Love is in the air; we are only a few days away from Valentine’s Day. I love this time of the year. In fact, I love love. And I love seeing people in love. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if intense romantic love lasted forever? But what if such a desire for love becomes excessive in some people? Could love become an addiction? In a paper, published in the January-March 2019 issue of European Journal of Psychiatry, researchers Sanches and John discuss love addiction and its treatment.1
What is love addiction?
Love addiction (also known as pathological love) refers to a “pattern of behavior characterized by a maladaptive, pervasive and excessive interest towards one or more romantic partners, resulting in lack of control, the renounce of other interests and behavior, and other negative consequences” (p. 39).1 In love addiction, immature love—love that is uncertain, external, blind, and beyond one’s control—permeates one’s life.2
Prevalence of pathological love is 3-10%, but likely higher in certain populations (e.g., 25% in college students).1,2
Pathological love must be distinguished from other conditions, such as dependent personality disorder or borderline personality disorder; in these disorders, the pattern of dysfunctional behavior is not limited to romantic love.
Love addiction also differs from psychotic disorders, sex addiction, and erotomania—a delusional disorder characterized by the assumption that another (usually high-status) person is in love with the individual.1
What kind of disorder is love addiction?
There is no consensus on the diagnostic criteria for love addiction, nor agreements on what kind of disorder it is.
For instance, pathological love may be an impulse-control disorder—characterized by impulsivity and novelty-seeking.
Others believe pathological love is a mood disorder. Presumably, people with love addiction experience mood states (e.g., hypomania and elation) similar to those who are falling in love or are in the early stages of intense romantic love.
Another possibility is that love addiction belongs to the obsessive-compulsive spectrum; like people with obsessions, those with love addiction might experience repetitive and intrusive thoughts—except that their obsessions will be related to the person they love and not, say, health or cleanliness concerns.
Other researchers have proposed love addiction might be best understood as a biaxial continuum—with the vertical axis representing attachment-related behaviors, and the horizontal axis indicating reward-seeking and impulsivity. For instance, in some individuals, high impulsivity and reward-seeking behavior would co-occur with high levels of attachment behavior, resulting in obsessive or dependent kind of love; in others, high reward-seeking and impulsivity would co-occur with attachment deficits, resulting in high sexual interest and having multiple sex partners.
Due to the compulsive nature of love addiction, some have wondered: Could pathological love be an addiction? Obviously some researchers believe it is—hence the name, love addiction. Nevertheless, addictions appear to be very different from preoccupation with love: They involve ingestion of a chemical substance, craving, tolerance, withdrawal, desire to stop using but not being able to, and impairment in daily functioning.
If pathological love is an addiction, then it must be a behavioral addiction. Behavioral addictions (like gambling addiction) do not require the consumption of a psychoactive substance, but they share other characteristics with substance addictions. For instance, like a person in early stages of drug use, people addicted to love might at first experience intense pleasure, satisfaction, and euphoria. Then they become preoccupied with these experiences, showing signs of dependence like “increased amounts of the behavior to achieve the desired emotional effect”—in this case, “increased time spent love-seeking.”2
Other signs of addiction to love would include “urges to continue engaging in the behavior despite trying to stop,” such as feeling alone and desperate when no longer in a relationship; and “persistent desire or unsuccessful efforts to cut down or control the behavior,” such as deciding to never fall in love again, yet replacing “ended relationships immediately.”2
Treatment for pathological love
In their review, John and Sanches found few research studies on treating love addiction—none on pharmacological treatments, and only one on psychotherapeutic approaches.1
Use of self-help groups (e.g., “Women Who Love Too Much”) was the most common psychosocial intervention.
A study that examined psychodrama group therapy found it effective in encouraging healthier relationships. However, the study did not use a control group, so further research is needed.
Other forms of therapy likely to be helpful in treating pathological love are cognitive-behavioral therapy (through challenging distorted thoughts about love) and psychodynamic therapy (by addressing attachment difficulties).
Given the similarities between pathological love and disorders reviewed earlier—obsessive-compulsive disorder, impulse-control disorders, and mood disorders—John and Sanches believe pharmacological treatments (e.g., antidepressants, mood stabilizers) might prove beneficial in treating specific symptoms of pathological love, such as obsessions or mood instability.
Concluding thoughts on love addiction
There now appears to be “abundant behavioral, neurochemical, and neuroimaging evidence to support the claim that love is [or could be] an addiction, in much the same way that chronic drug-seeking behavior can ... signal an addiction.”3
As we have seen, love addiction (or pathological love) may be a behavioral addiction characterized by attempts to regain extremely pleasurable feelings associated with the state of being deeply in love. Addiction to love has been linked with reckless behavior and negative outcomes affecting one’s daily life (e.g., work difficulties).2
Psychotherapy and pharmacotherapy may be helpful in treating certain symptoms of this condition, though research on treatments is limited.
Like other addictions, love addiction is associated with pleasure but also suffering. The authors end their review by capturing the pleasure and pain of addiction to love by paraphrasing Shakespeare thus: “If you love and get hurt, love more; if you love more and hurt more, love even more; if you love even more and get hurt even more, love some more until it hurts no more.”