Can you get addicted to relationships? Experts weigh
How to Identify “Relationship Addiction” and Break the Cycle
Is there a better feeling than finding someone you really “click” with and building a life with them? Being in a relationship brings all kinds of positive emotions and experiences, from love and security to joy and optimism about the future. It’s easy to see why someone might start chasing these “highs”. But can you become addicted to relationships?
“Relationship addiction can be defined as a compulsive, unhealthy pattern of attachment to another person seeking romantic love in order to validate feelings of self-esteem and cure insecurities,” says Dr. Alyson. Nerenberg, licensed psychologist and author of No Perfect Love: Shattering the Illusion of Perfect Relationships. “Relationship addicts need more and more affirmation and attention to sustain the high, like an addict. When the relationship ends, the effects are no different from those experienced during drug withdrawal.
It is important to recognize that relationship addiction is not an official clinical diagnosis, as it is not recognized by the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM) of Mental Disorders. That’s why calling it an “addiction” is quite controversial. Experts say just because you’ve become obsessed with something that triggers a lot of good feelings doesn’t mean you’re physically addicted to it.
“The scientific community has not found a consensus on how to define or measure ‘relationship addiction,'” says Neena Lall, a licensed clinical social worker and Grouport therapist.
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Here’s what the experts are saying about so-called relationship addiction — including ways to identify it and break the cycle.
Is it possible to become “addicted” to relationships?
According to Dr. Carissa Coulston, clinical psychologist and relationship expert at The Eternity Rose, love has many of the same components as addiction, including cravings, tolerance, and withdrawal.
In fact, a small 2010 study looked at the brain scans of college-age participants who had recently been through a breakup but were still in love with their ex. The researchers found that when subjects looked at a photograph of their former partner and were asked to reflect on events that happened with that person, it stimulated a region of the brain called the ventral tegmental area, which is involved in motivation and reward. The nucleus accumbens and orbitofrontal/prefrontal cortex were also activated – and these regions are known to be associated with intense cocaine and cigarette addiction.
“The fact that many addiction rehab centers now offer treatment for those suffering from relationship addiction only goes to show that there are recognized similarities,” adds Coulston.
Although it is still unclear whether or not relationship addiction can be classified as an addiction, it is certainly possible to To feel Addicted, Lall said.
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“If you’re using the ‘high’ of a new relationship in the same way that one might use, say, alcohol or marijuana – to deal with difficult emotions, past trauma or low self-esteem , you can develop an association between feeling bad and wanting to experience that high to get you out of your difficult feelings,” she explains. “And if you’re in a relationship that feels like a roller coaster, you can start to feeling addicted to it or your partner. This is because the relationship both creates bad feelings and “saves” you from them when you reconcile. It is not a physical addiction, but can potentially be considered a behavioral addiction.
Why does this happen?
Love can trigger wild changes in your brain chemistry – much like using a substance. It’s one of the reasons experts say it’s possible to start feeling addicted to relationships.
Specifically, neurotransmitters like dopamine, oxytocin, vasopressin, and serotonin are known to create feelings of pleasure, trust, and closeness. These resemble the same neurochemicals associated with addiction. In fact, a 2016 study showed that feelings of intense romantic love activate regions of the brain’s “reward system” — the same regions implicated in addiction. As a result, researchers have begun drawing parallels between how love and addictive substances might impact your mental and emotional state.
“The reward hormone dopamine is a kind of cue that drives a person to continue the experience of being high over and over again,” says Sam Nabil, CEO and Lead Therapist at Naya Clinics. “People then form unhealthy fixations with partners and have unrealistic standards and expectations for love. And when that doesn’t work out, the relationship addict will then try to look for another relationship right away.
Lall notes that the research on all of this is in its infancy and is more theoretical at this point. Still, it makes sense that the intense emotions that falling in love can evoke—and the impact of those emotions on brain chemistry—could cause addiction-like symptoms.
“The ‘bet’ of meeting a new person and wondering if they like you or not is no different from gambling in a casino in terms of the emotional impact on a person,” she told AskMen. “Similarly, a volatile relationship can be like a slot machine: you never know what you’re going to get each day, but you keep pulling the lever hoping for the jackpot.”
