Relationship Addiction – What It Is & How To Get Over It

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by Glynis Sherwood


It’s Not About Love

“I can’t stop myself from going back to him, even though all I get is rejection and put downs. He reels me in with false promises that he’ll be there for me if I just shape up. Once he’s ‘got’ me, he criticizes me and I start to feel worthless and want to pull away. But after a few short hours away from him I start to panic and frantically start phoning or texting him. It’s almost like he’s my life line and I have to prove myself to him. But it’s a life line to hell. I feel like I’m possessed”  ~ Sherry

The Ties That Bind Can Really Hurt

Sherry – a 40 year old woman with a 12 year old son from a previous marriage – is not alone. She’s obsessed with Jack, a man she has been involved with “off and on” for almost 2 years. But in spite of her preoccupation with their relationship it’s anything but secure or rewarding. What’s gone so terribly wrong?

Like many people in addictive relationships, she thought her relationship with Jack started out well – in hindsight almost too well. It was a romantic, whirlwind relationship where they wanted to be together every minute of the day. Declarations of love were made early, at less than two weeks into the relationship. Things started to fall apart about a month later, when Jack started criticizing Sherry. At first it was about little things such as the way she was dressed. Then he began questioning her parenting skills. Shortly after that he accused Sherry of being too needy, and said he needed space. At that point Sherry panicked and started chasing after Jack. Without him she felt like her world was falling apart.
So what exactly is going on here?


What is Relationship Addiction?

There’s a lot of skepticism in the media, amongst academics and researchers about whether an individual can really be ‘addicted’ to another person. But if you remember one of the classic definitions of addiction, which is to pursue a behavior compulsively in spite of negative consequences, then relationship addiction fits the description.

Relationship addiction can be one of the hardest behaviors to break, because the person experiencing it – and others – may not recognize it as a destructive, compulsive behavior. But like any addictive behavior, it can come to feel like the sufferers life depends on being able to hold on to the relationship as an external source of self validation. And like any other addiction, the sufferer may know the situation is wrong but can’t just change their mind and walk away. Rational thinking is in short supply, and the addicted person needs a recovery program.


Patterns of Painful Relationships

Addictive relationships tend to have most – though not necessarily all – of the following stages in common:

  1. Love at first sight – feels like they’ve known this person for a long time – they seem familiar.
  2. Going quickly into the relationship without taking the time to establish common values, goals or to build trust.
  3. Intense bonding and sexual activity – fueling feelings of being ecstatic and high.
  4. Wanting to be together every waking moment.
  5. Neglecting friends, family and themselves to be with this person (i.e. stop doing the things they used to like to do).
  6. Continuously fantasize about the love object.
  7. Early declarations of love and commitment.
  8. First fight – often a bad one – where they discover their lover is not the person they thought they were.
    Partner withdraws – time, attention, affection, sex, acts cold, critical, etc.
  9. The love addict starts to panic as feelings of unbearable loneliness, unlovability /unworthiness get triggered – rather than feeling annoyed with partner for mistreating them.
  10. Love addict begs, pleads, sell themselves short in a frantic effort to reconnect with partner.
  11. Partner either ends contact, or may come back, often with the agenda that they will continue if the addicted person ‘shapes up’. But this is a false promise, as this sort of partner’s goal is control, not the desire for a healthy relationship.
  12. If partner returns, romance starts all over again.
  13. Next fight, often shortly after reuniting.
  14. Distancing by partner and anxious pursuit by addict resumes.

The painful cycle of attraction, bonding, rejection, panic, reconciliation and rejection is what characterizes love addiction. Often the addict’s partner finally leaves. The relationship addict experiences intense “abandonment anxiety”. This anxiety triggers panic, low self worth, feelings of emptiness, isolation and possibly depression. The addict may believe they are worthless without their partner. They almost always feel unbearable emptiness.

Relationship addicts may intensify their obsession by subtly or overtly chasing or stalking their former partner. For example, driving by his/her home to see if s/he’s there, and with whom; lurking on Facebook or other social media, monitoring conversations and connections; phoning him/her then hanging up. If the addicted person suspects or learns their former partner has a new love interest, they feel devastated, and imagine that this new person is getting something they never got, i.e. true love – and falsely uses this as ‘evidence’ that they are unlovable. The vicious downward spiral continues, unless the addict stops the behavior and gets help.


