By Jean Collins LCSW, LISAC, CSAT, Executive Director of Rio Retreat Center at The Meadows
What are love addiction and love avoidance, and what do they have to do with love? Things can get very muddy for women who struggle with self-defeating relationship patterns. Fortunately for women whose lives have become unmanageable, Willow House at The Meadows offers an intimate inpatient treatment experience to help them regain control.
The women who seek help at Willow House at The Meadows are often in severe love addiction withdrawal. Addiction to love is real and gut-wrenching. For those who are love avoidant, they have found that the pain of enduring loneliness has superseded the fear of being consumed in a relationship.
What Is Love Addiction?
Love addiction is characterized by maladaptive, pervasive, and excessive interest towards one or more partners, resulting in a lack of control and other negative consequences. Love addicts fear being alone, so they search endlessly for that special someone to make them feel whole. In the process, they lose sight of personal interests and let immature, blind, and uncertain love permeate their lives. Love addicts are often more attracted to the intense experience of falling in love rather than being in a healthy, intimate relationship. Common love addiction symptoms include:
- Mistaking intense sexual experiences and new romantic excitement for love
- Constantly searching for a romantic relationship
- Being desperate to please your partner and fearful of their unhappiness
- Feeling desperate and alone when you’re not in a relationship
- Inability to maintain an intimate relationship once the excitement has worn off
- Difficulty being alone
- Compulsively using sex and fantasy to fill the void of not being in a relationship
- Choosing partners who are emotionally unavailable or physically/emotionally abusive
- Choosing partners who demand a lot of attention and caretaking but don’t meet your physical and emotional needs
- Participating in activities that don’t interest you or dismissing your own beliefs and values to please your partner
- Giving up essential beliefs, interests, or friendships to please or maximize time with your partner
- Using sex, seduction, and manipulation to hold on to your partner
- Using sex or romantic intensity to tolerate difficult emotions or experiences
- Finding it difficult or impossible to leave unhealthy or abusive relationships
- Repeatedly returning to previously unmanageable or painful relationships
Many relationships will experience some of these symptoms. However, there’s a consistent pattern of one or more of these signs with love addiction leading to negative life consequences. Therefore, it’s critical to understand how to spot these symptoms of love addiction.
Love addicts are looking for something outside of themselves—a person, relationship, or experience—to fill the emotional stability they lack. In other words, addiction to love is a temporary fix for deeper-rooted issues.
What Is Love Avoidance?
It’s common for love addicts to become love avoidant over time. These individuals are often attentive in their relationship but become cold and distant to protect themselves from becoming emotionally available to their partner. Love avoidants also lack emotional intimacy. They fear being vulnerable and expressing their authentic emotions. In some cases, one partner may be emotionally intimate at first but immediately withdraw.
Love avoidants will prioritize other things to avoid emotional intimacy in their relationship, including working long hours, excessively going to the gym, or hanging out with friends. In some cases, these individuals will engage in more severe behaviors such as addiction. Additionally, love avoidants find it challenging to open up and talk about their feelings. For people who are emotionally unavailable, positive and negative emotions are difficult to express.
An individual who is a love avoidant might get defensive about being unable to connect with their partner and have a healthy relationship. As a result of their denial, they often become angry and defensive to avoid forming a connection and creating emotional intimacy.
How Your Love Life Replicates Childhood Dynamics
The Meadows Senior Fellow Pia Mellody, the author of Facing Love Addiction, coined the terms “love addict” and “love avoidant” and detected the cyclic dance between the two. These conditions are considered attachment disorders that are born out of childhood pain. Unintentionally, love addicts and love avoidants attract one another like magnets.
Early in treatment, Willow House at The Meadows therapists can identify patterns in the patient’s love life, or lack thereof, which replicate childhood dynamics. The therapists can turn the patient’s attention from the most recent relationship disappointment to childhood relational trauma. That’s because we’re drawn to people that rupture our old wounding to heal that wound.
The setup for love addiction is neglect and abandonment by one or both caregivers resulting in low self-esteem. In other words, they don’t receive appropriate bonding. Therefore, they have a disproportionate fear of abandonment in their adult relationships. The love addict may have grown up with one or both parents who were physically and emotionally unavailable. Love addicts tend to overvalue their relationships.
They ride “one down” relationally. Addiction to love shows up as behavior that is needy and demanding in relationships, overwhelming others. They enter a relationship in a fantasy with an expectation that this person will make them feel whole, offering unconditional love they did not receive as children. Love addicts are searching for the proverbial “knight in shining armor.” However, they attract what is familiar to them: someone unavailable, what Pia Mellody calls “the back walking away.”
The setup for love avoidance is enmeshment/engulfment by a primary caregiver(s). Love avoidants have a disproportionate amount of fear of intimacy—anticipating being drained because their parent(s) were somehow depleting. They may have acted as their parent’s caregiver, confidant, or the object of their obsession or anger. Love avoidants often develop sophisticated distancing techniques.
Operationally, they’re less evident than the love addict because they appear engaging but are secretly emotionally unavailable. They tend to ride “one-up” relationally. They enter relationships out of duty rather than love because of familiarity. At some level, love avoidants are raised with a sense of responsibility to meet their parent(s) needs. Neither the love addict nor the love avoidant knows the first thing about love.
Childhood relational trauma comes in all forms. Pia Mellody defines childhood abuse as “anything less than nurturing.” Sometimes the abuse is about what behavior the person received from their caregivers, and sometimes it is about what a person didn’t receive. Although most parents don’t intend to inflict harm, it’s often unavoidable—it comes with the territory. Parents who use a child to meet their emotional and physical needs create enmeshment. Conversely, parents who deny their children basic and emotional needs such as affirmation, nurturance, and proper limit-setting create neglect and abandonment.
Overcoming Self-Defeating Patterns
So, what’s love got to do with it? Everything! Learning to love oneself unconditionally and how to be real with and connect with others is well worth the effort. It’s truly the greatest gift one can attain and give others.
Distrusting the safety and security of a relationship is a common reason that a love addict becomes a love avoidant. Learning to trust yourself and be comfortable being single is critical to focus on what you truly desire in a relationship. Understanding an emotionally available partner and healthy relationship will limit fear and anxiety. Therapy can help you build the skills to help process and express authentic emotions and articulate your needs and desires while maintaining healthy boundaries.
At Willow House at The Meadows, patients learn to recognize self-defeating relationship patterns that prevent them from having fulfilling intimate relationships. We offer suggestions on creating a different dance in relationships.
We provide relief through support in recognizing the only way to fill that void is re-parenting that part of the self. We help them connect with the part of themselves that was neglected and meet the needs of that childlike part. The love avoidant learns how to be honest and authentic with others and develops healthy boundaries to engage without becoming overwhelmed safely.