters and hormones that create the excitement of infatuation and a strong desire to be close and sexual with the person. These chemicals and our emotional and psychological make-up can cause us to obfuscate reality and idealize the object of our attraction. Time spent in fantasy fuels our craving to be with him or her. This is normal when it doesn’t take over our lives.
When it’s purely lust, we’re not too interested in spending time together without sex or the expectation of it. We don’t want to discuss real life problems and may not even want to spend the night. Fantasies are mostly sexual or about the person’s appearance and body, and we aren’t interested in meeting the person’s needs outside the bedroom – or maybe even inside!
Sex releases oxytocin, the love chemical that makes us want to nest with our partner. As we get to know our lover, we may want to spend more or less time together, depending on what we learn. At this juncture, our brain chemicals as well as our attachment style and psychological issues can lead us to become attached through a romance or love addiction that feels like love, but is more driven by our need for the chemical rush to avoid feelings of abandonment, depression, and low self-esteem.
Excitement and desire may be heightened by intrigue or our partner’s unpredictability or unavailability. We may remain attached and even crave our partner, but our discomfort or unhappiness grows. Instead of focusing on that, our hunger to be with him or her takes center stage, despite the fact that disturbing facts or character traits arise that are hard to ignore. We may feel controlled or neglected, unsafe or disrespected, or discover that our partner is unreliable, or lies, manipulates, rages, has secrets, or has a major problem, such as drug addiction or serious legal or financial troubles. Nonetheless, we stay and don’t heed our better judgment to leave. Increasingly, we hide our worries and doubts and rely on sex, romance, and fantasy to sustain the relationship. Out of sympathy, we might even be drawn to help and “rescue” our partner and/or try to change him or her back into the ideal we “fell” for. These are signs of addiction.
But lust can also lead to true love as we become attached to and get to know our sexual partner, and lust doesn’t always fade. I’ve seen couples married for decades that enjoy a vibrant sex life. However, true love does require that we recognize our separateness and love our mate for who he or she truly is. There’s always some idealization in a new relationship, but true love endures when that fades. As the relationship grows, we develop trust and greater closeness. Instead of trying to change our partner, we accept him or her. We want to share more of our time and life together, including our problems and friends and family. Our lover’s needs, feelings, and happiness become important to us, and we think about planning a future together. When the passion is still there, we’re lucky to have both love and lust.
Love Plus Addiction
Love and an unhealthy attachment may coexist or be hard to differentiate. Because with addiction, we tend to idealize and often happily self-sacrifice for our partner. When differences and serious problems are largely ignored, minimized, or rationalized, we’re not really seeing or loving the whole person. Denial is a symptom of addiction and supports a compulsion to cling to the relationship. Facing the truth would create inner conflict about our fear of emptiness and loneliness, which underlie addiction. Similarly, when our emphasis is on how our partner makes us feel or how he or she feels about us, our “love” is based on a self-centered, codependent need.
Two Paths of Love
Healthy relationships and addictive ones have very different trajectories. Healthy partners don’t “fall in love;” they “grow in love.” They’re not as driven by overwhelming, unconscious fears and needs. Contrast the stages of addictive and healthy relationships:
- Intense attraction – feel anxious
- Idealize each other, ignoring differences
- Fall “in love” and make commitments
- Get to know one another
- Become disappointed
- Cling to the fantasy of love
- Try to change our partner into our ideal
- Feel resentful and unloved
- Attraction and friendship begin – feel comfortable
- Attraction grows as they know each other
- Acknowledge differences (or leave)
- Grow to love each other
- Make commitments
- Compromise needs
- Love and acceptance of each other deepens
- Feel supported and loved
Signs of Relationship Addiction
Addictive relationships may include sex addiction, and romance, relationship, and love addiction. Lust and love and love and addiction can overlap. When we heal, we can see whether love remains. We might even leave an unhealthy relationship and still love our ex. Meanwhile, some things are knowable:
- Love at first sight may be triggered by many things, but it’s not love, and may be a warning sign. It takes time to love someone.
- Having sex with strangers or frequent multiple partners is a sign of sexual addiction.
- Compulsive activity, whether sexual or romantic, that feels out-of-control, such as compulsive sex, stalking, spying, constant calling or texting is a sign of addiction.
- Ignoring your partner’s boundaries, and abusing, controlling or manipulating him or her (including people-pleasing or rescuing) are signs of addiction.
- Using sex or a relationship to cope with emptiness, depression, anger, shame, or anxiety is a sign of addiction.
- Using sex or romance to substitute for vulnerable, authentic intimacy is a symptom of addiction. (Love-bombing may contribute to this.)
- Staying in a painful relationship out of fear of abandonment or loneliness is a sign of addiction, not love.
- Inability to commit to a relationship or staying involved with someone who is emotionally unavailable shows a fear of intimacy – a symptom of addiction.
- Trusting too much or too little are signs of addiction.
- Sacrificing your values or standards to be with someone is a sign of addiction.
Healing from Love Addiction
Sometimes abstinence from dating for a while can help break the cycle of obsessions and compulsions revolving around the other person. It’s very hard to abstain from compulsive, addictive behavior without support, because the unconscious forces driving us and the pain of abstinence are overwhelming. Support of a Twelve Step program is highly recommended, because abstinence is so difficult. If you continue to date, look out for signs of narcissism and emotional unavailability. There is hope and a way out. Recovery includes:
- Learn more about the symptoms of codependency
- Healing the shame and abandonment pain of your childhood
- Building your self-esteem
- Learning to be assertive
- Learning to honor and meet your needs and nurture yourself
- Risking being authentic about your feelings and needs
- Attend CoDA or SLAA (Sex & Love Addicts Anonymous)
- Psychotherapy will help heal deeper, causative issues from childhood.