Roots of Addictive Relationships

What’s the origin of this painful obsession to pursue unhealthy relationships compulsively?
The roots of addictive relationships can generally be found in childhood, where original love relationships with parents were accidentally or intentionally inadequate, negligent, abusive or broken (such as through chronic illness, addiction, divorce or death). This relationship breach leads to fractured bonds, and emotional needs that are destined to be unmet. In order to grow into secure adults capable of healthy relationships, children generally need the following support from parents or care givers: 1/ Unconditional love, 2/ A shoulder to lean on and, 3/ Someone to look up to.

Adult relationship addicts typically have had few of their critical emotional needs met as children. In fact, many experienced rejection or abandonment when reaching out to their parents to try and get this support. In the absence of this critical emotional support, a child may come to believe they are unlovable and unworthy of love. Unfortunately, these beliefs get carried – often unconsciously – into adulthood where they wreak havoc in love relationships.


The Purpose of Addictive Relationships and Why They Are Doomed to Fail

There’s good inside the bad. The main motivator for compulsively pursuing unhealthy relationships is a positive one – that is to achieve inner and interpersonal validation that one is a lovable and worthy human being. This was denied in childhood, and has become the missing piece of themselves that addicts are seeking. In a sense, the relationship addicted person is looking to heal or ‘complete’ the love relationship that was denied in childhood. Although the motivation to heal is positive, the effort is destined to fail if they pick the same kind of person as the parent or principle care giver who was unable to give them genuine love, caring and emotional support in the first place. Unfortunately, relationship addicts tend to select partners who seem familiar and are therefore similar to the unavailable parent they desperately needed love from.

The second fatal flaw is that the relationship addict is seeking external affirmation that they are worthwhile – meaning loveable – human beings.  The problem with this approach is that it creates a dependency – aka addiction –  on others to engender a sense of self worth.  This dependency is structured to fail as feelings of self worth must come from within or will never feel sustainable or authentic. A person trapped in the vicious circle of relationship addiction, and lacking recovery skills, does not share that perspective. Usually they lack a strong enough sense of self worth to believe it is worth the risk of disengaging from compulsive behavior, and are doomed to repeat the cycle of longing for love only to be rejected or disappointed over and over again. In a sense they are clinging to the ‘devil they know’, rather than recognizing the need for healthy change.


How to Begin the Healing Process

Relationship addicts are wounded people with distorted love maps or blueprints inherited from childhood. Fortunately, as with any addiction, recovery is possible. And all addiction recovery starts with acknowledging the existence of the problem. If you believe you, or someone you love, are caught in relationship addiction, here are the steps forward:

  • Admit you are in pain, and that relationships tend to feel bad more often than good.
  • Understand that real love doesn’t hurt. Real love makes you feel valued, cared for and stronger about yourself. Perhaps you don’t recognize real love, or it feels uncomfortable. That doesn’t mean it’s wrong, just unfamiliar.
  • Back away from compulsive, painful relationships and give yourself a chance to heal and learn how to identify real love.
  • Accept that obsession is not the same thing as love. You may feel temporary relief while caught up in your obsession. But like a drug, you need that fix over and over again to try to overcome feelings of emptiness, and prove to yourself that you are lovable or adequate.
  • Recognize irrational beliefs or fears that can sabotage you and keep you hooked.  For example, believing that you can’t cope with anxiety, loneliness or sadness being on your own.  Addictive relationships by their very nature make people more vulnerable to experiencing painful emotions and negative beliefs as compulsive relationship dynamics are in themselves invalidating.
  • Once you start to pull back and learn to understand and manage your thoughts and emotions better – from the inside out – you will gradually begin to feel your confidence grow. You may feel worse at the outset rather than better. Hang in there and give yourself a chance to develop your strength.
  • Know your triggers – Usually feelings of unlovability or unworthiness to receive love, and believing that you can only be restored to wholeness in a love relationship. If you feel high in the presence of the person you are obsessed about, and panicked when you are apart, this is a sign that addictive relationship dynamics have been triggered.
  • Connect your feelings of unlovability to their origins in your childhood.
  • Develop empathy for the unloved, abused or neglected child you were.
  • If you feel overly attracted to someone very quickly, pull back. This is a warning sign that a ‘negative love map’ might have been retriggered.
  • Make a point of learning healthy coping strategies to deal with negative beliefs and emotions.
  • Get group support with others in recovery, such as in an online forum.
  • Connect with a skilled Psychotherapist who understands relationship addiction and recovery strategies

