A whole in the heart: Can love really be addictive?

“You like to think that you’re immune to the stuff/It’s closer to the truth to say you can’t get enough/You know you’re gonna have to face it, you’re addicted to love”

(Robert Palmer, Addicted To Love, 1986)

“Stitched up tight, can’t break free/Love is the drug, got a hook on me/Oh, oh, catch that buzz/Love is the drug I’m thinking of/Oh, oh, can’t you see/ Love is the drug for me”

(Roxy Music, Love Is The Drug, 1975)

If evidence for love addiction was purely based on the lyrics of pop songs, there would be little doubt that love addiction exists. For those in the academic community who believe in the concept of ‘love addiction’ unsurprisingly define it as the condition in which people become addicted to the feelings of being in love.

Historically, in the psychological literature, the concept of love addiction has been around for some time. Freud’s case study of the Sergei Pankejeff (nick-named the ‘Wolf Man’ after he told Freud about a strange dream involving a tree full of white wolves), noted his “liability to compulsive attacks of falling physically in love …a compulsive falling in love that came on and passed off by sudden fits”. However, it is generally thought that Dr. Sándor Radó (the Hungarian psychoanalyst) first described the characteristics of ‘’love addicts” that used love to simultaneously increase sexual satisfaction and heighten self-esteem.

Arguably the most cited work in this area is the 1975 book Love and Addiction by Dr. Stanton Peele and Dr. Archie Brodsky. Their book suggested that some forms of love are actually forms of addiction, and tried to make the case that some forms of love addiction may be potentially more destructive and prevalent than widely recognized opiate drugs. However, Peele later said his main points had been somewhat sidelined and used for others’ own agendas. He said that the book had intended to be: ‘”a social commentary on how our society defines and patterns intimate relationships…all of this social dimension has been removed, and the attention to love addiction has been channeled in the direction of regarding it as an individual, treatable psychopathology”.

In 1981, a paper on the development of a 20-item ‘Love Addiction Scale’ by Dr. Mary Hunter and colleagues was published in the journal Psychological Reports. They said that the defining characteristics of love addiction were:

  • Wanting the partner to fill a felt void in one’s life
  • Wanting the reassurance of constancy of partner
  • Feeling that the partner is necessary to make life bearable
  • Feeling that the sole source of one’s gratification, and pleasure is one’s partner.

However, the actual paper was a one-page summary and did not actually report what the individual 20 items were. Since then, the term ‘love addiction’ has been uncritically and extensively used in popular psychology and self-help books (such as Robin Norwood’s Women Who Love Too Much, and Susan Peabody’s Addiction to Love, and John Moore’s Confusing Love with Obsession). Jim Hall claims there are at least nine types of love addict in his book The Love Addict in Love Addiction. He claims that some individuals “become painfully obsessed with avoidant and/or narcissistic relationship partners” and that others can become addicted to individuals outside of a romantic relationship.

Readers of my research in the general area of behavioural addiction will know that I use the components model of addiction to operationally define whether addictions to certain behaviours exist. If love addiction exists, I would expect to see people with the following criteria:

  • Salience: This would be when loving somebody becomes the most important activity in the person’s life and dominates their thinking (preoccupations and cognitive distortions), feelings (cravings), and behaviour (deterioration of socialized behaviour).
  • Mood modification: This would refers to the subjective experiences that people report as a consequence of being in love with someone and – if it was a genuine addiction – would be used as a coping strategy to feel better about themselves (i.e., they experience love as an arousing “buzz” or a “high” or paradoxically a tranquilizing feel of “escape” or “numbing” that helps them to cope with other more stressful things in their life).
  • Tolerance: This would be the process whereby the love they feel for someone plays an increasingly bigger and more important part in that persons’ life to achieve the former mood modifying effects.
  • Withdrawal symptoms: These would be the unpleasant feeling states and/or physical effects that occur when love is discontinued (e.g., the other person ends the relationship or the person loved dies).
  • Conflict: This would be where being in love with someone resulted in the feelings love interfering and compromising all other activity in that person’s life (e.g., job, hobbies, social friendships, etc.).
  • Relapse: Here this might refer to “getting somebody out of their system” only for all the feelings of love to return when they are in the person’s company or engage in an act (e.g., kissing) that re-kindles all the previous feelings they had for that person.

