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Can love really be addictive?

If evidence for love addiction was purely based on the lyrics of pop songs (Robert Palmer, Roxy Music), 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 didn’t 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, 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.

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 in the journal Psychological Reports 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.

Heartsickness. CC0 via Pixabay.
Heartsickness. CC0 via Pixabay.

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, life-enhancing, and in no way problematic.

In 2011, I 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) in the journal Evaluation and the Health Professions. 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 quotes. As 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.”

A version of this article originally appeared on Dr. Mark Griffiths blog.

Headline image credit: Sweet heart candies. CC0 via Pixabay.

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