How to Identify “Relationship Addiction” and Break the Cycle
Is there any better feeling than finding someone you really “click” with and building a life with them? Being in a relationship brings all kinds of positive emotions and experiences from love and security to joy and optimism about the future. It’s easy to see why someone could start chasing after these “highs.” But can you get addicted to relationships?
“A relationship addiction can be defined as a compulsive, unhealthy pattern of attachment to another person in pursuit of romantic love in order to validate feelings of self-worth and medicate insecurity,” says Dr. Alyson Nerenberg, licensed psychologist and author of No Perfect Love: Shattering the Illusion of Flawless Relationships. “Relationship addicts need more and more affirmation and attention to keep the high going, similar to a drug user. When the relationship ends, the effects are no different from those felt during a drug withdrawal.”
It’s important to acknowledge that relationship addiction is not an official clinical diagnosis, as it’s not recognized by The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) of Mental Disorders. That’s why calling it an “addiction” is pretty controversial. Experts say that just because you’ve become fixated on something that triggers a lot of good feelings doesn’t mean you’re physically dependent on it.
“The scientific community has not settled on a consensus for how to define or measure ‘relationship addiction,’” explains licensed clinical social worker and Grouport therapist Neena Lall.
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Here’s what experts say about so-called relationship addiction — including ways to identify it and how to break the cycle.
Is It Possible to Get “Addicted” to Relationships?
According to Dr. Carissa Coulston, a clinical psychologist and relationship expert at The Eternity Rose, love presents several of the same components as addiction, including cravings, tolerance, and withdrawal.
In fact, a small 2010 study examined brain scans of college-age participants who had recently experienced a breakup but were still in love with their ex. Researchers found that when subjects viewed a photograph of their former partner and were asked to think about events that occurred with that person, it stimulated a region of the brain called the ventral tegmental area, which is involved in motivation and reward. The nucleus accumbens and orbitofrontal/prefrontal cortex were also activated — and these regions are known to be associated with intense cocaine addiction and cigarette addiction.
“The fact that many addiction rehabilitation facilities now offer treatment for people with relationship addiction only goes to show that there are acknowledged similarities,” adds Coulston.
While the word is still out on whether or not relationship addiction can actually be classified as addiction, it’s certainly possible to feel addicted, says Lall.
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“If you are using the ‘high’ of a new relationship in the same way one might use, say, alcohol or marijuana — to manage difficult emotions, past trauma, or low self-worth, you can develop an association between feeling bad and wanting to experience that high to take you out of your difficult feelings,” she explains. “And if you are in a relationship that feels like a rollercoaster, you may start to feel addicted to it or your partner. That’s because the relationship is both creating bad feelings and then ‘rescuing’ you from them when you make up. This is not a physical dependence, but can potentially be considered a behavioral addiction.”
Why Does This Happen?
Love can trigger some wild changes in your brain chemistry — not unlike using a substance can. That’s one reason why experts say it’s possible to start feeling addicted to being in relationships.
Specifically, neurotransmitters like dopamine, oxytocin, vasopressin, and serotonin are known to create feelings of pleasure, trust, and closeness. These resemble the same neurochemicals associated with addiction. In fact, a 2016 study showed that feelings of intense romantic love activate regions of the brain’s “reward system” — the very same regions involved in drug addiction. As a result, researchers have started to draw parallels between how love and addictive substances might impact your mental and emotional state.
“The reward hormone dopamine is a kind of signal that drives a person to chase the experience of being high over and over again,” explains Sam Nabil, CEO and lead therapist of Naya Clinics. “People then form unhealthy fixations with partners and have unrealistic standards and expectations of love. And when it doesn’t work out, the person addicted to relationships will then try to seek another relationship right away.”
Lall notes that the research on all of this is in its infancy and is more theoretical at this point. Still, it makes sense that the intense emotions that falling in love can conjure — and how those emotions impact brain chemistry — might cause addiction-like symptoms.
“The ‘gamble’ of meeting a new person and wondering whether or not they love you back is not dissimilar to gambling in a casino in terms of its emotional impact on a person,” she tells AskMen. “Similarly, a volatile relationship can feel like a slot machine: you never know what you’re going to get each day but you keep pulling the lever hoping for the jackpot.”