Need Help Overcoming Relationship Addiction?  Visit My Love Addiction Counselling Web Page Here

Counselling is available in person in Vancouver BC or Skype Video around the world.

Glynis Sherwood – MEd, Canadian Certified Counsellor, Registered Clinical Counsellor, Certified Substance Abuse Counsellor is a Counselling Therapist specializing in recovery from long standing Anxiety, Depression, Grief and Addictive Behaviors.

Please check out my other article on Relationship Addiction: How to Stop Choosing the Devil You Know

  • Susan Peabody

    My message board is
    I differentiate between the relationship addict and the love addict. The love addict is in love which includes passion [limmerence] and the relationship addict is not in love anymore. They are addicted to the companionship, longevity, routine, etc. If a mother is addicted to her son it is a relationship addiction. If you are addicted to a lover you are a love addict. It is jut all about semantics.

    • Thanks Susan for providing the link to your love addiction forum. It is such a valuable resource and a good place to get support in between counselling sessions.

  • Jenna B

    I am just now suspecting I am addicted to a man. We met a year ago and at the time I did not want to be in a serious relationship but I found myself fairly quickly falling hard for him. We began spending more and more time together and soon he was here every night.
    He travels for work and the first time he went away I crumbled. I felt physically ill and overwhelmingly lonely. Prior to meeting him I had lived alone for two years so it was completely irrational. Since then every time he goes away I break into a million pieces. I hate myself when I feel this way. I have become jealous and suspicious. I fear the only solution is for us to break up and I don’t think I can take that.

  • 12473tb

    I can relate completely. But how am I to find self worth, when time and again relationships fail because I didn’t fill some need, or whatever it was that caused the other person to withdraw or emotionally distance themselves? I know my latest relationship isn’t a healthy give and take, I just can’t seem to let go of the future that could be…. I am at a point in life of darkness. I do receive professional help but they seem to be at a loss as well. I seem to be ….an anomaly. This site does make me realize that I might be alone in my situation. How do we find self worth, self esteem, or find our happiness when it’s just not there?

    • If you can step back from addictive relationships and work through the painful feelings and beliefs that come up when you ‘withdraw’, you stand a good chance of feeling much better about yourself. Like any addictive behavior, it’s absolutely essential to stop the behavior so you can start healing. I’d recommend that you check out the Peabody Love Addiction Forum here:

  • Danielle

    I am truly hurt, the pain is excruciating!! I was in a relationship where the guy made me feel like I was the only female on the face of the earth. He wanted to know every litte detail about me, before I knew it we were both falling fast over each other. He was soo intense about every avenue of my life, making me feel wanted, accepted. Soon, after a few months we started to have issues, the fighting, calling me names, angry with me about everything. well, I kept trying, and trying, to make it work, he refused he dropped me and abandoned me when I needed him the most, my father just passed away, He left me, and the day he left he was in a new relationship. I don’t understand, and keep crying, I keep calling him but he refuses to talk to me, He even blocked my cellphone so I could not get thru, I feel like I am going Crazy, I see his truck everywhere, and people, that resemble him. I just want, and need him to come back to me at least once more. Please help

