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What Makes Relationships Addictive?

March 23, 2021

If you ever need a reminder of the high premium placed upon love and romantic relationships, you’re only a few clicks away.

There are entire television networks dedicated to happily ever afters. The majority of modern pop songs revolve around falling in love, falling out of love, and the dreaded in-between period of simultaneously missing and loathing the person in question. Ads for dating sites routinely pop up in email, websites, and podcasts.

But is there a point where the pursuit of relationships and chasing the euphoria of new love becomes something else altogether? Can someone actually be “addicted to love” like Robert Palmer famously sang about in the 1980s?

While there are differing opinions on whether relationship addiction is an actual dependency issue or a credible diagnosis, what is generally agreed upon is that relationships can be addictive.

How Our Brains Respond in Relationships

There are a number of fascinating reports that reveal how our brains respond in romantic relationships. While this study published in Frontiers in Psychology describes relationships as a “natural addiction” when compared to, say, gambling or excessive shopping, it revealed that people in love experience the same cravings, euphoria, withdrawal, and other behaviors associated with addiction.

… healthy relationships benefit from a balanced perspective.

So why does this happen? Blame the brain’s reward center.

In the same way that dopamine, a neurotransmitter, floods the brain during substance abuse and other addictive behaviors, the same activation happens in romantic love. While research findings suggest that the cravings and longings mellow out when love is mutually felt, one-sided or unrequited love can manifest in more addictive fashion. The same goes for breakups.

In a study that examined the brain activity of people who recently experienced relationship rejection from someone he or she was “in love” with, the same areas of the brain activated by cocaine cravings were in play after a breakup.

How to Spot the Warning Signs

To avoid falling into a pattern where you pursue relationships to the detriment of your mental health, it’s important to recognize the red flags of romantic relationships that cross over into potentially addictive territory.

Relationship Addiction - Willow House for Women

While it certainly sounded romantic when Tom Cruise told Renée Zellweger “you complete me” in the movie Jerry Maguire, an editor probably should’ve taken a red pen to screenwriter Cameron Crowe’s words. Seeking “completeness” and the love and security that accompanies it is far too great of a responsibility for any one person’s shoulders.

In many addictive relationships, the balance is lopsided. As one partner lavishes attention on the other, the other partner may not respond in kind. As a result, someone might stay in a bad romance longer than they should — to feel needed — even when the red flags are flying.

Other signs you might be in an addictive relationship include:

  • Fear of not being able to live without that particular person
  • Fear of never finding someone to share your life with
  • An incompleteness without your significant other
  • An obsessive need to know what he/she is doing when you’re not in touch (checking their phone, social media, email)
  • Low self-esteem when you’re not with your partner
  • The inability to stand up for yourself or express your opinion for fear of losing the relationship

Establishing Healthy Relationship Practices

Like so many areas of life, healthy relationships benefit from a balanced perspective. If you’re struggling with self-esteem, feeling unloved, and hoping that finding someone will make up for what’s going wrong in your life and fill the empty space, your expectations for a romantic relationship may supersede reality.

… it’s important to recognize the red flags of romantic relationships that cross over into potentially addictive territory.

Of course, no one is “on” every second. We all have moments of neediness, where our feelings could be expressed better. But the characteristics of a healthy relationship revolve around a healthy give and take. Not the idealism of love that’s increasingly prevalent in popular entertainment or the high that often coincides in a relationship’s early days where chemistry can prevail over common sense.

If you don’t care who you date as long as you’re in a relationship or you’re seeking all the dopamine-spiked firsts of a new relationship, it’s important to address these behaviors so your dating history doesn’t repeat itself.

It’s no secret that love can be wonderful, which is precisely the reason so many are looking for it. But a thriving relationship — a committed one that lasts through good times and bad — is the product of two people who know who they are. They don’t depend on the relationship for all their fulfillment and self-worth and are willing to navigate life together in a way that’s good for both of them.

Hope for the Hurting

If you or someone you care about is struggling with love addiction or intimacy disorders, there is hope at Willow House. Our expert clinical staff create personalized treatment plans to treat addiction, trauma, and mental health issues. Contact our team today to learn more about how we can help you recover from love addiction and form healthy attachments again.