While no one can pinpoint the specific cause of love addiction, most experts agree that its roots can almost always be traced back to one’s childhood. Your early relationship with your parents (or primary caregivers) plays a significant role in your core beliefs, values, self-perception, and ability to form healthy relationships as an adult. Of course, no one has a perfect childhood; we all have wounds from our formative years – some much deeper or bigger than others. But individuals who develop love addiction can often relate to certain childhood themes.
One of the primary themes in love addiction is the fear of abandonment. The feeling of loss that accompanies the end of a significant relationship is painful for most people. However, healthy adults are able to recognize that loss is a normal part of life. They move forward through the initial pain with the confidence that they can handle it – that things will get better. Their self-esteem is strong enough to sustain them during the times they are alone.
Love addicts, on the other hand, are terrified of abandonment. They rely on others to fulfill them, and to make them feel happy and whole. Without their love object, they feel worthless and incomplete. This is often due to a lack of love and nurturing from their primary caregivers while growing up. The abandonment they experienced may have been emotional (i.e. – their parents were physically present but emotionally detached), or physical – one or both of their parents left, died, was ill, or absent much of the time.
Regardless of the type of abandonment, they grew up believing they were somehow deficient or unlovable. This belief can lead to an excessive need for reassurance from others. They rely on future relationship partners to constantly reassure them that they’re special, worthwhile, and lovable. They are so desperate for love that even a few “crumbs” of someone’s love and attention (or what they perceive to be love, even though it may not be) makes them at least temporarily elated.
This “high” is very powerful, and they soon require a constant “fix”. Sadly, the slightest threat to their relationship often creates incredible anxiety and / or depression. That dreaded fear of abandonment often leads to dysfunctional behavior such as clinging, manipulating, begging, desperately trying to please the other person, or even putting up with abuse. They’ll do whatever it takes to keep their love object from abandoning them. Sadly, those very behaviors are often what cause their partner to leave for good.
Re-enacting Childhood Stories
It’s not really surprising that love addicts are often drawn to potential partners who are either unavailable or unwilling to commit. This is because we all tend to be drawn to people who remind us of one of our parents. Love addicts who did not receive love from the opposite sex parent (or same sex parent if the love addict is gay) subconsciously try to get that void filled from their adult partners. Unfortunately, for many love addicts, the early feelings of abandonment and subsequent feelings of worthlessness are reinforced over and over in their unhealthy adult relationships as they re-enact their childhood story.
In therapy, love addicts are often encouraged to identify the similarities between their opposite sex parent and their relationship partners. In many cases, they will discover that they are continually drawn to partners who reinforce the pain they experienced in early childhood with that parent. This insight is essential if they are to begin breaking the addictive cycle.
It is not uncommon for individuals who have experienced childhood trauma to be vulnerable to addictive behavior. While some self-medicate painful memories and emotions with substances like alcohol, food, or drugs, others use relationships as a way to self-medicate. The initial excitement of a new romance, along with the belief that they have finally found “the one”, provides a powerful high that relieves their pain – at least for a while.
Unfortunately, many survivors of childhood trauma – especially sexual, physical, or emotional abuse – have very low self-esteem. Just like those who have experienced abandonment, they believe they are inherently worthless or unlovable. They desperately seek validation in one relationship after another. They become addicted to the initial high. The crash they experience when the relationship ends drives them to search for the next “fix” – and the cycle of love addiction continues.
Addictive Role Models
Some love addicts grow up with parents who inadvertently teach them to rely on others to make them feel happy and fulfilled. For example, picture a mother with a low self-esteem who goes from one partner to the next. Each relationship is filled with extreme highs and lows, inevitably ending in disappointment.
When she’s in a relationship, the mother is happy, but she quickly plunges into depression and despair whenever one ends. She clings to each partner due to her own fear of abandonment. This unhealthy pattern gives very powerful messages – unhealthy messages – about love to her children. They will be prone to rely on adult partners to make them happy and fulfilled – believing that happiness is impossible outside of a relationship. They may also develop the belief that love always involves pain and disappointment. This belief makes it difficult (and terrifying) for them to experience genuine intimacy. They will be similarly inclined to attract partners who are unavailable or unwilling to commit. The pattern is perpetuated.
Recovery is Possible
Regardless of the underlying cause of your love addiction, it’s important that you recognize the cycle of addictive behaviors if you want to overcome it. The road to recovery, as with any addiction, can be very challenging. But it is possible to break the pattern and learn how to develop healthy, genuinely loving relationships.