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Can You Really Be Addicted to Love?

Experts claim that desperate reactions to a break-up—like the urge to throw the nearest bunny into a saucepan—could be a clue that you're suffering from yet another addiction.

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Try telling him it's a disease. Photo via

By Catherine Townsend

05/18/11

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I had never heard the phrase “Addicted to Love” uttered outside a Robert Palmer video or bad poetry until a few years ago, when a particularly poisonous breakup drove me temporarily insane. After endless hours of listening to me cry and obsess over what went wrong during my seven-month relationship, a few friends gently suggested that I seek professional help.

Fighting off sobs, I asked them if this was like the Sex and the City episode where Carrie’s friends cut her off. They replied that they felt more like the passengers in Airplane!, who chose to hang and stab themselves rather than be subjected to yet another sob story about someone's ex-lover. The next day I found myself a psychologist whom I saw twice a week. Soon after I was officially diagnosed as a love addict.

That's why, a few months after entering therapy,  I found myself seated in a flimsy folding chair at a Sex and Love Addicts Anonymous (S.L.A.A.) meeting in a moldy church basement. I approached my first meeting with more than a little trepidation. To my surprise, many of the other attendees appeared to be relatively normal. Others were stone-cold crazy. For the next hour we all went around the room sharing our tales of unrequited love and bad romance. One woman appropriately wearing a pink ‘HOT MESS’ rhinestone-studded T-shirt, confessed she had driven by her ex-boyfriend’s house every day for seven years after their break-up. She was still obsessing over him fourteen years later.

While Love Addiction didn't make the cut in the latest D.S.M.-V, the bible of the psychology world,  there's no denying that it's the season's hottest new affliction. Many critics blasted Dr. Drew when he put Tiger Woods’ former mistress Rachel Uchitel on Celebrity Rehab alongside a bevy of  meth and crack addicts, but Uchitel insisted that her “disease” was related to a “hole” that she was trying to fill in her heart. Despite my initial impulses,  I started to believe her Some of the women in the meeting looked like they were in withdrawal from heroin, not Hallmark. Wasn’t this a bit extreme? Surely drunk dialing and crying into my third container of Haagen Dazs couldn’t really be equivalent to chasing the dragon?

The truth is, detoxing from love addiction can be dangerous: People kill in the name of “love” every day. Just ask former NASA astronaut Lisa Nowak, who was charged with kidnapping, after she drove cross-country wearing diapers and armed with pepper spray to confront her love rival.

At my first SLAA meeting, I pored over the fellowship's "40 Questions for Self-Diagnosis." By the time I arrived at question 20 I started to wonder if it isn't our culture that's really sick. After all, how can we tell if we are love addicts when the idea of intimacy and intensity is so ubiquitous? “Have you lost count of the number of sexual partners you’ve had?” "Totally," I responded. "But hasn’t everyone?"

Another question: “Do you find that you have a pattern of repeating bad relationships?” could also be responded to affirmatively by almost every person I know. It also pretty much sums up every plot line in Sex and the City . But maybe that's just me. Other questions were more intense, but upon completing the whole questionnaire I got the message: “Have you ever thought that there might be more you could do with your life if you were not so driven by sexual and romantic pursuits?” Well, hell yes!

The problem is, we're all instructed from a very young age that our main goal in life is to find our perfect soul-mates. T.V. show and movies and ad campaigns are constantly selling us on this airy idea of everlasting romance. But re-reading fairy tales through the prism of self-help books is not a pretty picture. After all, The Little Mermaid had to give up her voice to stalk some guy she barely knew (in the original version of the fairy tale, she was offered a knife to stab the Prince, but was turned into sea foam instead!). Snow White found herself in a coma surrounded by a crew of necrophiliac dwarfs, and Cinderella’s love-starved sisters cut off their toes to fit into her glass slippers.

From Romeo and Juliet (underage bride, double suicide) to Wuthering Heights (animal torture, violent death) and Jane Eyre (insane hidden wife, arson), every great love story had two things in common:  A healthy dose of suffering and a body count. Not to be outdone, Hollywood has offered up heroes like Lloyd Dobler, super-stalker. For women who aren't old enough to remember an era before trench coats in high school were considered threatening, the movie featured John Cusack as a lovable teen outcast, dumped by his brainy valedictorian, who then parked himself outside her bedroom window holding a boom box. Where once I saw cute, I now see as creepily codependent.  Lloyd was just one of a long line of romantic heroes who deserved a restraining order.

Researchers believe our addiction to love is more Darwinism than disease. When we fall in love, our circuits are flooded by vast amounts of dopamine. When our “fix” gets taken away, our brains are conditioned by evolution to  get back that loving feeling. “I suspect that anyone can become a love addict,” says Dr. Helen Fisher, an anthropological biologist at Rutgers, who studied the brains of people who had just been dumped and found activity in a region associated with profound addiction. “Our brain circuitry evolved millions of years ago, and  we all share it. But some people fall in love more often, or find themselves more dependent on their partner,  as result of their childhoods or genetic propensities.” That’s what drives the formerly beloved to turn into a bunny boiler, like Glenn Glose in Basic Instinct. But what makes one person reach for Kleenex and a bottle of Pinot Grigio, and another for a pack of Pampers and a road map?

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