  • Harra

    I found this site while looking for tips to heal my loneliness and emptiness or even depression. I am just a 23 year old girl with no relationship experiences prior to my first and last one. I just came from an almost 5 month relationship with my former boss, a 53 year old man, married with kids and has another woman from the same office I came from. Yes, stupid is what i call myself for even allowing myself to become part of such mess. I did not want it really at first and avoided all his actions yet i still ended up in that situation. The thing is, it has been more than a month since the break-up and my resignation in the company, i thought i was already doing fine after i ended the weeks of crying and frustrations until it came all back again, as painful as it was before. And i think it is ruining my life right now. Just lately, he called me several times but i was not able to answer it, then came another scenario when the other girl knew about it and i took this opportunity to message the both of them to fuck off of my life, that i dont care about the guy anymore. But now, 2 weeks after, I am the one having thoughts of how to contact him again but im trying my best no to. Thinking of not disappointing every single person/ friends ive shared my story with and who kept on reminding me to disconnect my life with them; and thinking of the outcome which you have said is a cycle of despair if i tried to reconnect with the person, i keep on reminding myself with these thoughts but there is just this anxiety in me that triggers the thoughts to just call him and it is breaking my logical thoughts and sanity. Esp. when in the first place, i didn’t feel the level of happiness i want nor do feel or contented in the relationship we had before. I hate myself for even thinking this way again after all the pain ive been through and even for not being able to move on fast when in fact it was just for 5 months. i feel so miserable thinking i should not go back but i feel like i cant stop myself from thinking about it..

    • Harra – You have experienced much suffering, and now your spirit longs to be free. I’d recommend you seek counselling with a therapist who understands love addiction. You may also wish to check out this forum for support and perspective on healing from relationship addiction: Best of luck to you!

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  • Rosa

    Hello I am 43 and have been married 3 times. All which have been very abusive. My 3rd marriage lasted 12 years. We are both severe abuse survivors. About a year into the relationship we started a pattern of abuse towards eachother. It has been an ongoing game weve been playing all this time. When we reunite, its always intense. Were both very intense people. This last time we fought and separated, while going through the motions, he told me he no longer loved me. Hes never said that. I feel this time is different. I think it may be over for good this time. A part of me feels relieved, and another part feels deep deep depression, emptiness, and just such sadness. I think he has met someone else. Everyone tells me he’ll be back, but I dont think he will. Something about me doesnt want him back after he told me he doesnt love me anymore. But my mind is already looking for ways to forgive him. I know I have to let go. Its time. I am tired. I have to find a way to move on now. I need help. If he comes back to me, I dont know if I’m strong enough to say no. He is definitely my addiction. What should I do?

  • Deya Lew

    How about both “partners” are addicted?
    It’s not love but this guy comes back to me every year since he dumped me 5 years ago.

    We went through every single stage you described (attraction, rejection) and everything but I can’t really know if we are both addicted or not.

    I keep rejecting him because I’m in a relationship (a normal one) but inside I’m dying to answer his messages. I’m shaking, I’m crying, I feel like a drug addict who needs a fix, I’m hoping he will write again so I can let myself go.

    • Relationship addiction hurts, and real love should not. Love addicts often get involved with ‘love avoidants’, and the dance of hurt and disappointment continues. Check out the Peabody love addiction forums for more info and peer support here:

  • Paula

    Hi there, I have been in an on off relationship for 5 years now. I came across this page when looking for ways to improve my anxiety where my relationship is concerned. Part of me feels like both myself and my partner are relationship addicts. There are some things we both do that’s mentioned in this artical.
    Due to my childhood and past, I have trust issues and they set off my anxiety if I feel like my partner is hiding anything from me. Instead of supporting me i feel like he deliberately does things to trigger my anxiety. (like deleting messages from other women, and his calls list) he works away from home so this in itself is difficult for any relationship. We have sepperated 3 times in 5 years and every time we do I feel completely lost and broken without him. Each time, he jumps right into another relationship and it never lasts. When I mention that I’m dating again, he can’t bare it and pleads to give it another go. I always do because I love him. I now hope that it’s not just an obsession.

  • Nadine Toner

    Hi, I have repeated unhealthy patterns of addiction to men my whole life. It started off with being a tomboy and grew into an ugly tree of never being left alone by unhealthy men/opportunities to be involved with men. There were instances in my life where I experienced compelling feelings of addiction and excessive dependency towards my relationships. This carried on for many years and really did a number on my wholistic health. These days, since I have been waking up to my unhealthy patterns and adopting ‘self love,’ including leaving a catastrophic relationship, I find law of attraction keeps bringing OTHER men in my life I was previously unaware of that are equally unhealthy! I am not addicted to them in a romantic sense, in fact, it seems to be the opposite and they tend to be addicted to me. This is shown with MANY casual aquaitances. Thank you for the tips, as this helps me ascend into a new version of myself, helping to clean off my sticky goo of patterns which I was sleeping in for 15 years. It’s not easy waking up and changing, but it is necessary!