By applying these basic criteria to love, I would guess (as I have never done any empirical research on this topic) that there would be very few genuine ‘love addicts’. When people first meet and fall in love, many of the criteria above may be temporarily experienced, but this is due to the effect of novelty, and may not be particularly long lasting. There is certainly some empirical evidence by Dr. Thomas Timmreck (California State University, USA) suggesting that relationship break-ups and death of life-partners can lead to a range of symptoms that resemble withdrawal effects in more traditional addictions.

As I have said many times before in many different contexts, the difference between healthy enthusiasms and addictions is that healthy enthusiasms add to life whereas addictions take away from them. For the vast majority of people, falling in love (and being in love with somebody), is something that is life affirming and life enhancing and in no way problematic.

I recently co-authored (along with Dr Steve Sussman and Nadra Lisha, from the University of Southern California) a review paper on addiction prevalence across 11 different potentially addictive behaviours (including love addiction). We reported that one study by MacLaren and Best in 2010, provided estimates of 12% for relationship submissive/love addiction among a sample of young adults. Most studies I have read report the prevalence of love addiction at around 3% to 6%. However, most of these studies are methodologically questionable (small samples, sample bias, etc.) and are more likely to be estimating or assessing preoccupation with love rather than genuine addiction.

Despite the lack of conclusive evidence that love addiction actually exists, we can all probably think of people we know where their love for somebody has bordered on the obsessive and/or addictive. There are also clinical cases of de Clérambault’s Syndrome in which the affected person suffers from the delusion that another person (typically a stranger or very casual acquaintance, or somebody famous or of high-status), is in love with them. This type of obsessive love is often found in people with other psychological and/or psychiatric disorders such as bipolar disorders, psychoses, and schizophrenia (and as such is a different clinical entity to love addiction).

One of the problems with the concept of ‘love addiction’ is that if it does exist, there is potential crossover and confounding effects with ‘sex addiction’ particularly as they often appear to have a symbiotic relationship. Although love and sex are different entities, they can be highly intertwined. On this note I will leave you with a couple of my favourite quoatesAs actor and film director Woody Allen once said: “Love is the answer. But while you’re waiting for the answer, sex raises some pretty good questions” and “Sex alleviates tension. Love causes it”.

Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Griffiths, M.D.  (2005). A ‘components’ model of addiction within a biopsychosocial framework. Journal of Substance Use, 10, 191-197.

Hunter, M.S., Nitschke, C. & Hogan, L. (1981). A scale to measure love addiction. Psychological Reports, 48, 582.

MacLaren, V.V., & Best, L.A. (2010). Multiple addictive behaviors in young adults: Student norms for the Shorter PROMIS Questionnaire. Addictive Behaviors, 35, 252-255.

Peele, S. & Brodsky, A. (1975), Love and addiction. New York: Taplinger.

Rado, S. (1928). The problem of melancholia. International Journal of Psycho-Analysis, 9, 420.

Sussman, S., Lisha, N. & Griffiths, M.D. (2011). Prevalence of the addictions: A problem of the majority or the minority? Evaluation and the Health Professions, 34, 3-56.

Timmreck, T.C, (1990). Overcoming the loss of a love: preventing love addiction and promoting positive emotional health. Psychological Reports, 66, 12-14.

