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May 2017
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Love, in all its various forms of attachment, and its more positive and healthier forms, represents an important skill and a natural and deep human need. Sometimes however, frustration or the lack of good experiences of this human feeling, which are quite common in the current society because of unstable relationships, can cause us to deny this need, which is actually an important component for healthy, psycho-physical development and good mental and physical health in adult life. When an affectionate relationship becomes tense, or worse still, becomes a painful obsession and the necessary balance of giving and taking changes, love can turn into a habit which makes you suffer and can even become an actual ‘love addiction’, a psychological disorder which can be hidden in the shadows for an entire lifetime, being the root of pain and often feeding other serious psychological, physical and relationship problems.

Love ache, intoxication of love and the drug of love

Although some authors use the terms ‘love ache’, ‘intoxication of love’ and ‘drug of love’ as synonyms for an ‘addiction to love’, in reality some important distinctions must be made so as not to pathologise things which can be transitory or even normal in certain phases of relationships.

Love ache is a generic termed indicating suffering which can be related to an emotional state and which refers to an unavailable ‘object of love’ or whose response is not yet known or, lastly, whose characteristics are unknown, which are the bases of trust, stability and serenity in our emotional life. Consequently, it is possible that this state of pain is normal and temporary following rejection or after finding out that your feelings are unrequited, and the pain is like a narcissistic wound and it causes a blow to your self-esteem. However, this can also be normal (but not necessary) at the beginning of a relationship, especially in relationships in which the falling in love is very feisty and passionate, and before the relationship calms down and finds its rhythm.

When we talk about an intoxication of love, we are referring to a psychological and behavioural tendency which can coincide with an addiction to affection, a negative condition in relationships which is characterised by a chronic lack of reciprocity concerning affection and the events which go on within the relationship, which tend to stress out and create psychological or physical problems in ‘one-way lovers’, rather than a sense of well-being and calmness. In the best of hypotheses, this type of condition is broken up by one of the couple, so as to seek a state of serenity, but if this proves impossible, then it can result in an addiction to affection or the ‘drug of love.’

Recognising an addiction to affection

Love becomes a ‘drug’ when one of the partners in a relationship experiences an emotional state which can potentially destroy a normal relationship. It is found in dysfunctional couples, that is, in emotional relationships in which one of the partners show signs of addiction towards the other and in relationships which are founded on feeling bad, thus one of the couple tends to feed this type of deeply rooted, paradoxical balance. In some cases, addiction is reciprocal and this generates two-way discomfort, which takes root in an even stronger way and fuels cognitive distortions more easily, making the victim think that certain behaviour is normal and that the other person deserves it.

According to Giddens view point on this problem, three main characteristics of love addiction can be distinguished:

  • The first is the pleasure connected to the drug of love, also called ecstasy, or the feeling of euphoria experienced on seeing the other partner’s reaction to one’s behaviour.
  • The second characteristic, tolerance, also called dose, consists of the need to increase the amount of time spent in the company of the partner, thus decreasing the amount of time one spends alone and the time the partner spends on his/her own, and the contact both have with others. This behaviour seems to be fuelled by the lack of ability to maintain an ‘internalised presence’, therefore the sufferer reassures him/herself by keeping the other person in his/her life. The absence of the person to whom one is addicted brings on a state of distress and desperation which can only be stopped by the physical presence of the partner.
  • The last characteristic is, the inability to control one’s behaviour, connected to ‘the loss of me’, that is, the ability to criticise oneself, the situation and the partner. It results in a reduction in lucidity which makes the sufferer feel shame and remorse, but, at certain moments, this is replaced by temporary lucidity which is then followed by a sense of exhausting defeat and a relapse into the addiction, which is often deeper than ever before, thus the need for the other person feels more imminent. 

The following symptoms show someone is suffering from an addiction to love:

  • the sufferer is obsessive and tends to leave little time for him/herself;
  • the sufferer is parasitic and is focused on continual requests of absolute devotion and sacrifice on behalf of the loved one;
  • the sufferer is lazy and self-centred and needs to keep certain things the same by suffocating any personal desires or interests in the name of a love which takes pole position in his/her life.

When addicted to affection, there are two distinctive elements that the sufferer feels:

  • a need for security which guides his/her behaviour;
  • a tendency to deny, and make the partner deny, their need for being loved, an attitude which appears to be rooted in childhood where the sufferer got used to limiting their expectations of love as a consequence of unfulfilled and frustrating relationship experiences.

Two important epidemiological characteristics of an addiction to affection are:

  • the significant effect on the female population, to the point where it has been estimated that this phenomenon is present in 99% of females in many countries;
  • the tendency to associate this problem with post-traumatic stress disorder because, in general, this addiction is seen in people who have experienced abuse or mistreatment, which has led onto the assumption that such events can bring about forms of addiction to affection.

More precisely, the reason why addictions to affection tend to develop in women and not men is because there is different psychic functioning between the two sexes: men react differently to traumas they have undergone. Men tend to distance the pain they have felt from violence, negligence or prevarication from their mind by using identification mechanisms with the person who carried out these attacks or negligence, something which causes them to take on the role they were previously subjected to, or the need to be addicted to something manifests itself and this ‘thing’ is usually something they had a negative experience with in a relationship, usually due to substance abuse.   

Women, on the other hand, generally tend to relive what they were subjected to, reproducing the violence and negligence in an elusive attempt to control these things and redeem themselves from the past.

