Love addiction has generally been lumped in with sex addiction as its quieter, less raunchy cousin – sides of a similar coin that can be tackled via the 12-step SLAA route. But both love addiction and sex addiction are controversial “diagnoses,” and psych experts have wildly contrasting opinions about their legitimacy. There has yet to be a mention of love addiction in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), and it’s often not considered a “real” addiction with real consequences, like drug addiction or alcoholism.
1. Love addiction is a “process addiction,” or an addiction to mood-altering activities and behaviors, according to Sherry Gaba, LCSW and author of The Law of Sobriety: Attracting Positive Energy for a Powerful Recovery. But not taking it seriously is a mistake: “It is confirmed scientifically that process addictions such as love addiction affect the same brain reward system as chemical addictions, and in fact can be equally debilitating as drug or alcohol addictions.”
2. While other addicts may obsess over their next fix of whiskey or cocaine, love addicts obsess, in a near-constant state of preoccupation, about a person, romance, intrigue or fantasy. “Love addiction is an illusion where the love addict makes up who they want their partner to be rather than who their partner really is,” Gaba says. It’s a chronic craving for romantic love, which the addict pursues via “maladaptive, compulsive, and self defeating behaviors” that result in the addict’s diminished capacity for healthy or loving relationships – with other people as well as herself. “During the infatuation phase you believe you have security, only to be disappointed and empty again once the intensity fades,” Gaba describes.
3. The roots and “causes” of love addiction are murky and variable depending on the person, but it can often be traced back to childhood experiences of rejection, abandonment, or physical/sexual abuse. A result of these tenuous childhood attachments is that adult love addicts might feel insecure in their relationships, their identities and their sense of self. The idea of fulfilling some grand, dramatic quest for a perfect love can help the addict escape their uncomfortable everyday reality by slipping into a safer fantasy world.
4. It’s unclear how many love addicts are out there. It’s obviously not as measurable or easily defined a condition as alcoholism or drug addiction, and many people don’t even realize they ARE addicted, or that such a condition exists. But one thing many love addicts share, as Pia Mellody outlines in Facing Love Addiction, is finding themselves inexplicably drawn into toxic cyclical relationships with “love avoidants.” Mellody dubs this the “addiction/avoidance relationship cycle,” and it’s marked by an addict pursuing – and then getting rejected by – a distant, closed-off love object over and over.
5. As Lenny illustrates, being in a different 12-step program is a common way for recovering love and sex addicts to stumble into SLAA, which has a similar format and abstinence-based approach, but its own literature. Stirling Chapel was in her late thirties when she first learned about SLAA’s existence. She remembers, “A woman said to me on the way into a Long’s Drug store after an Al-Anon meeting, ‘Have you ever considered Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous?’ I’d never heard of it and I’ve never seen her again. She saved my life.”
So, what does “recovery” from love addiction look like? Gaba’s professional verdict: “more awareness, more boundaries, less manipulation, and less attacking” in relationships. Recovery allows for “realistic expectations in what one expects in a partner,” she says.
Stirling Chapel agrees. For her, recovery has meant “learning to live alone, to be happy alone, to have bottom lines and to stick with them.” She eventually married a man she met in recovery; though they’ve been married for 13 years, she’s quick to mention that it hasn’t been easy. The couple have long attended Recovering Couples Anonymous meetings together, which helped them grow by leaps and bounds.