About drmarkgriffiths

Professor MARK GRIFFITHS, BSc, PhD, CPsychol, PGDipHE, FBPsS, FRSA, AcSS. Dr. Mark Griffiths is a Chartered Psychologist and Distinguished Professor of Behavioural Addiction at the Nottingham Trent University, and Director of the International Gaming Research Unit. He is internationally known for his work into gambling and gaming addictions and has won many awards including the American 1994 John Rosecrance Research Prize for “outstanding scholarly contributions to the field of gambling research”, the 1998 European CELEJ Prize for best paper on gambling, the 2003 Canadian International Excellence Award for “outstanding contributions to the prevention of problem gambling and the practice of responsible gambling” and a North American 2006 Lifetime Achievement Award For Contributions To The Field Of Youth Gambling “in recognition of his dedication, leadership, and pioneering contributions to the field of youth gambling”. In 2013, he was given the Lifetime Research Award from the US National Council on Problem Gambling. He has published over 800 research papers, five books, over 150 book chapters, and over 1500 other articles. He has served on numerous national and international committees (e.g. BPS Council, BPS Social Psychology Section, Society for the Study of Gambling, Gamblers Anonymous General Services Board, National Council on Gambling etc.) and is a former National Chair of Gamcare. He also does a lot of freelance journalism and has appeared on over 3500 radio and television programmes since 1988. In 2004 he was awarded the Joseph Lister Prize for Social Sciences by the British Association for the Advancement of Science for being one of the UK’s “outstanding scientific communicators”. His awards also include the 2006 Excellence in the Teaching of Psychology Award by the British Psychological Society and the British Psychological Society Fellowship Award for “exceptional contributions to psychology”.

Posted on April 24, 2012, in Addiction, Compulsion, Obsession, Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, Popular Culture, Psychology, Sex, Sex addiction and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 7 Comments.

  1. Love Addiction really exist. It’s an isolated problem that affects many people. Sadly, not all these people are aware that they’re already suffering from it so they don’t get treated. I hope there could be an awareness program about it so more people will become aware of it.

  2. Have you heard of limerence? I know two men who suffer from it – they’re addicted to unattainable women and pine obsessively for them. People can suffer limerence for a celebrity or someone they know in real life. As far as I can tell, there is no cure. They can’t break through the emotions to listen to reason or logic.

    • Hi Kendra. No I hadn’t come across the concept although I did a quick search and have located a few key papers (so I may well do a blog on it in the future). Thanks for that. Mark

  3. Love avoidance love addiction is an affection turmoil in which love avoidant takes in love as being a compulsion or contractual obligation. Here people put up walls to diminish the strength within the bond as a result relationships experience an emotional drain.

  4. This is an excellent article. Since first writing about love addiction in 1989, the concept has evolved. We have gone from the co-alcoholic, to the codependent, to the love addict and now the Ambivalent Love Addict. I have discovered that most love addicts are at one time or another a love avoidant. For more about this phenomenon see my new book, Recovery Workbook for Love Addicts and Love Avoidants: Introducing the Ambivalent Love Addict. http://www.brightertomorrow.net

  5. Thank you Dr. Mark for raising such an important question– Is Love Addictive?– and illuminating the masses with your insight and research studies.

    I’m not sure how you define “genuine love addiction”, but I can tell you, as a recovering love addict, the addiction is as real, as painful, as debilitating, as knock-you-on-your knees damaging as ANY addiction is. That’s pretty genuine to me. Thousands of love addicts would tell you the same.

    I agree with Crystal, few, like me, had no clue that there was such a thing as LOVE ADDICTION. But, once I stumbled upon Love Addicts Anonymous (LAA) — thank you Susan Peabody!– and dug into their “40 Questions to Determine if You Are a Love Addict” http://loveaddicts.org/40questions.html my 25-year addiction to romance, relationships started to make sense.

    My mission is to increase awareness about LOVE ADDICTION as a genuine, treatable, recoverable addiction: see http://sharyhauer.com for more.

  6. I’m glad that you ask the question, “Is love addiction real?” It’s a good question and the more we ask and try to answer it, the more women (and men) will be able to pull from the resources out there to heal and become empowered. I too, like my fellow commenters, am a recovering love addict who writes extensively on the subject. And having come from a family of addiction (sex, drugs, gambling, work, you name it), it is very easy to recognize. Love can be like any other process addiction. Addiction, after all, no matter what an individual uses, is not ever about the object of addiction (food, money, drugs, etc.) . It’s about the fact addicts choose things to help them numb and not face a painful reality.

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