One of the major scholars on this type of problem was Robin Norwood, known to a large audience of readers because of the various pieces she produced on this subject, one of which was called ‘Women who love too much’. In her book, Norwood underlines the family and emotional characteristics and the modes of thought typical of co-dependent women.

Common aspects of personal and family stories shared by those involved in a ‘love addiction’ problem are:

  • coming from a family where a person’s emotional needs were neglected, especially during adolescence;
  • a family history characterised by the lack of genuine affection which is compensated for by identifying with one’s partner and attempting to save him/her, but in reality the sufferer is attempting to save his/her inner-self;
  • a tendency to imitate, more or less unconsciously, the relationship that the sufferer’s parents had. This involves the sufferer trying, for a long time, to change emotionally so as to obtain a change in the relationship and receive some affection, something which the sufferer will not have ever had;
  • not having had the possibility to experiment with the feeling of security during childhood, a feeling which generates, in the context of co-dependence, an obsessive need to control the relationship and partner, which is hidden behind an apparent tendency to help the partner.

It is important to highlight the fact that everyone who is addicted to affection shares this personal or family reality, either physically or through their psychological experiences. This is because of the perception of affection and the subjective emotional experience preserved in the sufferers’ childhoods, although this does not mean they necessarily experienced negligence and violence.

The thoughts and emotional experiences related to an addiction to affection are mainly the following:

  • the tendency to underestimate the fatigue related to what is needed to get the loved one to reach high levels of psycho-physical stress, and not being aware of how long this takes;
  • the fear of being abandoned, which causes the sufferer to do things that were once unthinkable just to avoid the relationship from ending;
  • the tendency to take on all the responsibility and blame in the relationship;
  • very low self-esteem and profound conviction that he/she does not deserve to be happy;
  • the tendency to feed ideas about how the relationship could be if the partner changed, rather than basing thoughts on how the relationship actually is;
  • the tendency to be attracted to people with problems and who are not interested in the sufferer, and the inclination to show apathy towards kind, balanced, trustworthy people and get bored of them.


A particular form of ‘love addiction’ is called ‘co-dependency’ and this was originally observed in relationships that involved alcoholism or drug addiction. This problem coincides with a multidimensional condition involving various forms of suffering or withdrawal of oneself, associated with the focalisation of one’s care and energy on the needs and behaviour of the loved one who is addicted to substances or an activity. The reason why this type of addiction to affection was initially observed was because it was noted how co-dependency has the ability to maintain a pathological state called the ‘designed patient’, that is, it a state that makes the sufferer think that the other person in the relationship, who is an alcoholic/drug addict, is the only one in need of help, although this is not the case at all.

What co-dependency has in common with other addictions is the tendency to renounce all personal needs and desires, denying and disregarding them up to the point that some partners of alcoholics or drug abusers create a false personality and thus a false life, a reality made by making choices which do not answer your internal needs and which corresponds to a condition called the ‘illness of the lost sense of self’. The consequence of all of this is often reaching a point where there is a ‘weakness in oneself’, that is a weakness in the love addict who eventually becomes vulnerable and who survives through means of a progressive tendency to try to show his/her strength and to nourish his/her self-esteem in an indirect way, that is, by controlling the psychical functions of the addicted partner.

By attempting to identify the distinctive traits of co-dependency in one’s personality, we can refer to the four criteria set out by Cermak (1986) which can be summarised as follows:

  1. The tendency to continually invest one’s own self-esteem into the control of oneself and others, although negative consequences are experienced;
  2. The willingness to take on the responsibility for others or for uncontrollable situations just to satisfy the partner’s needs, even going so far as to deny one’s own needs;
  3. States of anxiety and the lack of perception of boundaries between oneself and others;
  4. Habitual involvement in relationships with people with personality disorders, addictions, disorders regarding the control of impulses, or co-dependency. 

It is important to complete this set of symptoms of co-dependency by underlining the fact that other characteristics can be associated with those previously mentioned and these are called secondary symptoms and they are:

  • depression;
  • obsessive behaviour and fixation about thoughts;
  • substance or food abuse (especially sweet foods);
  • physical or sexual abuse in their own relationship or in the past;
  • the tendency to not ask for help and not acknowledge the problem for a long time;
  • insomnia.

From the chain to the internal link

The main problem when trying to solve an addiction to affection is admitting that one has a problem. There are very fine lines between what is normal in a relationship and what becomes an addiction through chronic habit. The difficulty in identifying the problem also lies in the models of love which people who are addicted to affection keep in their mind and which make them think certain abuse and sacrifices of themselves are ‘normal’ because they are in the name of love.

Quite often, and paradoxically, hope is what helps the problem to survive and it tends to make it chronic. Hoping for impossible change, especially in a relationship which is hard to get out of since roles and the path the relationship is taking are well established and set in stone. The beginning of the change comes when you reach the bottom and are desperate and thus the illusions which nourished the pathological relationship for so long are buried.

One can make use of individual psychological support, sometimes with a psychiatrist, but what is definitely useful for speeding up and stabilising improvements is confrontation in groups made up of people who are going through the same experience. This helps because the sufferers make a commitment, in front of the others, to start to acknowledge the distortions of reality, thanks to the similarities they see in their lives and those of the others which allow them to see the truth about their relationships. The other people in the group become important mirrors and, together, they find the desire, motivation and the possibility to leave their toxic, and often very dangerous, relationships which, in some cases, are the foundations of people’s unhappiness.

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