    • Sounds like you are doing a lot better Nadine, thanks to your psychologically healthy focus!

      • Nadine Toner

        You’re welcome Glynis! I think it was about deciding enough is enough and taking full accountability for my own actions. At the end of the day, I am the common denominator.

  • Alycia Charme Sigritz

    I’ve been in an off and on relationship with my ex for exactly a year. I know that I’m addicted. We reconnect for a couple weeks at a time and then he blocks me and disappears again. This last time it feels like a weight has been lifted off of my shoulders. I still have some things I’m dealing with. My chronic depression and anxiety doesn’t help my chase either. I don’t know what to do now. I’ve already disconnected and I know what’s wrong I just don’t want to feel like this anymore.

    • Alycia – This is good news that you’ve pulled back and feel relief. Now to protect your recovery and begin the emotional healing process, I’d suggest that you either go for counselling and/or use the love addiction forum

  • Orsolya Pályi

    oh my lord I just recently realised Im addicted to my boyfriend its horribly shocking. its so many things to deal with inside me also work on them. What do you think can someone make it possible to convert this kind of relationshps into a healthy relationship?

    • Orsolya – Very challenging situation. Important to focus on strengthening yourself first so you don’t feel so dependent.

  • Love fool

    I googled love addiction because I figured that must be why I keep going back to the same guy who I keep allowing to hurt me for over a decade now. I ran across this site,i really need help! I’m emotionally drained and feel so hollow. I try to pull away but just like your information above when I am away from him after we have our fall out for about a week it’s like I can’t say no or turn him down,the emotional rush to go back with him is triggered and I fall for the same trap and lies. I just want to change and stop this cycle. I really need the strength and better coping methods to end this relationship (or whatever it is) for good. The problem is we do have child together so I get reeled in sometimes because of his need to see his child. Any ideas?

    • Love Fool – This is a tough situation because you can’t maintain the distance you need on a consistent basis. I’d strongly encourage you to set very strict limits regarding the amount and type of contact you have when your child’s father wants access to your child. Given the level of difficulty you are experiencing, I’d suggest you get some counselling.

      • Love fool

        Thanks Dr.Sherwood for the confirmation that I probably do need a little coaching to help remove myself from the situation all together. In the past I always figure I should forgive and maybe he will mature enough to commit one day, now I know that will never happen.

  • 2wayAddict

    I am very happy I found this blog I am also in a addictive relationship but my situation is a little different where we both take turns being that the avoider and the addict. I just really want the best for the both of us and I think that means separating and moving on. My ex has also met someone new and I’m really hoping that that situation will work out for him as it is more healthy and I have an intense feeling of regret and guilt over some of the things I’ve done in the past and he was saying he doesn’t have any ill will towards me about things that have happened but he almost tries to get back with me in order inflict punishment. In the beginning I think he did love me and want to help work through my issues but it became too big of a job for even him as in we both have childhood issues but he seems to have done a better job of working through them, so basically right now what I’m doing is separating myself and reading and getting more information on this like addiction thing and I do have health coverage so I will even take a therapist but I feel like I can Get through this. I am doing a lot of praying. This situation has actually damage my faith a lot. But is really hard to keep your dignity when you know that the whole situation is been going on for many years and is just sick. One thing I know is that I’m not going to give up. This thing can’t get me.

  • Tracy Waters

    Fabulous article..absolutely fabulous!

  • Salome Ojunga

    But are childhood problems that easy to fix?
    Does one need time, and how much time?

    • Salome – I don’t claim relationship addiction is easy to fix. My article outlines the core psychological and behavioral strategies that need to be embraced. As relationship addiction is caused by attachment trauma, it can take many months and even years to heal from. Each person’s situation is unique. But it depends on how much work you are willing to put into stopping the behavior, dealing with triggers and withdrawal emotions, and generally taking charge of your own life.

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