According to Coulston, an addiction to relationships often stems from other issues — like low self-esteem, an insecure attachment style, or an inability to maintain healthy boundaries.
“Relationship addictions can sometimes serve to ‘complete,’ or compensate for deficits in the addict’s life,” adds Dr. Monica Vermani, clinical psychologist and author of A Deeper Wellness.
Signs You’re “Addicted” to Relationships
There are many ways to identify that you may have developed a so-called relationship addiction. For one, take note if you find yourself highly uncomfortable being single — and jumping from relationship to relationship to recapture those positive feelings associated with love (or avoiding those negative feelings associated with being alone). Another red flag is if you dive into commitments too fast, or have a history of on-again, off-again relationships. Here are some other telltale signs to look out for, according to Coulston and Dr. Nereida Gonzalez-Berrios, MD, a board-certified psychiatrist.
- You find yourself adopting the interests or personality of each new person you date while losing your own.
- You neglect other responsibilities and/or personal relationships in your life to be with a partner (skipping school, bailing on plans with friends, etc.).
- You’re so consumed with thoughts about your relationship that you aren’t able to fulfill other duties.
- You feel lost, irritable, depressed, hopeless, or anxious whenever your partner is not around.
Why It’s Problematic
A so-called relationship addiction can negatively impact your health and happiness in numerous ways. For one, being so fixated on relationships means you may neglect other important areas of your life, like your job, schoolwork, friendships, sleep, or maintaining a healthy diet and getting enough exercise.
The other issue, according to Vermani, is that having a fear of breaking up and being alone means you’re more likely to overlook red flags and stay in toxic relationships. When you idealize partners, you may neglect to identify signs of abuse or mistreatment. You also may be more prone to taking your partner back after betrayals or other hurtful behavior. Or, Vermani says you might find yourself changing your own behavior and walking on eggshells to live up to a partner’s unrealistic demands and expectations. All of this can take a serious toll on your physical, emotional, and mental well-being — not to mention your identity and sense of self.
What You Can Do About It
If you’re concerned that you may have developed this pseudoaddiction, fear not — experts agree there are lots of ways to recover. Remember, though, that this is not a diagnosable condition, says Lall.
The first step is to understand what’s driving your addiction. Is it low self-worth? Is it a fear of abandonment, rooted in childhood trauma? Or is it a means of avoiding negative emotions, like depression or loneliness?
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“When you’ve pinpointed your own cycle and the emotions that accompany it, the next step is to discover what needs relationships are filling for you — what temporary fix you’re encountering when you embark on a new romance,” explains Coulston. “It’s only at that point that you can start to break the negative behavior cycle.”
If you’re having trouble identifying the root cause, Gonzalez-Berrios notes that a therapist can help address any underlying issues, as well as suggest some healthy coping mechanisms. A therapist may also support you in learning how to set healthy boundaries in relationships.
“In many cases, relationship addicts have a history of poor emotional attachment with their primary caregivers. they suffer from insecurity and their sense of emotional safety was never well developed,” she tells AskMen. “This led to extreme clinginess in adult relationships. The therapist will use CBT tools to help the patient understand the faulty thoughts. Talk therapy and emotional catharsis help to remove insecurities and heal the deep scars of childhood.”
While doing this soul-searching, Coulston highly recommends abstaining from dating for a while. That way, you have some time and space to change your habits and find other ways to fulfill your needs before finding your next partner — and are therefore setting your next relationship up for better odds of success. It may feel challenging to be single for a while, but Coulston suggests turning to self-soothing, distracting activities like meditation, journaling, and exercise.
According to Nabil and Gonzalez-Berrios, it can also be immensely helpful to take a class, volunteer, travel, or try a new hobby, as keeping yourself engaged in these kinds of rewarding activities can not only trigger those feel-good hormones but can also divert your attention away from your love life, reminding you it’s possible to find fulfillment elsewhere.
Lastly, Nerenberg and Vermani emphasize the importance of developing a healthy support system.
“Building a dynamic circle of friends, family, colleagues, and people with shared interests enriches and supports life-enhancing authentic connections,” explains Vermani. “ In the long run, the more genuine connections you have with friends and family members, the less reliant and dependant you will be on your future romantic partner to fill the void and emptiness in your life.”
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