According to Coulston, a relationship addiction often stems from other issues, such as low self-esteem, an insecure attachment style, or an inability to maintain healthy boundaries.
“Relational addictions can sometimes serve to ‘supplement’ or compensate for deficits in the addict’s life,” adds Dr. Monica Vermani, clinical psychologist and author of Deeper well-being.
Signs you’re “addicted” to relationships
There are many ways to identify that you may have developed a so-called relationship addiction. On the one hand, write down if you feel very uncomfortable being single – and jumping from relationship to relationship to recapture those positive feelings associated with love (or avoid those negative feelings associated with being alone). Another red flag is if you commit too quickly or have a history of recurring relationships. Here are some other tell-tale signs to watch out for, according to Coulston and Dr. Nereida Gonzalez-Berrios, MD, board-certified psychiatrist.
- You find yourself adopting the interests or personality of each new person you date while losing your own.
- You neglect other responsibilities and/or personal relationships in your life to be with a partner (skipping school, giving up on plans with friends, etc.).
- You are so caught up in thoughts about your relationship that you are unable to perform other tasks.
- You feel lost, irritable, depressed, hopeless or anxious whenever your partner is not around.
Why it’s problematic
A so-called relationship addiction can negatively impact your health and happiness in many ways. On the one hand, being so obsessed with relationships means you can neglect other important areas of your life, like your job, schoolwork, friendships, sleep, or maintaining a healthy diet and getting enough exercise. ‘practice.
The other problem, according to Vermani, is that the fear of breaking up and being alone means you’re more likely to ignore red flags and stay in toxic relationships. When you idealize partners, you may fail to identify signs of abuse or mistreatment. You may also be more inclined to take your partner back after a betrayal or other hurtful behavior. Or, Vermani says, you might find yourself changing your own behavior and walking on eggshells to accommodate a partner’s unrealistic demands and expectations. All of this can seriously damage your physical, emotional and mental well-being, not to mention your identity and self-esteem.
What can you do about it
If you are worried that you may have developed this pseudo-addiction, fear not, experts agree that there are many ways to cure it. Remember, though, that this is not a diagnosable condition, Lall says.
The first step is to understand what is driving your addiction. Is it low self-esteem? Is it a fear of abandonment, rooted in childhood trauma? Or is it a way to avoid negative emotions, like depression or loneliness?
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“Once you’ve identified your own cycle and the emotions that come with it, the next step is to figure out what needs relationships fill for you — what temporary solution you encounter when you embark on a new romance,” says Coulston. “Only then can you begin to break the cycle of negative behaviors.”
If you’re having trouble pinpointing the root cause, Gonzalez-Berrios notes that a therapist can help address any underlying issues, as well as suggest healthy coping mechanisms. A therapist can also help you learn to set healthy boundaries in relationships.
“In many cases, relationship addicts have a history of low emotional attachment with their primary caregivers. They suffer from insecurities and their sense of emotional safety has never been well developed,” she told AskMen. “This has led to extreme clinging in adult relationships. The therapist will use CBT tools to help the patient understand the erroneous thoughts. Talk therapy and emotional catharsis help eliminate insecurities and heal deep scars from childhood.
While doing this soul-searching, Coulston strongly recommends refraining from dating for a while. This way, you have time and space to change your habits and find other ways to meet your needs before you find your next partner – and therefore prepare your next relationship for a better chance of success. It may seem hard to be single for a while, but Coulston suggests turning to self-soothing and distracting activities like meditation, journaling, and exercise.
According to Nabil and Gonzalez-Berrios, taking a class, volunteering, traveling, or trying a new hobby can also be extremely helpful because staying engaged in these kinds of rewarding activities can not only trigger these feel-good hormones, but also take your focus away from your love life, reminding you that fulfillment can be found elsewhere.
Finally, Nerenberg and Vermani highlight the importance of developing a healthy support system.
“Creating a vibrant circle of friends, family, co-workers, and people with common interests enriches and sustains authentic, life-enhancing connections,” says Vermani. “In the long run, the more authentic connections you have with friends and family members, the less dependent and dependent you will be on your future romantic partner to fill the void and void in your life.”
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