The difference between passion and addiction is that between a divine spark and a flame that incinerates. —Gabor Maté
Falling in love is one of the most euphoric natural experiences we can have as humans. If you’ve ever been madly in love, you know the captivating sensation all too well. You meet a special someone and they catch your attention — there’s a spark, a chemistry, something that intrigues you. As you get to know them, you find yourself obsessively thinking about them and yearning to talk to them, touch them, and be around them as much as possible because you feel incredible when they’re near. Over time, this person becomes the focal point of your life — this is the addictive high of falling in love.
What’s Love Addiction?
Although we don’t tend to think of romantic love as addictive, an emerging body of neurobiological and psychological research suggests that it can be. Falling in love stimulates a very old area of our brain that’s associated with survival, commonly referred to as the pleasure center (Fisher, Xu, Aron, & Brown, 2016). We’re actually evolutionarily wired to fall madly in love so that we will mate, make babies, and feel compelled to stay with our partner long enough to ensure the survival of our children. We just don’t think of being blissfully in love as addictive because it doesn’t seem problematic like most addictions do — in fact, it feels wonderful! The troublesome aspects of addictive love only become obvious when you fall for someone who isn’t healthy for you or doesn’t want you back. Then, breaking up can lead to a sharp downward spiral of symptoms associated with heartache and despair.
Although it’s not a clinical diagnosis, the term love addiction is often used by mental-health professionals to describe a pattern of harmful symptoms that are centrally focused around a current or former love interest and negatively affect a person’s wellbeing (Sanches & John, 2019). Some of the most distressing symptoms of a love-addicted breakup are intrusive and obsessive thoughts about an ex, craving contact with them, emotional reactivity and distress, and impulsive and compulsive behaviors to feel close to an ex or distract from the pain of the breakup (Warren, 2023).
What does a love-addicted breakup look like in real life? Picture someone who can’t stop thinking about their ex — intrusive and unpleasant thoughts bombard their mind day and night. They crave contact with their ex, yearning to talk to them, touch them, see them, yell at them — anything to feel some closeness again. They may do things that make them feel closer to their ex like looking them up on social media, stopping by their favorite restaurant on State Street, or habitually re-reading old text messages. Or they may avoid mutual friends or start drinking too much late at night after the kids go to sleep to distract themselves from their pain. It’s also common to feel emotionally reactive, vacillating between deep despair, sadness, shame, denial, and anger. In the end, the person feels stuck in a harmful cycle of symptoms that destroys their ability to enjoy their present life.
Healing From a Love-Addicted Breakup
Going through a painful breakup can be miserable. Not only does a breakup signify the loss of a person, but the loss of a lifestyle, a dream, a family system, even a belief system about relationships that is now crumbling before your eyes. Any way you slice it, breaking up with someone you once loved is incredibly painful.
Many of us have either lived through or witnessed a loved one go through a love-addicted breakup. For anyone currently struggling through it, know that there’s hope — there are many highly effective psychological skills you can learn and use to help yourself move on. In fact, understanding that falling in love is an addictive process can be reassuring in and of itself because it normalizes your experience. People going through painful splits often think that they’re “alone,” “going crazy,” or somehow “worthless” — especially if the breakup was not by their choosing. The truth is that it makes biological and psychological sense why breaking up with someone is so painful — and you’re not alone, crazy, or less valuable because your relationship ended.
A few recommendations to start your healing journey:
- Stop Sleeping with Your Ex. Being sexual often makes it harder to let go.
- Set Healthy Boundaries. Limit or cut off contact with your ex, at least for now.
- Increase Self-Care. Sleep, eat healthy food, exercise — anything to take care of your physical health needs. And meeting with trusted friends is key.
- Get Social Support. Lean on trusted friends to feel connected to a greater community.
If you’d like to learn more, join me for a short talk and book signing at Chaucer’s Santa Barbara on Tuesday, February 21 at 6 p.m. All are welcome, and I hope see you there.
Cortney S. Warren, PhD, ABPP, is a board-certified clinical psychologist and adjunct clinical professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Health at Kirk Kerkorian School of Medicine at University of Nevada, Las Vegas, with a practice in Santa Barbara.