• Lost your password?
  • Or, login with:
  • New User? Sign up here!

Retrieve Password


Get involved in the conversation.

Ethlie Ann Vare Ethlie Ann Vare

WTF Is Love Addiction!?

Romantic obsession is an addiction every bit as real as a drug problem, says this recovering love addict. So, how do you know if you are one?

11 Substance


Tell me if you’ve ever felt like this: “The compulsion to call him was completely beyond my control. I couldn’t stop myself. I would hold off for short intervals, but always there would come the tide of overpowering necessity. I was engulfed in it; I felt such a sense of panic that I really believed I would die if I didn’t pick up that phone.”

I lifted that from the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous; I just swapped out references to alcohol. It perfectly describes the punishing romantic obsession that twisted my life. It felt like I would drown if I didn’t hear His voice… whoever He was at the time. I chose my clothes based on how desirable they made me. I chose my profession for its glamour. I chose my car for its sexiness, my grocery store for its hot-guy quotient. Even my pets were selected based on their appeal to men.

I don’t understand why I have such a hard time convincing people that love can be as addictive as drugs or alcohol. Love and sex are among the most primal desires we have as human beings; without them, the race would have died out before homo turned sapiens. The desire to bond and reproduce is hard-wired into the reptile brain’s reward system in precisely the same way as the desire to eat, drink and breathe. What should be difficult is convincing people that drugs and alcohol can be as addictive as love.

As biological anthropologist Dr. Helen Fisher puts it, “My guess is that our modern addictions—nicotine, drugs, gambling—are simply hijacking this ancient brain pathway that evolved millions of years ago to focus energy on an individual and start the mating process.” Dr. Fisher famously took fMRI images of Rutgers University students looking at pictures of their beloveds. The same areas lit up when users snorted lines of cocaine.

Love addiction sucks, frankly. If I had any choice over my addictions, I would have been a bulimic shopaholic. At least I’d have a nice wardrobe that fit well.

What’s not to like, after all, about feelings of delicious anticipation (dopamine), comfy well-being (serotonin) and familial security (oxytocin)? Turns out there is one small problem with those wondrous neuro-chemicals: As easily as they flood the brain, they can recede from it. When students look at images of lovers who dumped them, their brains light up like a smoker having a nicotine fit. The craving is intense, even crippling.

Romantic withdrawal balls you up in fetal position on the floor. You don’t want to leave the house. If you do eventually go outside, a glimpse of His car makes your heart leap into your throat. (Or Her car: Men, too, are love addicts; they’re just less likely to admit it.) You can’t eat, you can’t sleep, your head aches and your stomach churns. The pain is so intense that it can lead to suicide.

Love addiction sucks, frankly. If I had any choice over my addictions, I would have been a bulimic shopaholic. At least I’d have a nice wardrobe that fit well.

Of course, you don’t have to be a love addict to revel at falling in love or to mourn a break-up. But addicts, like alcoholics, are “bodily and mentally different from our fellows,” to quote AA literature again. In the decades since that was written, science has confirmed that my neurological reward system is askew. Addicts and alcoholics are a quart low on feel-good hormones like dopamine, so flood our brains with the stuff in a desperate attempt to just feel okay. The sad irony is that our already inefficient dopamine receptors get even more inefficient when flooded. It’s like yelling at someone who’s hard of hearing—the loud noise just makes them deafer.

How, then, do you know if you’re a love addict or just a lovesick puppy? For starters, the fact that you think of yourself as a “lovesick puppy” and you’re over, say, 30, is already a clue. A therapist would have you answer some questions like: Have you ever slept with someone sooner than you wanted to, or been sexual with someone in a way that was uncomfortable for you, because you were afraid you would lose them? Do you find yourself falling in love before really getting to know someone? Do you feel incomplete without a relationship? Do you judge your worth by the desirability of the person you’re with?

I had what I lightly call Affection Deficit Disorder. I obsessively pursued all avenues to fill that void. The things I did in my pursuit blackened my soul.

But I’m not a therapist, so my questionnaire is very unprofessional. Put on your favorite Adele track (Leonard Cohen, for the boomers) and ask yourself:

• Are your favorite computer games Match.com, OKCupid.com and Tindr?

• Is your closet stocked with looks ranging from Goth to Preppy to Sexy Cop, depending on who you want to attract that day?

• Have you ever called someone more than once, just in case they a) lost your phone number, b) didn’t get your message, or c) are too shy to call you back?

• Have you ever driven by someone’s house—or dropped by their office/ favorite coffee shop/ 12-step meeting/ gym—because you “just happened to be in the neighborhood”?

• Do you check your latest crush’s Facebook page before you check your own? Do you feel a stab in the heart if there’s a picture of them with someone else? Do you immediately check that person’s page?

• Have you ever had an affair with someone who was married? A long-distance relationship with an unavailable person? A relationship with a gay man (if you’re a woman) or a lesbian (if you’re a man)? All of the above? More than once?

• Have you ever hacked into your lover’s voicemail, text messages or email? Secretly read their journals?

• Have you ever cut up or set fire to anybody’s clothing?

You don’t have to admit it to me. But do admit it to yourself.

In my experience, love addiction manifests in one of the Two Rs: Romance and Relationship.

The Infatuation Junkie is all about falling in love, that giddy first blush of getting-to-know-you that raises your voice half an octave and makes the whole world sparkle. This could be The One! Turns out, it had nothing to do with The One at all. It was all about The Feeling. I thought I was pursuing a guy across the country, when really I was pursuing the same rush of dopamine a gambler gets pulling the handle on a slot machine. The gambler also thinks that this could be The One; it’s just a different payoff.

I’ve also been the Relationship Addict, staying with a man who hit me, because he loved me. If he didn’t love me so much, he wouldn’t get so jealous and possessive in the first place. Yes, that’s a function of low self-esteem—and abusive lovers are great at persuading you that you’re worthless—but it’s also a function of oxytocin, the bonding hormone. My defective addict brain is just as hungry for the warm fuzzies of oxytocin as it is for the woo-hoo of dopamine. It’s like some Little Shop of Horrors plant crying “Feed me… Feed me!… FEED ME.”

An allergy of the body, an obsession of the mind, a malady of the spirit. Love addiction perfectly embodies that triangle of addiction. From the gate, I had what I lightly call Affection Deficit Disorder. I obsessively pursued all avenues to fill that void. The things I did in my pursuit blackened my soul.

The good news is, there is recovery. I’ve been in remission from love addiction for long enough that it takes an effort to remember what it was like to feel a chainsaw in my gut if I saw my Soulmate of the Month with another girl. To pray to God to please make Him call. To imagine what I will say in future conversations, or revisit past conversations and rescript what I said wrong. To spend my life with a beeping antenna on my head, scanning the crowd for the next Him. What a relief!

Ethlie Ann Vare is the author of Love Addict: Sex, Romance and Other Dangerous Drugs (HCI Books) She blogs at www.AffectionDeficitDisorder.com.


  • Ethlie Ann Vare

  • 12 Steps