Those of us of a certain age remember Robert Palmer’s iconic video for the song “Addicted to Love.” Beautiful women with their bright red lipstick and short black dresses, staring blankly at the camera, seductively swaying to the music. But how many of us really paid attention to the lyrics?
You can't sleep, you can't eat.
There's no doubt, you're in deep.
Your throat is tight.
You can't breathe.
Another kiss is all you need.
Most of us can identify with this feeling. It’s known as “limerence” - the early stage of any relationship where we constantly think about the other person. Our desire for them feels exciting . Butterflies in our stomach. Intense desire that fills bodies. An ache that sometimes feels intolerable. It’s pleasure and pain rolled into one, and we naturally want the other person to feel the same about us.
If they do and dating leads to something more serious, the relationship deepens and the couple experience a kind of modulated intensity. The emotional peaks and valleys of limerence become less intense and a transition from falling in love to being in love occurs. If the relationship doesn’t work out, both parties may feel hurt but they move on.
For some though, the limerence phase doesn’t shift. It intensifies and magnifies as time goes by and it becomes all-consuming. This is a description of what some therapists call love addiction.
Can love really be thought of as an addiction, though? Many therapists, including me, believe it is a very real, painful and devastating one. While all of us have a need to connect, experience passion and feel desired, people who struggle with love addiction have a desperation for these things that borders on – and often crosses over into - obsession. I
nstead of a drink or a bottle of pills, the object of the love addict’s affection is the “drug” of choice. Feeling loved becomes to be a matter of life or death. And just like a drug addict who goes to any lengths to get their high, the love addict takes greater and greater risks to hold on to the other person, despite the chaos it causes in theirs and others’ lives. Everything else – work, friends, family – begin to take a backseat to the thirst for the attention and affection from “the one.”
Where does this addiction come from? Many love addicts have moved through life in a state of emotional numbness, waiting to experience what they have longed for and now found what they believe is love. Individuals who have experienced significant trauma in early childhood – neglect, abuse, rejection – often struggle with experiencing healthy emotional connection to others. In many ways, they haven’t been taught the art of love.
Imagine that when we are born our heart is an empty well, and that as babies we naturally crave to be filled up with love. When parents pour that love into us through attention, warmth, touch and positive reinforcement, we develop an intrinsic sense of self-worth. We also then become able to tend to our own emotional needs because our parents help us learn how. In this model, we relate to others from a place of self-esteem and self-love.
As adults, we may be looking for love, but we aren’t dying of thirst for it. When we meet a potential partner, they may fill our heart to what feels like a kind of overflowing. The limerence is real. If the relationship ends, we might experience a temporary emptiness. But in time, we remember to return to our own emotional reservoir.
But what about a child whose parents – for whatever reason – can’t meet their baby’s emotional needs? Mental illness, addiction, their own unresolved traumas or other painful issues have left mom and dad with little to give in the way of love and nurturing. Depending on the level of pain the child experiences in this environment, that well of love may be close to - or even completely - empty.
Without extraordinary intervention early on, that individual will grow up to have a deep and innate sense of unlovability and unworthiness. When that person finds a potential romantic partner who pays attention to them and who seems to fill up that emotional hollow, they will hold on for dear life. It is too painful to imagine a return to that emotional void.
The concept of the “inner child” was introduced into psychology the late 1970’s. Simply put, it is the idea that even in adulthood, we still have within ourselves a childlike self who holds everything we have learned and absorbed as children. Although it is not always conscious, it remains a core part of who we are as individuals, what guides us and how we relate to others and to our world.
When a child is forced to deal with overwhelmingly painful emotions and psychological wounds, their inner world is split into many different parts. It is the only way to manage so many negative feelings. The “sobbing child” is one of these parts. The child who has experienced such deep pain is still desperate for love, comfort and belonging. It’s a fundamental human need.
Whether through therapy or another kind of guided introspection, a love addict must find that inner child and show themselves how lovable they are. The need to feel this from another loses its desperate pull. Fears of abandonment whether real or imagined can begin to fade away. A sense of self-worth no longer needs to be found through someone else’s validation.
It is not easy work. In fact, it can be painful and frightening. The end result, though, is a life that is lived where one is no longer captive to the fantasy of love.The “I love you so you must love me” is transformed; and “I love myself” leads to “We share love.” Only then can real intimacy be achieved.
When I think about the love addicted clients I have worked with and who have gone on to healthy relationships, I am sometimes reminded of another set of lyrics - those from one of Whitney Houston’s first and most iconic songs. They may seem cheesy, but they are apt for this issue.
“I believe the children are our future . . .Tell them all the beauty they possess inside,” she sings. Love addicts didn’t hear those words growing up, or if they did, words didn’t match actions. I have seen firsthand, however, that they can discover that “learning to love yourself is the greatest love of all.”